How Philly lost the war on litter, as told by legendary local ‘clean freak’ Frank DiCicco

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Frank DiCicco in City Council chambers in 2011. (Nathaniel Hamilton for WHYY)

Frank DiCicco in City Council chambers in 2011. (Nathaniel Hamilton for WHYY)

Former South Philadelphia Councilmember Frank DiCicco likes to clean house.

He says he takes after his fastidious Italian mother, who kept a spotless residence and taught him to sweep their steps, ideally, every day.

DiCicco, now the chair of the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustments, led the city’s last major effort to restore neighborhood street sweeping, in the 2000s — that is until Mayor Jim Kenney announced this week that he intends to bring back citywide cleaning by 2023.

DiCicco knows litter. He even drove a street sweeper at one point in the 1990s.

“I would go out on Saturday afternoons and drive through the neighborhoods. This was all before I was in council,” said DiCicco. “It was pretty neat because I’m a clean freak. So, I got to pick up all the trash I couldn’t stand seeing all week. [The truck] had the water coming out and everything. It was pretty interesting.”

That truck came courtesy of former state Sen. Vince Fumo, who had hired DiCicco as a political staffer and later pumped millions into a nonprofit he’d founded — the Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods — largely to pick up litter. These funding schemes would eventually play a part in that organization’s dissolution and Fumo’s own political downfall after he was accused of mismanaging millions of the nonprofit’s money and later jailed. But, in the ’90s, this was all just another part of DiCicco’s single-minded effort to restore block-by-block litter collection to a neighborhood that hadn’t seen it for decades.

Many older Philadelphians nostalgically recall days when proud city residents swept up in front of their rowhomes, like DiCicco’s own mother. But the former councilmember admits this system largely relied on two things: Women being locked out of the workforce and the city regularly running litter crews down city streets.

“In the ‘50s and ‘60s, people swept the trash into the middle of the street, into little piles. Then, sanitation crews would come and pick it up,” he recalls. “And most women were home, they were housewives…So, it became a ritual. Every morning they would come out with a broom and sweep.”

Times, suffice to say, have changed. And critically, those city-funded street cleaning crews largely went away around 1974, due to former Mayor Frank Rizzo and his administration’s unwillingness to fill gaps left by slashed federal funding.

But DiCicco, the consummate stickler for cleanliness, didn’t forget. He would found Citizens Alliance in 1991 and win the First Council District seat in 1996. He didn’t give up on the litter problem once he took office, setting his sights citywide.

In the early 2000s, DiCicco pushed for a street cleaning pilot program. District councilmembers across Philadelphia could opt-in for neighborhood cleaning services that came with limited parking restrictions. Residents would have to move their cars off one side of the street for a few hours a week to make way for sweeper trucks.

But instead of cheering for cleaner streets, DiCicco said neighbors immediately began to complain. He began tweaking the program, skipping “tertiary” streets — like South Philly’s many narrow blocks, where parking was already tricky.

Still, it was a slog, DiCicco says.

“The phones were ringing off the hook. People would literally come up to me, get in my face and scream at me. ‘Who are you to tell me I have to move my car? This isn’t a communist country,’” he recalls. “I would shop outside of my neighborhood. That’s how bad it got.”

DiCicco said his council colleagues dropped the pilot program one-by-one. Many were out after just a few months, but DiCicco persevered for years.

Yet the complaints about parking eventually got to the former councilmember, who was facing a looming reelection battle at the time. He abandoned his own program to save his political hide.

Mayor Kenney, himself a Fumo protege, South Philly native and a former councilmember, has frequently recalled this saga.

“[DiCicco] is a clean freak. He hates trash. He instituted this mechanical street sweeping program,” Kenney said, during an interview on WHYY’s Radio Times this week. “And at some point, he stopped it because he thought he was going to lose his election because people were complaining.”

Now the tables have turned, to a degree, and DiCicco will watch Kenney, his longtime political confidant, repeat the same litter fight all over again. But when asked this week what he would advise Kenney to do differently this go-round, DiCicco’s answer was succinct: Nothing.

He believes the old system –– using parking restrictions and traditional mechanical broom trucks on wider streets –– was as good as the city is ever going to get. DiCicco still regards his failed pilot program as a success, years later. The problem wasn’t the program, the former councilmember says, but political leadership.

“We took tons and tons of trash off the streets,” he said. “You just need the political will to hang in there.”

DiCicco added that a mayor-led program — instead of his optional, council-initiated program — could be the key to success.

“I think that could make a difference because Jimmy [Kenney] isn’t going to run again, so there’s not that pressure. And it takes the political pressure off the district councilmember,” he said. “They’re the ones that are going to get beat up. That was exactly what happened.”

He praised some alternative sanitation methods. He nodded to the city’s current leaf-blower centric pilot program and pointed to groups like Ready, Willing & Able, which helps formerly homeless people earn money through city contracts to clean certain blocks by hand. But he doubted groups like these could ever muster the manpower to take on major parts of a citywide cleanup job.

Kenney, for his part, also thinks round two of reintroducing citywide litter cleanup will play out differently in tightly packed areas, like South Philly, because the neighborhoods themselves are different.

“I think Philly has changed. It’s not the same South Philly your grandmother knew,” Kenney said on Tuesday. “There’s a lot of new residents and a lot of people with a different attitude about being a good public citizen and will cooperate now than did before.”

DiCicco, well over a decade later, still sounded a little stung that his pilot program didn’t catch on. That he couldn’t convince his neighbors of the value of a clean block.

“Maybe, if I wasn’t the last man standing maybe I wouldn’t have backed out,” he reflected. “But I said, ‘You want to live that way? Fine. I’ll keep sweeping my sidewalk.’”

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