Rain, snow and even begrudging neighbors can’t stop 65-year-old Richard Brown from diligently picking up litter along his Germantown block.
The mere sight of trash frustrates the U.S. Army veteran.
“I don’t get much help,” he said from inside the warmth of his two-story rowhouse.
Earlier, Brown dragged a trash can up and down his block, zeroing in on every piece of forgotten refuse left over from a windy trash collection day.
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This ritual is three years running and has earned him the respect of locals, who nominated Brown for My Philly Neighbor, a Broke in Philly series that highlights Philadelphia residents committing unseen good deeds throughout the city.
The neighbor who submitted Brown's name put it simply:
“He takes pride in our street," Renee said. She declined to provide her last name.
Philadelphia’s trash problem is no secret. Plastic bags, cigarette butts and just about everything else that should be inside a trash can or recycling bin freely roam many streets, an unsightly tornado of debris harassing neighborhoods.
While most major cities rely on street cleaning to solve the issue, Philadelphia has famously shied away from such tactics. City leaders have blamed residents who refuse to move their cars as one reason why Philadelphia can’t possibly keep its streets clean.
Shortly after taking office, Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order aimed at making Philly a little less dirty. He created a 16-person Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet to, essentially, talk about trash. Two recent studies revealed what many already know — adding more trash cans throughout the city could prevent people from littering.
Or will it?
Brown isn’t so sure. He makes it a point to single out every person he sees throwing trash on the ground instead of finding a nearby receptacle.
“I think it has a lot to do with their upbringing,” he said. “If their parents don’t bestow on them the importance of cleaning up, they’re not going to clean up.”
The father of four wasn’t going to take the same chances with his own children. When his kids were little, he would tear up pieces of paper and leave them strewed on the floor until someone picked it up. If they didn’t, he would ask why.
“It’s not mine,” his children would answer.
“Whose house is this?” Brown would ask.
“This is our house,” the kids would reply.
“Ok, then each one of you pick up one piece of paper and throw it in the trash,” he would tell them.
Sometimes, his children complained to their mom, Brown said. When they did, she would tear up pieces of paper and tell them to clean it all up.
The tactic worked and instilled in them a sense of purpose, Brown said. Like their father, all four children have served either in the Army, Navy or Air Force.
Brown said he joined the Army as a way to escape what he considered a one-way street. After high school, few of his friends were college-bound. Instead, they partied or spent their days “sitting out” on their porches and stoops, he said.
“I didn’t like seeing that,” Brown added.
He served for seven years in Germany and came back to Philadelphia with a drinking problem. It wasn’t until his then-4-year-old daughter asked him to put down the booze that he found other hobbies to occupy his time. Brown started working as a custodian at Northeast Philadelphia Airport, became a deacon at his local church and planted a garden.
It was the flowers that inspired him to start cleaning up other people's trash, he said.
“It’s hard to plant something when there’s a plastic bag in the way,” Brown said.
Now, he buys trash cans for the neighborhood and picks up whatever remains after the garbage collectors come through his street. He has even found a way to deter thieves from stealing his cans and trash bags: He creates little slits at the bottom of each bag so that trash or liquid spills out if someone tries to take them out. He secures the cans to different light posts with chains or tape.
Instead of waiting for someone else to empty them, he takes out the bags every week and leaves them tied up for the collectors to grab.
And he doesn’t shy away from reprimanding the collectors, themselves.
“Sometimes I see guys breaking glass and I ask for their truck number,” Brown said, somewhat sheepishly.
He has yet to report anyone to the Philadelphia Streets Department, but he likes putting people on notice.
“I try to be the best that I can,” Brown said.