Back in March, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced three new initiatives to minimize trash and maintain clean streets: restoring funding for litter basket service, a community clean-up van, and the creation of the New York City Department of Sanitation’s (DSNY) Precision Cleaning Initiative. This announcement came after de Blasio and the City Council slashed $106 million from DSNYs budget in 2020. 

However, residents say that Bushwick, one of the communities hit hardest by the pandemic, has been forgotten, and they are demanding public officials step up. 

“The garbage has been overwhelming. Rats are embedding themselves underneath [outdoor dining structures], nesting and having babies,” said Nicole De Santis, director of the Clean Bushwick Initiative.

Bushwick resident Christian Cotrina, who runs the website This Bushwick Life, has been protesting the uncontrollable sanitation issue for months. He said he gets hundreds of messages per week on Instagram from residents venting their frustrations about the filth.

“It’s getting worse. I still report to 311 all of the time,” said Cotrina. “We deserve clean streets.”

According to 311 service request data, a total of 179 rat sighting complaints were made from the neighborhood through September to October in 2021, almost double the number of calls made in all of 2020. 

Salvatore Polizzi, who runs the family-owned Tony’s Pizzeria and Restaurant in Bushwick, said piles of garbage have been affecting his business. 

“Nobody wants to walk into a restaurant when the streets outside of it are filled with trash,” said Polizzi. “Merchants are already dealing with the pandemic and the mandates that have been put in place by the city. To deal with sanitation issues and the economic issues that come from it, has been a struggle.”

Residents are also blaming the trash issue on community members excessively littering. 

Polizzi said the area has seen an increase in flooding because public catch basins are filled with litter

“When we had [Hurricane] Ida, it raised a red flag. In 20 years we had never seen flooding of that nature. People were swimming in the streets,” said Polizzi. “It’s not only that the city isn’t doing enough and that there aren’t enough resources, it’s also people not taking responsibility for their own actions. We are as much part of this crisis as we are part of the solution.”

Aftermath of Ida. Image: Madison Weber

Brooklyn’s Community Board 4 held a sanitation town hall in October to address the community’s cleanliness and cleaning efforts. Public officials and local stakeholders, who were able to join in-person or virtually, spoke about Bushwick’s garbage problem.

City Councilman Antonio Reynoso, chair of the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management (and incoming Brooklyn Borough President), said the community needs to ensure businesses are cleaning up after themselves, and he wants the DSNY to be adamant on handing out littering penalties and fines. “We need to be more aggressive. I want a blitz.”

Polizzi said he agrees stronger approaches need to be made, but does not think ticketing is the answer. 

“A merchant can’t be responsible for someone who walks by his establishment and throws something on the ground. Waste receptacles are so full that they’re overflowing and that garbage finds itself on the street and blows onto somebody’s property,” he said. 

Community Board District Manager Celestina Leon said the town hall was just the start of a larger conversation. She thinks, in addition to modifying DSNY garbage laws and policies to address this issue, creative solutions could be productive.

“[The community board] talked about having businesses pledge to being sanitation leaders. We know enforcement alone is not the solution, so we want to make sure it’s paired with ample education outreach. There needs to be a cultural shift in how folks perceive and handle garbage,” said Leon. 


Featured image: Clean Bushwick Initiative volunteers picking up litter on Halsey Street in Bushwick. Photo by Gavy Contreras.

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