Who put the trash out? Who cares!
Story and pictures by Wanda Hennig
Story first published op-ed page, Sunday Tribune, Durban, South Africa, on August 29, 2010
It’s Sunday morning at North Beach in Durban. The sun is shining. Somewhere the sardines are still running. The new, improved beachfront promenade is alive with foot traffic. People cycling, strolling, jogging, walking their dogs, walking their kids. The surfers are out; the fishermen are complaining to anyone who’ll listen about their ban from the piers; the skateboarders and BMX-ers are shooting the ramps at their graffitied concrete park.
Behind this park, across from the Elangeni, is the city’s historic amphitheatre and sunken gardens, which had quite a facelift in the weeks running up to the World Cup. Monstrous grotty toilet structures were removed. Flower beds and pots were tidied and replanted. Roofs and columns were repaired, water features cleaned and mosaics scrubbed. Newly planted chunks of grass were still trying to take when the World Cup began.
Now, signs inform visitors that the garden is still a work in progress. But on this particular morning it is a sad picture. Abundant trash is dumped among wilting plants. An Egyptian goose preens on a rock in the middle of one large pond but water is turning stagnant in others. There’s cardboard and junk in the rocky grotto where it appears people have been sleeping. In fact, the place is deserted except for the two who look like they may have slept there.
I think back to the letter to the editor I read earlier in the week. A reader was complaining about the beachfront. It was a man whose name I don’t recall but I don’t doubt that he has written many similar letters to the editor. Most likely he snivels on endlessly on at dinner parties, too.
His letter claimed the beachfront was dirty and unsafe and — was his head up his you-know-what? — no different from before the 2010 upgrade.
I imagine he’s a miserable old codger with too much time on his hands.
Imagine if instead of haranguing, he was here on this Sunday morning picking up the trash, watering the fledgling rose garden, using his online time to rally friends and neighbors and involving them in discussions on ways to help?
I wonder if he is aware that in the United States, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, teams of volunteers tend many of the parks and gardens? Community activism is a way of life. Few cities these days have the resources to pay for more than basic services. In response, people form neighborhood groups. They meet weekly, bi-weekly or monthly. They get involved. And from everything I’ve seen, they make friends, feel good about themselves and have a social time.
Yes, there are city employees and Parks and Gardens departments and long may they flourish. And no, I’m not suggesting replacing any existing or future employed worker. This is not about cutting jobs.
But nowhere — and if not in the United States then why in South Africa? — are cities able to do everything. There are San Francisco Bay Area cities that are bankrupt. The state of California is reportedly broke. Essential services have been cut back.
Why in God’s name do people in South Africa languish in the illusion that it should be different here? That it’s OK to use the beachfront, notice there’s trash — and stay home and complain?
It was about 15 years ago, while living in San Francisco, that I had my first experience of the ‘get involved and fix the park’ type of community activism. These days, anywhere there’s a public space, a river, a lake — a space that needs attention and not getting it — the people rally.
Back then, there was a park up the street. Kids couldn’t go play there. You knew to cross the street to avoid walking past the park as there had been muggings in and around it and at least one murder. The grass in the park was strewn with needles; it was a well-known drug user and hooker hangout.
And let’s face it, nowhere in the world do poor people, homeless people, addicted people, focus on the aesthetics and life’s niceties. Look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You need a lot of things besides food in your tummy and a roof over your head before you get around to quality of life.
Back then, a woman called Barbara Wenger — you can google her name — had a son and lived almost next door to the park. One days she decided to do something. She put out flyers, went door to door and got neighborhood support. Her message was that they would work in the park; they would transform the park; they would “enhance the resilience, safety and sustainability of the community and its youth.”
They did transform the park. Both she and the park have won awards. She was recently honoured for her leadership “that has helped to reinvigorate five neighborhood parks and to ameliorate the long-term effects of drug addiction and prostitution on the area.” Wow.
Let me recount two other examples I am personally familiar with, these in Oakland, immediately across the Bay from San Francisco (distance-wise, think Durban to Westville).
Across the street from where I’ve been living for some time when not in Durban is an impressive historic outdoor public staircase called the Cleveland Cascade frequented by get-fit enthusiasts. It once had a water feature, hence the name.
The water feature had long been trashed and covered with debris and the stairs and landscaping were a mess when Barbara Newcombe (you can google her), retired, now 90 years old, took it on as a neighborhood projects in 2004. She found its history, rallied neighbors, got some funding and most days you will find her — with or without neighborhood assistance — digging or watering as the place slowly takes new shape.
She was mugged last year. It didn’t stop her.
A few blocks from the where Newcombe does her volunteer thing, there’s the city-owned Morcom Rose Garden that had fallen into disrepair, become dicey to visit, and lost its American Rose Selection accreditation.
That was before Tora Rocha (you can google her), who works in the City of Oakland’s Parks Department, took on the rose garden as a personal project. When she saw the garden come under the axe in city budget cuts two years ago, she upped the ante on getting volunteers involved and organized a team of ‘dedicated deadheaders,’ trained by rose experts from around the city. Also volunteers.
Now, any day of the week, if you stop by the garden, you could easily find 50 volunteers at work in the garden. They plot their hours and organize themselves using a Friends of the Morcom Rose Garden Web site built by a local tech guru — also a volunteer.
I’m sure there are thousands more examples going on in the U.S.
And I am aware that there are a great many volunteer groups doing amazing things in South Africa.
Getting back to the sunken gardens — surely there’s someone with the skill to fix the sun dial. And restore the columns of the old wishing well. And while they’re at it, wander along the promenade and the beachfront and redistribute the trash from where it’s not supposed to be, into the bins.
“We clean the beachfront once a day. We can’t do it more than that, and we encourage the public to both educate people about using the bins and to roll up their sleeves, pick up trash, and put it in the bins,” says city manager Michael Sutcliffe.
“There are volunteer groups now that do go and pick up trash but it’s not done in a consistent way. We are in fact looking at options to assist with maintaining the beach and we absolutely are looking at volunteers as part of the solution.
“We wouldn’t want people going down there and planting their own random gardens, but if it’s done in a structured way, we welcome it.
“Right now in the city we have both the Mitchell Park and the Botanic Gardens trusts. They are volunteers who come together and raise funds and work on projects. We will look at similar options for the beachfront.
“We’re also looking into making restaurants and especially take-aways to be responsible for cleaning up their mess within a designated area in the city. And we’re looking to introduce by-laws where, for example, flat owners are responsible for the verges in front of their buildings. It can’t all be left up to the city. We need people need to assist us.”
“Why should we when we’re taxed out of existence and the rates are so high?” was a retort from some people when I suggested the idea of volunteering at Durban’s beachfront and other city spots. And indeed, it’s not good for people to feel fleeced.
“In some countries, people are given rate reductions for doing certain tasks,” says Sutcliffe. It was something the council might look at, he said.
The thing about complaining and focussing on the blight, it does little to lift the spirits. As anyone who has ever volunteered knows, you get a lot more out than you put in. It makes you feel good. I reckon Durbs — and all of us — could do with more of that.
© Wanda Hennig, 2010