William Taylor has resorted to photographing the trash.
Recently, it was a huge heap that blocked a Watts sidewalk and included palm branches, a shopping cart, a car tire and bulging garbage bags. He sends his photos to the city of Los Angeles’ sanitation department or calls the 311 hotline to get the illegally dumped items picked up, but says it can take multiple calls and two weeks to get a crew out.
Frustrated, the 70-year-old Vietnam War veteran and Watts native said he sometimes loads the dumped items into his own trash can and hauls it to his curb.
“If a concerned citizen makes a call, why should it take two or three weeks to get something done?” Taylor said.
Illegal dumping plagues many Los Angeles neighborhoods. While the city doesn’t publish a ranking of the dirtiest neighborhoods, Watts has been known as a trash hot spot for more than half a century — yet the city has still not solved the problem. The blight drives down property values and leaves the neighborhood’s overwhelmingly Black and Latino residents fuming.
The city’s Clean Streets Index gives much of Watts the worst grade: “Not clean.”
City data also shows that Watts has gotten dirtier since 2016, and news stories dating back to the 1960s detail residents’ complaints about illegally dumped garbage and the city’s failure to clean it up. “It’s dangerous for my kids,” a Watts resident told The Times 30 years ago. “We know it can be better than this.”
A city garbage truck operator, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said Watts is infamous as an illegal dumping site. “Who honestly wants to go above and beyond when if I pick it up today [and] come back tomorrow, there might be twice as much?”
The LA Sanitation and Environment department declined repeated requests for an interview but said in a statement that it “has been keenly aware of the problem of illegal dumping.”
The statement said that 98% of calls for service are fulfilled on the weekly trash collection day, a statistic backed up by publicly available data. LA Sanitation said it is hiring more crews citywide to clean up illegal dumping and that it has created specialized crews that “proactively identify and address chronic areas where illegal dumping of materials and trash consistently happens.” It did not say whether those areas will include Watts, and it declined to explain how those crews would actually work.
All of which leaves Watts residents feeling maddeningly powerless. The city knows the problem is severe and says it’s taking action, yet the trash just keeps spilling out onto sidewalks, alleys and streets.
As a result, many residents have become numb to the trash they see all around them, said John Jones, who served as field deputy for Watts under former City Councilmember Joe Buscaino and now runs a local nonprofit bicycling club. When Jones worked for the City Council, he’d kick off community meetings with a reminder: “Call 311.” But some residents would “get tired of not seeing anything happen,” he said, and just give up.
‘They know they can dump it’
Trash accumulates in Watts for several reasons, said George Magallanes, newly elected Councilmember Tim McOsker’s deputy district director for Watts.
Big trucks, often with their license plates removed, pull into Watts in the dead of night and jettison their loads to avoid paying fees for legal disposal, Magallanes said, adding, “They know they can dump it in this community and nobody will care.”
Watts is also densely populated, he said, with tenants crammed into rental units generating more trash than their bins can hold. And evictions occur more frequently in communities of color such as Watts, with displaced tenants often abandoning household items on the curb.
Union Pacific railroad tracks that cut through the center of Watts have proved to be an irresistible magnet for illegal dumping. Magallanes stood next to a cabinet, electric fan and whiteboard dumped beside the rail line, while across the tracks was another pile of litter, including a broken toilet. “This is nothing,” he said.
The city and Union Pacific have been embroiled in a years-long bureaucratic battle over who is supposed to clean up the tracks, leaving residents with no clear target for their complaints.
The railroad has jurisdiction over most of its track right of way that runs through Watts, and while it works to keep the area clean, the company told The Times, it must coordinate with LA Sanitation for tasks such as picking up furniture and other big items.
Magallanes believes the problem is simpler: Union Pacific, he said, doesn’t “want to take responsibility.”
Magallanes said the city doesn’t have enough sanitation trucks to keep up with all the service requests: “If I hired 20 extra trucks of sanitation in Watts, do you think there’d be a piece of wrapper on the floor? No.”
McOsker pointed to a citywide “dearth in the number of sanitation workers,” but said in an interview that he is pushing “to redeploy them in an equitable way.” He said he is working with LA Sanitation to allocate more funding and assign more sanitation personnel to Watts.
“I’m hopeful that Tim is going to keep his promises,” said Timothy Watkins, president and chief executive of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. “But I’m also skeptical because as good as it sounds, it sounds good every time one of them is running for office.” LA Sanitation did not answer questions about McOsker’s proposals but said it works with “all council districts to meet their requests.”
In 2008, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ordered a review of illegal dumping and the Los Angeles Police Department launched a task force after The Times reported that refuse, including dead animals, festered for weeks in alleys in Watts and adjacent neighborhoods.
In 2014, then-City Atty. Mike Feuer announced the formation of a “strike force” to battle illegal dumping in the city’s hardest-hit areas.
In 2015, Mayor Eric Garcetti launched a $9.1-million “Clean Streets Initiative,” which promised to use data-driven ratings — similar to New York’s — that would measure the cleanliness of every city street. That’s the data that shows Watts has actually gotten worse since 2016.
Two years ago, the city controller found that LA Sanitation was “struggling to keep up with the high demand” for illegal dumping service requests, and a year ago the City Council approved funding to double the teams devoted to illegal dumping.
‘Making a person feel less than’
On a recent drive through Watts, Watkins pointed out piles of cardboard, tires and discarded furniture on the sidewalk. “This is life in Watts,” he said.
L.A. County’s public health website warns that illegally dumped items draw “rats and insects that can spread diseases to humans.” Along the railroad tracks, Watkins identified mounds of dirt, of various colors, that he said he tested for toxins: “My tests show everything from antimony to manganese, along with lead, chromium, arsenic.”
The trash also poses a fire hazard. A mound of trash burst into flames next to one of Watkins’ buildings in 2016, causing extensive property damage.
Real estate agent Rene Mexia said illegal dumping devalues property in Watts. “I’ve had property tours set up where I’m standing out there to meet someone and they pretty much do a U-turn, just because of the way it looks,” Mexia said.
Then there’s the psychological toll. “Kids walk right past [the trash] like it’s normal,” said Phillip Lester of the Watts Neighborhood Council. “It’s an unconscious psychological pain,” he said, “making a person feel less than.”
A 2015 analysis by The Times found that residents of low-income neighborhoods such as Watts received slower and poorer street cleaning service than wealthier L.A. ZIP Codes.
In Watts, residents do something that would be all but unthinkable in the city’s wealthy enclaves: volunteer to walk the streets and pick up garbage. “If you’re not taking care of yourself around here, it’s not happening,” said Lester, who leads regular trash pickups.
Making art out of trash
Marcela Oliva, a professor of architecture at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, knelt in a garden near the railroad tracks, watching two children collect pipes, broken glass, colorful shards of plastic, and other pieces of trash, then align them on the back of a tile. “They are using the trash to create art,” Oliva said.
Oliva and her class of Trade-Tech students — many of whom grew up in Watts — recently developed a proposal for a three-mile “nature walk” along the Watts train tracks. The proposed project would install trees for shade, artistic benches and canopies, vertical trellises to grow food, and solar-powered lights equipped with cameras for capturing illegal dumpers in the act.
Oliva is also pushing to get more dumpsters into Watts, which local artists could decorate with murals. “Even the dumpsters can be beautiful,” Oliva said.
A hundred years ago, an Italian tile setter named Sabato Rodia walked along the railroad tracks, collecting Rebar, soda bottles and broken pottery. “On weekends and at nighttime, under lights he strung up, he was building something strange and mysterious,” Watts resident Charles Mingus, the jazz legend, wrote in his autobiography. Rodia’s project became the famous Watts Towers.
In the 1960s, Watts-based artist Noah Purifoy, whose work has been exhibited in museums worldwide, created visual art and sculpture from materials salvaged around the neighborhood.
“In Watts, [junk] was extremely accessible,” he recalled. “Garbage day was a time when people put their trash out, but it was often not picked up, and so it stayed there for weeks. In some places there was no pickup at all.”
This article was reported and edited in conjunction with the investigative journalism program at USC. The reporters may be contacted at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared on LA Times