By Walter Wasacz
Nearly every day, sometimes twice a day, I pick up trash around my house.
There are fast food wrappers, empty bottles and cans, styrofoam and plastics. I don’t mind doing this. It’s something members of my family have done on this corner since the late 1940s. I watched my mother pull weeds and hose down the sidewalk if something sticky or gross was left there. It’s just an intuitive part of urban community life.
If we are clean and tidy, the entire neighborhood benefits. It’s a pleasure walking up to my house from blocks away and imagining how others see it for the first time, as they approach on foot, on bicycle or in a motorized vehicle. I’m proud to call this place home.
There are other well-cared for properties in Hamtramck. Hundreds of them. When I walk around the city some turn my head with their beautiful flowers, plants and creative landscaping. And it’s obvious that people do the same thing we do here: pick up trash and recyclables from the sidewalk and street adjacent to their properties.
But others are not so well-cared for. And I’m not talking about foreclosed or otherwise vacated properties. There are weeds as high as my waist at some properties where people live, garages nearly engulfed by invasive trees of heaven (the rapidly-growing plant that can reach amazing heights — up to 80 feet if it grows year round, like in the southeast U.S. — and six feet around at the trunk).
Unless you want a forest to swallow up your house, these need to be cut. Not to say that the tree of heaven doesn’t have its positive applications. Artist Mitch Cope (Design 99) and his German project partner Ingo Vetter have reused the plant in a series of installations and workshops all around the world.
The tree is the fastest growing indication of an organic and radical reforestation of many Detroit neighborhoods.
Hop on your bike, head south toward Eastern Market on St. Aubin and you’ll see an impressive canopy stretching roughly from I-75 to near Gratiot. It’s not all bad. There are some cool farms that have sprouted up, people using the space productively. But they are not the best thing to have growing unchecked in your yard.
The motivation for bringing all this up was a recent walk I took to my neighborhood green space, Zussman Park. It’s a lovely spot. Families bring their kids to play here, dog walkers make this a regular stop, people doing business at City Hall cut through the park on their way in and out. We try to go there almost every evening.
But the park also collects a lot of trash, its receptacle in the center is nearly always spilling over with glass, plastics and paper. When we take my mom’s dog for a walk there we usually pick up four or five items on average. That location would be ideal for a container for recyclables. It would certainly help in the short term, and set an example, as some of us already do, that keeping the place where you live clean is most definitely cool in the long term.
This is a thread I want to explore going forward, especially how to get kids in the community turned on to green initiatives. I’ve had some, let’s call them interesting, conversations with teens who tell me they leave bottles and cans strewn around the park “because we don’t live here.” That’s an attitude we need to adjust.
There are some government-sponsored and nonprofit neighborhood-based groups out there that are doing exactly that — adjusting the way we think about and act on our public spaces — across the country, across Michigan and in the metro area. We’ll take a look at those in the weeks ahead.