NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The green litter basket had stood on a street corner in the Harlem neighbourhood of New York for as long as anyone could remember, collecting unwanted plastic bottles, candy wrappers and crumpled bags and papers.
Then one day it was gone. And it was not the only one: During the past year, 222 other trash cans have also disappeared.
An only-in-New York crime spree? No. More like the heavy hand of municipal bureaucrats.
The New York City Sanitation Department has taken away the litter baskets from Harlem primarily because it says that, while the baskets are intended only for litter from pedestrians, most had been crammed full of trash bags and debris from homes and businesses.
The finger-wagging policy has been applied well beyond Harlem, with misused trash cans hauled away from neighbourhoods across the city, including the Upper West Side, Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Bay Ridge, South Bronx, Maspeth and Ridgewood.
In the past year, 1,131 litter baskets have vanished from city street corners, or about 5 per cent of the 23,250 litter baskets dispersed in commercial and heavily used pedestrian corridors.
The majority were removed for the offence of chronic misuse, though some baskets were also found in spots that did not meet the commercial criteria.
But no other area has felt the impact as much as Harlem, and now its residents and leaders are fighting back, saying the loss of trash cans has left a mess on their sidewalks and unfairly punishes an entire neighbourhood for the transgressions of a few.
They point out that trash continues to be tossed where the baskets used to be - only in unsightly heaps on the ground that embarrass residents, drive away customers and tourists, and draw roaches and rats.
In a further insult, they say, people have even been fined for trash that piles up outside their homes or businesses.
"It's a very big problem," said state Assemblywoman Inez E. Dickens, a Democrat whose district includes Harlem.
"It's not just an eyesore - it's a health issue that negatively impacts the people who live and work in this community."
Dickens said she has received more than 150 complaints about the missing litter baskets, many from property owners who have been fined US$100 (S$137) or more after trash on the pavement blew in front of their homes and stores.
Those violations, Dickens pointed out, are issued by the Sanitation Department, which removed the litter baskets in the first place.
"Every day, they're getting violations and yet there are no trash cans," Dickens said. "We know the city has to raise revenue, but not on the backs of residents and small business owners."
Sanitation officials said they routinely review the placement and use of litter baskets and that removing those found to be chronically misused has been an effective way to curb improper trash disposal.
"It seems counterintuitive, but it has been very effective," said Kathryn Garcia, the city's sanitation commissioner, adding that removing litter baskets is just one of several measures the department takes to ensure cleaner streets and sidewalks.
Garcia said her department continues to monitor sites where litter baskets are removed. In Harlem, there has been improvement on corners where household trash was often piled alongside litter baskets, she said.
"We're just not seeing the same amount of litter and trash on those corners," she said.
In Harlem, the removal of the 223 litter baskets still leaves more baskets there than in other neighborhoods, sanitation officials said. There are 1,399 litter baskets in Harlem, compared with 779 baskets on the Upper West Side and 719 on the Upper East Side.
Officials also noted that the overall cleanliness of sidewalks in Harlem has improved in recent years, as reflected in city inspection reports. A total of 1,993 violations were issued to property owners for dirty sidewalks in fiscal 2018, down from 2,434 the year before, according to city records. However, the number of violations during the same period for litter along street curbs rose to 6,079 from 5,796.
Harlem residents counter that sanitation officials should be putting out more litter baskets and emptying them more often - not taking them away - and keeping a closer eye on the baskets to prevent misuse.
"I'm an eighth-generation New Yorker," said Christina Fernandez, an elementary schoolteacher. "Never before have I experienced an intersection in New York without trash cans - and usually at least three out of four corners have them." In the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens, where 63 of the 67 litter baskets were taken away, the Sanitation Department's no-nonsense approach has actually cleaned up the trash problem. Commuters headed to the subway used to dispose of their household trash in the baskets along Fresh Pond Road. "Every single one of them was abused - they were all overflowing," said Paul Kerzner, a member of the local community board.
At Kerzner's urging, all but four of those baskets were removed five years ago in an early test case of the department's policy. There were complaints, but the street corners became "immaculate," he said.
In Harlem, sanitation officials said in a statement that they had reviewed community feedback, and "after careful consideration" they replaced litter baskets at five spots along Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Edgecombe Avenue.
But the same statement went on to say: "We will continue to monitor the new baskets for improper disposal, and they may be again removed should problems reoccur."
The department also sent out more enforcement agents and sanitation officers to monitor the litter baskets and surrounding area. Violations for misuse start at US$100 and can be issued only to people who are caught in the act of littering, sanitation officials said. The department is also expanding education and outreach efforts about the proper use of litter baskets.
At the intersection of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and West 139th Street, all four litter baskets disappeared in fall 2017. Two were recently returned. At one corner, plastic bags, Snapple bottles and potato chip bags were stacked precariously atop one another.
Elois Dupree, a retired city administrator, said she has received several violations for litter in front of her brownstone since the basket disappeared. She paid the first violation, but has been fighting the others - going to hearings and doing follow-up paperwork, at considerable inconvenience, she said.
A few blocks away, Jolinda Ruth Cogen, a real estate broker, said that eight litter baskets were removed this spring near her brownstone on Edgecombe Avenue. Only two were returned. Sanitation workers told her the baskets had been misused and were being stored in a warehouse. "That is not the answer," she said.
Soon afterward, the rats started coming out. One evening, she counted 20 rats scampering around the litter in front of a nearby subway station entrance. "They were having a good time," she said.
"It's disgusting because they're eventually going to come across the street and try to get in your house." So now Cogen and her neighbors have taken on the task of patrolling daily for litter. When she rounded a corner the other day, she spied wood and plaster piled up on the curb.
"Very nice," she said. "Who did that? They better be glad I didn't see it." Winnie Hu.