Fighting the “It’s just—” Attitude, Part I

Let’s say you’re in Downtown Detroit, perhaps on your way to the Auto Show at Cobo Hall, and you’ve just finished eating a candy bar. What do you do with the wrapper?

A. Keep it in your coat pocket until you can throw it away at home.

B. Keep it in your coat pocket until you find a garbage can somewhere.

C. Throw it on the street–it’s just Detroit, after all.

D. Eat it–it’s got chocolate on it!

I hope most people would pick ‘A’ or ‘B’. I assume ‘D’ isn’t a good idea, but I’m not a doctor. (惏惏惏) It’s ‘C’ that bothers me. Litter bugs the crap out of me because it makes places look dreadful, yet is so easy to prevent. Litter Downtown really bugs me because there is at least one garbage can per block on Woodward and the other major streets that radiate out from Downtown. There are probably different reasons why people litter, but the “It’s just Detroit” attitude is, I think, one of the major ones. And it really, really irks me, because the people littering are the same ones who live and/or work here, or live nearby in the suburbs.

Here’s why I hate the “It’s just–” attitude: if something, someplace, or someone is looked down on, and you have the power to change things for the better, why not use that power, rather than say “It’s just–” and go along with a crappy situation? If you live in Detroit, how can you disrespect yourself like that? And if you live in the less famous suburbs, why are you willing to let outsiders look down on you simply because you can turn a blind eye to Detroit’s condition? You may say to yourself, “Not littering or picking up litter isn’t going to change the massive economic and social problems Detroit has.” But I’d say you’re wrong. Because when people see a dirty, litter choked area, they think, “these people don’t deserve to be helped.” When residents think that nobody cares, they feel powerless to change things, even when they do have power. Even abandoned lots don’t look nearly as bad when there’s no litter on them.

There’s a small park near my house, recently built, that I walk through as a shortcut. It has a community garden. It’s a really nice place, and the only park in this neighborhood (until about 10 years ago, this wasn’t a residential area). It made me angry when people graffitied the playscape with their idiotic “Pookie loves JJ” or “F*** Joe” nonsense. About two years ago gang signs appeared, and that made me even angrier. Thankfully, someone in the community must’ve had some QuikCrete or something, because the gang signs on the sidewalk were quickly covered over with it. But, I can understand the gangbanger’s ill-conceived desire to tag stuff. It’s not excusable, but it is understandable. The following, however, is not.

One day in 2006 as I walked through the park I noticed that the garden’s sitting area was particularly trashed. There were beer bottles everywhere, the boxes they had come in where there, plastic plates, cups, forks, knives and cups strewn about, specialty napkins, and a birthday cake box. Someone had had a birthday party in the park and left the mess there! Unbelievable! The park’s single garbage can was overflowing, and the people had brought a big garbage bag which was likewise overflowing, but more importantly, it was still there! They had come to enjoy the clean park, but had left a mess, preventing others from doing the same. I even found the receipt for the birthday cake! It was purchased at the supermarket a couple blocks from the park, so I think it’s likely that whoever left that mess lives in the neighborhood.

I’m not one to bitch without doing anything. I was so angry I went home and got a bunch of plastic bags. I tied them on my hands like gloves, went back to the park, and picked all that shit up. (I’m getting angry just thinking about it!) I didn’t like having to put all that mess in my house’s waste bin, but the thought of having my neighborhood park in such a disgraceful state was even more odious. My neighbors happened to drive by, and waved, but had a funny look on their faces. Perhaps they thought I was doing court-ordered community service. (Which is another thing that bugs me. Why do we use bettering the community as punishment? What kind of message does that send?) But I didn’t care. I had the power to change things for the better and I used it. I even taped a sign to a post to the effect of, “This is our park, it is our only park, it’s up to us to keep it clean.”

The part not covered by tape was torn off within two days. That ticked me off, but I would’ve done it again. I felt like I had made a ripple of positivity. And, maybe it was just a coincidence, but a month or two after that, permanent signs were installed that said pretty much the same thing my sign had said. I still pick up random pieces of trash. Even if it’s just one. If people see me, maybe they’ll be inspired to do the same, and even better, to stop littering.

It’s not “just Detroit.” It’s my city. It’s my home. It’s your city and your home, too. It’s your metro area, your region.

Who has the right to complain about the way things are that does nothing to change them?


7 thoughts on “Fighting the “It’s just—” Attitude, Part I

  1. Beautiful post. And while things may not be as bad in the suburbs, there is still this prevailing attitude of “It’s such a little thing, what difference will it make?” The problem is just that though–the little things make all the difference in the world. The Dalai Lama said this once, and I stand by it even when I myself question the value of microactivism: “If you think the little things don’t matter, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.” šŸ™‚

    You did such a wonderful thing that day you chose to clean up all that trash. It sounds like you may have unsettled some people’s security with “It’s just…” by leaving that sign up too. Even if they tore it down, a ripple was created. It’s not *just* Detroit. It *is* Detroit, and it matters if things are ever going to get any better. I admire you so much for your dedication to our city (and I say our because even though I live in the suburbs, I do often say “I’m from around Detroit.”)

    I remember one time I was walking through my neighborhood and I was so excited to find this alcove in a passage of trees. It was exciting, like a movie… I thought I found a secret place, an untouched part of nature that I could secure myself in for just a little while. Unforunately, as I made my way into the nook, I realized there was shattered glass all over the ground and cigarette wrappers and torn paper. I remember how my heart fell. I wish now, hearing your story, I had run home and cleaned up my neighborhood too. It’s these little things that matter so much.

  2. Maybe next time you go by there, you can go properly equipped to clean things up, if no one else has? ^_^

    And yeah, because people in the metro area tend to say “I’m from Detroit” because that is the city everyone knows, precisely for that reason it confuses me when people want to complain without trying to make things better. Why would anyone want to say, “I’m from a place I find disgusting?” To me it makes more sense to say, “I’m from a place that’s struggling, but it’s not going down without a fight!”

  3. I never liter at all and I would never liter in the city. It has always broken my heart that there is so much liter in Detroit. Because I am hurt by liter, even if someone throws a cigarette butt out the window.

    What I call the ‘environmental consciousness’ in Detroit and Metro Detroit is so incredibly low. When I lived in Boulder, Colorado for grad school a few years back I was shocked when I saw no trash blowing around the streets like it does in Detroit.

    I had people in Detroit chase me in their car around WSU when I saw them throw liter out the window. I shook my head at them and then the threatened me for miles while they followed me in their car. Apparently they would prefer that they hurt the Earth and liter their city.

    I also remember years ago there was an article in the Metro Times about liter in Detroit. In the article the person who wrote it said they have seen people unload a bunch of stuff from their cars out into parking lots. Sadly, I have seen this done too.

    My hope is that the environmental consciousness gets turned up in Detroit and Michigan. Its a beautiful place and could use people to love it more!

  4. Welcome and thanks for your comment!

    I like your term “environmental consciousness.” I think it accurately describes another part of the problem.

    I think lately the practice of dumping has decreased, at least in Mexicantown, ever since the City imposed crazy stiff fines ($10,000!) for things like setting out your garbage early or setting out more bulk items than you’re supposed to. Though perhaps people have just found more out of the way places to chuck their stuff rather than being all blatant about it like they used to…

    Gotta keep fightin’!

  5. Yes, Dolly told me about this post and so I thought I would come over here and check it out! šŸ˜‰

    I am glad you like how how coin the term ‘environmental consciousness.’ It is really low here and describes the problem. I often thought it was tied to a horrible economy but you can go to other places that are in a slump economically but their cities are clean.

    I know a lot of businesses from the suburbs would dump in the city and that would make me so mad.

    It is so important to keep fighting. Basically outside dumping is environmental racism. Especially the incinerator. They would not locate that in Bloomfield Hills or Birmingham.

    Do you know about Detroiter’s Working for Environmental Justice –

  6. I didn’t know about them, thanks for the heads-up! The only specifically environmental NPO I knew in the city was Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision. Unless Recy-Clean is an NPO, I’m not sure.

    Speaking of which, I’ll plug them here! If and when they shut down the incinerator it’ll be that much more crucial to get people to recycle rather than bury all that material.

    Let’s fight and recycle!

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