NEW YORK » All summer and into the fall in Upper Manhattan, barbecuers and picnickers flock to the Riverside Park waterfront on Saturdays and Sundays to enjoy the Hudson River views and breezes. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people descend on a grassy stretch in the northern part of the park where grilling is permitted. Carne asada and barbecue chicken sizzles, children run, tattooed arms bop volleyballs and couples watch the sun settle over New Jersey.
Then comes Monday morning, which presents a Sisyphean struggle for maintenance workers like Willie Fitzgerald, a weekly encounter with the paper plates, confetti, plastic straws and food scraps that wind up on the grass, along paths and under picnic tables. On a recent Monday, just after noon, Fitzgerald had already picked up 30 bags of garbage in the park. Now he was using a grabber to pluck plastic cups and popped balloons; he ignored the hundreds of bottle caps embedded in the ground. "Sometimes I pick up a few," he said, explaining that the caps eluded the grabber’s claws.
Local residents who arrive in the park early on Mondays, before cleanup crews arrive, are greeted with a jarring sight. "At first you think a flock of sea gulls is spread out on the lawn, but it’s paper plates and cups and litter everywhere," said Nancy Maldonado, 48, who was sitting on a rock by the river. "If this was their house, they would never do this. We need better enforcement."
Despite such complaints, park officials say their options are limited. They have mostly pursued a strategy of flooding the area with maintenance workers early Monday morning. William Castro, the parks department’s Manhattan borough commissioner, said that despite the recent hiring of scores of new enforcement patrol officers, penalizing parkgoers was impractical. The officers, who carry clubs and mace, focus mainly on loud music and alcohol, which, he pointed out, were the source of even more complaints.
Littering regulations are difficult to enforce for a few reasons, especially when it comes to large groups of relatives and friends who remain in the park for hours. "For the officers, it’s time-consuming to observe, and then who are you going to give the summons to?" Castro said. "If you go into a large crowd and the person resists, arguments happen and things spin out of control."
Rather, the parks department prefers to deal with the problem through education and intensive cleanup. Workers hand out garbage bags to groups throughout the summer, encouraging their use, and the department supplements the already beefed-up summer maintenance crews with workers referred by the criminal courts. "These are people who are trying to get their criminal records set aside, and this is the perfect job for them," Castro said. "We blitz the area." In the summer, the department estimates that it removes an average of 120 tons of garbage a day from city parks, compared with 100 tons a day the rest of the year.
Some litter pickup occurs during the peak hours on Saturday and Sunday, but most is left for Monday morning. "When it’s really crowded, it’s hard for us to clean," said John Herrold, the Riverside Park administrator and president of the Riverside Park Conservancy, a fundraising group. "You can’t drive a garbage truck through, and you’re not going to put a grabber in the middle of someone’s party."
On a recent Monday, signs of the weekend still remained late in the day. Two Dumpsters stationed in the park near the parking lot at West 148th Street brimmed with black plastic garbage bags. Nearby, however, the ground was speckled with green, red and yellow confetti, amid plastic straws and spent charcoals.
Farther south in Harlem, Morningside Park has three designated grilling areas and faces the same issue, said Brad Taylor, president of Friends of Morningside Park. Taylor, who called the mounds of garbage there a "disaster," said his group occasionally placed garbage bags along the park’s periphery. "Sometimes, they do get used," he said, "but they are also broken into by humans" probably looking for cans and bottles to redeem and by raccoons. He said a combination of "education and enforcement" was needed.
Taylor also said the parks department should enforce its own rule requiring permits for groups of 20 or more. Holiday weekends are the worst, he said.
Back in Riverside Park, Fitzgerald, the seasonal parks worker, said he often handed out garbage bags to picnickers, along with a plea to use it. "They say, ‘I hear you,’ and take the bag," he said. "But then you come here Monday morning and you see empty bags lying right next to the garbage. The only way to get them to change is to hand out tickets."