NEW YORK — NEW York City's trash-filled streets and sidewalks, regarded by some as the dirtiest anywhere in the United States, may never win any awards for cleanliness. But it won't be for lack of trying on the part of many citizens.
Sharp budget cuts have hit the city's Department of Sanitation hard. "We are down very dramatically," says Sanitation Commissioner Steven Polan. Though mechanized street sweeping continues, the number of cleanup workers - some 2,500 in 1987 - will dwindle to 700 by July.
Still, an informal report card issued by Mayor David Dinkins's operations office in January rated 71 percent of the city's streets "acceptably clean," a 1 percent increase over last year's total.
That improvement is one more sign in Emory Jackson's view that the antilitter and antigraffiti efforts of We Care About New York Inc., are making a vital difference. The nonprofit umbrella group, which he serves as executive director, was launched in 1982 by leaders of a few of the city's largest corporations in response to a request from former mayor Ed Koch. We Care's purpose is to encourage - partly by supplying brooms, shovels, and trash bags - community groups around the city to undertake neighborh ood cleanups. Some 853 organizations, up 300 just in the last year, are now involved. The number of cleanup activities is up 13 percent.
All that volunteer help saved taxpayers at least $2 million last year, Mr. Jackson says. Yet in his view the reason for such growth may have less to do with the recession than with increasing citizen concern about crime. When he and his colleagues began to take a hard look at the kinds of groups in We Care's membership they realized how high safety and security were on most agendas.
"People are making the connection between cleaner streets and safer streets," he says. "Criminals are also reluctant to enter cleaner areas because they think people care and may be watching."
Jackson is in the process of nailing down this theory by surveying the city's community boards, businesses, and the pub-lic. Responses so far from the first two groups, he says, show 99 percent support for the view that grime and crime are linked.
Concern that neighborhood standards are down and that the community is losing control is one reason the Alliance of Bay Ridge Block Associations in Brooklyn will combine its usual spring cleanup April 20 with a pointed attack on graffiti as well. Four of the worst examples in the neighborhood will be cleaned up and regularly monitored. "Our hope is that when people see the success at these four sites the idea will spread," says Alliance President Doris Cruz.
Jackson says many groups have stepped up the frequency of their cleaning efforts. At Promesa Inc., a drug rehabilitation center in the Bronx, 20 to 35 clients clean up the neighborhood on a daily basis as part of their treatment. "It makes the area very, very clean and it also motivates people in the community who see it to do more cleaning up," says Promesa community relations liaison Millie Rios.
One of the key ways in which We Care helps the city is through its Adopt-A-Basket Program. Civic and business groups are encouraged to buy extra litter baskets for sidewalks. Private carters, who already collect from businesses more than one-third of the 27,000 tons of trash thrown out in the five boroughs each day, take care of the added pickups. "There's always a need for more baskets, but we don't necessarily have the resources to pick them up," notes Sanitation Department spokeswoman Ann Canty.
Businesses themselves benefit. One owner of a McDonald's fast-food restaurant attributes much of an 8 percent growth in sales last year to an increase in litter baskets and more intensified cleanup efforts.
We Care wants to get every citizen involved. Public service ads now appearing on city billboards, TV screens, and on widely available, white "New York is picking up" buttons encourage each resident to put at least one piece of trash a day in a litter basket.
"The best part of picking up is that if people think about it, they won't throw down," says We Care founder and co-chairman, Don Platten, retired chairman of Chemical Banking Corporation.