Earlier this year, dumpsters on Delray Street in Downtown Pittsburgh overflowed with refuse to the ground beneath them. With each rainfall, paper wrappers melted into the pavement and water collected in garbage bags, stewing until it eventually overflowed and returned to Pittsburgh’s waterways. Cooking oil disposal bins added notes of fried food to the lingering smell of human excrement.
The stench of urine and feces became so strong on Coffey Way that the city hung up signs to dissuade public potty time: a stick figure squatting over a poop emoji has a big red cross through it, a four-panel comic strip depicts public urination, with the last panel containing a simple image of handcuffs.
As I walk up Coffey Way, Jonathan Werth, manager of the Duquesne Club, approaches me.
“Before you walked down the alley, which was about two minutes ago … two people used the alley as the bathroom,” Werth says. “There are signs everywhere, which I saw you photograph; that this isn’t a bathroom, it’s an alley.”
The Duquesne Club sits on the corner of Coffey Way and Sixth Avenue. Employee entrances and dumpsters for the club and other businesses are located along the alley.
“They have to interact with people doing all manner of bathroom activity, and it’s just not a good look,” Werth says. “The city needs some public bathrooms.”
While public urination and defecation are ongoing alleyway issues, many of the other negative aspects are cleaning up — literally.
A new study conducted by Point Park University, titled Taking Out the Trash, recommends the city tackle issues in four main areas: Safety and Preventing Alley Misuse, Waste Management Solutions, Beautification Efforts and Sustainable Maintenance.
When researchers Heather Starr Fiedler and Kelly Wilding started the study, removing excess trash in the city’s alleyways was the focus.
“The city of Pittsburgh does not go around and pick up [trash],” says Wilding, a doctoral candidate at Point Park. “Every business has to contract with one of the waste services.”
“And we saw at least six different companies that are servicing the dumpsters in Downtown Pittsburgh’s central business district,” adds Fiedler, chair of Point Park’s Department of Community Engagement and Leadership.
The study was funded by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala and supported by the Pittsburgh Downtown Neighbors Alliance and Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.
Since research began this spring, the city and the PDP have been striving to implement the recommendations. In April, they partnered with Renewal Inc. to launch the Renewal Team — a branch of the Clean Team dedicated to picking up trash on sidewalks and in alleys.
According to IndexPGH, a new dashboard tracking Downtown’s vital signs that was launched earlier this week, Renewal and PDP have already cleaned 304,220 square feet of alleys and removed 77,694 pounds of garbage from Downtown.
When the groups approached Point Park to conduct a study, Renewal had already identified five main alleys for cleanup: Coffey Way, Delray Street, Exchange Way, McCrea Way and Mentor Way.
Fiedler and Wilding began by researching how other cities handle excess alleyway trash. Colton, Colorado, requires dumpsters to be inside 6-foot-high enclosures. Mount Dora in Florida purchased trash and recycling compactors. Malibu, California, and other cities have codes that dumpsters must be locked, which prevents dumping leading to excess trash.
“There’s a great theory in social science research called the broken windows theory,” Fiedler says. “It basically says if there are broken windows in a neighborhood, crime is more likely to happen because people see that this stuff isn’t taken care of.”
As the study progressed and more input was received from partners and pedestrians, Fiedler and Wilding’s focus expanded. While the trash and odors were a first step in improving Downtown alleys, the DA’s office, the Pittsburgh Police Department and many of the people Wilding surveyed expressed concern about crime and safety.
“As we started to present the findings of the trash and we realized that safety was a big piece of that puzzle, that’s when we went back and did some more research on what lighting and cameras and other safety mechanisms might look like to keep those alleys attractive, clean and safe,” Fiedler says.
Many alleyway dumpsters are now closed and locked, and the lack of excess trash is evident, as per Fiedler and Wilding’s recommendation.
Still, their final goal of alley beautification has one obstacle in the way.
“First we have to get those public restrooms open,” Wilding says. “It always comes back to restrooms.”
In the Aug. 16 press release announcing the launch of IndexPGH, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and partners announced that they have raised $2 million to provide temporary public restrooms. The money will also enhance street maintenance and safety efforts, increase programming at Mellon Square and Market Square, and enhance beautification and lighting throughout Downtown.
“Several of these initiatives are already underway with others launching during the second half of August and continuing into September,” the press release reads.
“From what I hear, they’re going to have porta-potties that are a little bit more involved,” adds Werth. “They might have sinks, a little bit more dignity provided for people who have nowhere to go, and they will be attended.
“I’m hopeful that that will happen and more.”