Evanston RoundTable, April 28, 2021
On the occasion of the very first Earth Day, in 1970, I decided the best way to show my support was to make a bold and dramatic personal statement. I had for some reason previously acquired a World War I-era gas mask, the kind with a breathing apparatus that resembled a pig snout, and proceeded to the rally scheduled midday in the Civic Center that April 22. I took a bus from the north side, where I was then living, to Michigan Avenue and exited at Chicago Avenue and donned the gas mask and started south—and banged right into a light pole. The mask had fogged up.
So much for the effectiveness of my little demonstration.
This year I committed to something more practical: “adopting” and cleaning up an Evanston park. In my last column (April 14) I challenged readers to do the same, that is, to “claim” an Evanston beach, street, parkway, or park, and get to it. And not just once a year, on the misnamed Earth Day (just one day a year for our planet?), but essentially all the time.
I staked out Butler Park, one of my favorites, which runs from Bridge Street to Emerson Street just east of the North Shore channel. The park is named for Isabella Butler, the doctor who helped found the Evanston Sanitarium, a precursor to Community Hospital, which Dr. Butler helped establish in 1930 to serve Evanston’s African Americans who had long been turned away from Evanston Hospital. At the park’s northeast end is what’s left of Community Hospital – the Hill Arboretum Apartments, a one-story, 33-unit building that features affordable and accessible housing. The building is named after Dr. Elizabeth Hill, one of the City’s leading African American physicians, who with Dr. Butler helped establish Community Hospital, from which the apartments were converted in 1991.
To honor this historic legacy and observe Earth Day I announced I’d take on the job of cleaning up the park. I’m now ready to report on the outcome.
Turns out there was lots of trash. Over the course of a week I filled six 30-gallon trash bags and several smaller bags with discarded waste. This was largely due to the fence along the east end that bordered the channel, which effectively trapped park trash the way a strainer traps boiled pasta. Along the fence I collected items of discarded clothing, used masks and gloves, food wrappers, plastic water and soda bottles, random newspaper pages, aluminum cans, and much more. Cigar wrappers were, surprisingly, the most common item. Apparently some park habitue smokes a considerable number of the cheap, flavored stogies and tosses the wrappers heedlessly onto the grass, where they eventually blow up against the fence.
It was tiring work, stooping to collect all the waste. Even armed with a grabber tool to make the collecting easier, an hour or two at a time wearies the public servant and environmental warrior.
Nevertheless it was deeply satisfying. Within a couple of days my clean-up forays had started to make a noticeable difference. My sense of civic commitment and public virtue increased immeasurably. And it was a good workout.
To make things easier for other trash busters, I pass along these tips.
First, a grabber is indispensable. They’re inexpensive and readily available online. They’ll save a lot of wear-and-tear from bending over incessantly, and they’re fun to use.
Also, if you’re going to be extracting trash from behind or under bushes, make sure to wear goggles to protect your eyes. Also gloves, of course.
If possible, bring a companion to hold the bag open. Otherwise you’ll be subject to the vagaries of the wind blowing the bag in all sports of geometrically irregular shapes that make it hard to drop in the trash.
Decide at the outset if you’re going to be a “completist” or a “partialist.” The former trash buster commits to picking up and properly discarding in City trash bins every last scrap of litter. The latter is willing to leave smaller items, like gum wrappers and small snack bags, alone in favor of bigger game. I decided I was going to be a completist, which meant much slower, more thorough, and more thoroughly exhausting forays through the park.
But in the end it was worth it. The park is, at least temporarily, restored to a state of pristine beauty. Almost all traces of human sloth and thoughtlessness have been eliminated. Whether anyone else notices is beside the point. I notice – and feel good making my small contribution to civic betterment and beauty.
Many neighborhood groups already pledge to clean their designated beach, street, parkway, or park. That’s great – but it’s not enough. This past year the pandemic produced a kind of cabin fever among homebound residents, which has resulted in increased park and beach usage and more-than-usual waste. Some of it spills out from overflowing trash bins; the rest is the result of thoughtless littering.
If even a hundred readers take the Earth Day challenge, our example can inspire others and shift the paradigm away from casual misuse of parks and streets toward a more pristine City. Please join in.