Clean The Streets: a conversation with Trever Jones about Eagle Rock Street Clean Up
Dustin O’Hara: So to start us off, can you explain what the street cleaning project is? and how it started?
Trever Jones: The Eagle Rock Street clean up is a monthly clean up that happens in Eagle Rock every 4th Saturday of the Month. We work in conjunction with a local collaborative called CERB and we meet at City Hall in Eagle Rock at 9 am and then go around the local area sweeping, cleaning gutters, weeding, picking up trash and just generally try to add to the neighborhood. I see it as a chance for people in the community to get together and make Eagle Rock cleaner and hopefully meet some interesting people in the process.
It started when I met Sarah Lieving. We met by chance through a friend one night when she was walking her dog and I had just gotten done with a meeting. Both Sarah and I had been thinking about wanting to organize some kind of community clean up and it worked out perfectly that we met each other. We weren’t sure what to the call the clean up so we went with the most obvious name possible, “The Eagle Rock Street Clean Up” and I created the website: http://www.cleanthestreet.com in order to just post some pictures and info about the events.
Dustin: Was this shortly after moving to Eagle Rock? And can you speak a bit more about the CERB and what inspired you to start organizing a community street cleaning group?
Trever: I moved to Eagle Rock in April of 2010 and our first clean up was in December of 2010. It was a bit of a roundabout journey to get to the first clean up. I was running a lot when I moved to Eagle Rock, and one day I was running across Eagle Rock Blvd and I saw some people gardening in the median in the center of the street. I stopped and asked them what they were doing and an older gentleman named John Stillian told me that they were a local collaborative and they were working together to make Eagle Rock more beautiful (their website, which I now help run, is CERB.us) I was immediately enticed by the simplicity and beauty of their goal so I asked if I could help. I did a little bit of gardening and planting with them that day and while I was working I met another man named Jack. Jack is a man in his mid to late 70’s and I would best describe him as a renegade gardener. He has an old beat up beige 2 door Ford pickup truck that he drives around Eagle Rock and basically cleans up whatever he thinks needs cleaning up. His truck of tools includes a gas blower, brooms, hoppers, saws, drills, hedge clippers, hand clippers, several trash cans, a can of random nuts and bolts, a few tool boxes, a 200 gallon tank for watering and the list goes on… imagine if your grandpa’s garage was emptied into the back of an old pickup truck and you begin to get the picture.
Jack told me that he’s getting old and he needed some young muscle to help him out. So I agreed to help him and quickly found myself cleaning the streets with Jack from 6:30 – 8 am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Together we would drive around Eagle Rock looking for areas that had a lot of trash or debris and we’d pull over and sweep up the mess. As I was standing out in the street sweeping half awake my mind would go back and forth over whether or not I enjoyed what I was doing because sometimes I felt like there were only 2 of us and we could spend the rest of our lives driving around and we couldn’t clean everything. But over the weeks I slowly began to cultivate an appreciation for the mindfulness that I was developing as I was sweeping. I realized that it didn’t matter how dirty the larger city was around me. I was going to sweep the area that I was focused on to the best of my ability and once it was done I’d move onto the next
From that perspective I really came to enjoy those mornings I’d help Jack clean up the city and I couldn’t help but feel like there were others in the community who would also enjoy and benefit from cleaning the streets. While these thoughts were all on my mind it was perfect that I ran into Sarah Living one night after a CERB meeting. Sarah echoed some of the same ideas and thoughts that I had been thinking about. Sarah was focused on the trash that she’d seen on the side of the road near her local freeway exit and entrance and she thought that she’d love to get some people together to clean it up. So we agreed to meet up the 2nd week of the month at a local coffee shop and we made some flyers and The Eagle Rock Street Clean Up was born. It wasn’t long until the city Councilman’s office for Jose Huisar contacted us and wanted to organize a large clean up with us. So we changed our meet up date to the last Saturday of the month to coincide with a large dumpster that is dropped off every month at City Hall.
Now it’s been a little over a year and most cleanups have had a small turnout but our 2 biggest were the ones we organized with the city councilmen and also the one you attended with St. Dominic school.
Dustin: Clearly degrees of privilege and class complicate the discussion, but I find your willingness to engage in direct action in your neighborhood to be a refreshing take on citizenship. Community led projects like The Eagle Rock Street Clean Up seem to offer expanded forms of civic engagement. For the clean up that I was at you had a bunch of shovels and brooms from the city, does the city provide you with tools for every month’s street clean up? I guess I’m hoping you could go into more detail about the working relationship with the city council and schools. How have they helped? What challenges have they presented? And besides having a slightly cleaner street, what do you think people take away from the street clean up experience? What do you personally get from it?
Trever: The city does let us borrow tools for our cleanups and that is very much appreciated and very helpful. But other then that, the city council and the schools haven’t played a big part in our clean up. It was always my wish that people would bring their own tools in order to encourage them to realize that they have everything they need to make their neighborhood and city as nice as they want it to be. It’s so easy to look around and be mad or frustrated that other people don’t clean things up but in reality we can join together and make the city look as nice as we want. That is something I want the people to take away from the cleans ups… but what I think they actually take away is a feeling of accomplishment and pride. At our last big clean up it was really fun to see the kids getting so excited about picking up trash. I think underneath the surface there’s a deep sense of pride that comes from going out into your community and contributing to it… even if it’s as small as picking up trash, trimming low hanging branches or whatever….
Aside from enjoying the people I’ve met and being outside and cleaning up I’ve learned that if you want to change something you have the power to change it. When you team up with the right people anything can be accomplished. I’ve also learned to look at the neighborhood I live in less as a consumer and more as a creator or contributor or caretaker. I’m more interested in what I can give to my neighborhood than what it can give to me. I wish more people would adopt this perspective. Everyone wants to live in a nice area just like everyone wants to have a nice life but it’s funny that people don’t then take the steps to improve their area just like they don’t take the steps to improve their life…. I’ve also learned that it’s not easy to organize something like this. I thought the community would be more interested in the event but it’s been challenging to get people to come out. We’re talking about putting this specific project on hold for awhile in order to team up with the other people in CERB to focus on some planting and gardening around the area…. just another form of beautification.
Dustin: According to wikipedia the oldest Beautification Society is the Laurel Hill Association founded in 1853 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts whose credits read like the responsibilities of the LA Bureau of Street Services. One of the common critiques of charity is that it reflects the systematic failings or absence of the managing government, that charities step in to fill a void. I guess this gets back to the question of the clean up’s relationship to the City, or to be more specific its relationship to the Bureau of Street Services’ Street Maintenance and Urban Forestry Divisions (with limited understanding of their work I believe these are the divisions whose responsibilities your work would fall under). Have you seen any of the city maintenance workers during a cleanup or while out on your own in the neighborhood? According to their website the Urban Forestry Division “The Urban Forest Division’s call for civic participation is just one instance of a much wider trend of democratic reform that reshapes local government to function as much more of an open collaborative platform.
The sense of stewardship and participation that you evoke when describing what it means to live in one’s neighborhood, while being a virtue in and of itself, is also a critical aspect of what it means to be a citizen participating in a democracy. I like to frame your project and this practice of stewardship under the notion of citizenship because the responsibilities and freedoms that come with citizenship extend beyond market logic, and connect it to something larger than its self. That’s not to say the value of people’s labour shouldn’t be recognized, but that there are other ethical catalysts beyond money. While the street cleanup event is addressing the pragmatic issues of clean streets and maintained plants that the Bureau of Street Services no longer has the bandwidth to handle, it functions much more on a social and symbolic level of connecting others and realizing this sense of creative agency and stewardship of one’s community and place. I think you can locate the nexus point between the social and symbolic function of these kinds of projects and the wider civic ambition to create a more collaborative local government at your point about how it’s been quite difficult for you to organize the street clean up events. It’s this area of organizing and facilitating that a more collaborative local government could be of real assistance and help.
Currently the City’s Board of Public Works’ Office of Community Beautification offers grants, general assistance, graffiti removal service, a handful of adopt-a-spot style programs, and a calendar of events listed on their website, but somehow it seems there is still critical gap between what is currently described on their website and the sense of possibility and outlets for participation that is commonly understood by residents. Have you been in conversation with the Office of Community Beautification? You’ve never really described your work to me in terms of its relationship to local government, but do the connections I’m trying to draw out make sense to you? has control and authority over the planting, care, inspection, permitting, and maintenance of the greenscape contained in the City of Los Angeles…. (but) due to the City’s fiscal crisis … the Division currently performs emergency tree work only. …No proactive or planned tree pruning is occurring.” In their introductory video the Assistant Chief Forester Ronald Lorenzen says that the Urban Forest Division’s “mission can only be accomplished by the residents and the City collaborating as a team” and that local citizens are the most important part of the urban forest.
Trever: I really like your perspective on the clean up and I think you have a much broader conceptualization of the event than I do and I really enjoy reading your critical analysis of it. I have seen a few city workers in my area, and I talked with my wife and she said she sees them maybe once a month. I’ve always heard there’s a street sweeper in Eagle Rock but both my wife and I have never seen it before. Or maybe I’ve seen it once… but the point is it’s VERY RARE. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Eagle Rock is a dump. It’s actually quite nice. That’s probably why I’m inspired to do more to keep it nice and possibly add or improve to all that’s already here. I haven’t been in contact with the Office of Community Beautification but I do like your idea about working with them but as I think about it, I guess I made a un-conscious decision from the very beginning that I wanted this event to be organized and run by the people in the neighborhood. I wanted people to show up with their own tools and realize that there’s a lot that we can do together that the city either won’t or can’t do.
So I have mixed feelings about working with the city. I like the idea of the help but at the same time I don’t want to facilitate peoples’ giving up of their own responsibility to keep the neighborhood looking nice by expecting some things to be done by the city.
Another element is that when you work with the city it can get so complicated so fast and I like how easy it is to pick up a broom and sweep a street or pick up some clippers and clip a branch rather than going through the complicated bureaucratic process that working with the city can involve. But then again, my clean up hasn’t had the dramatic effect on the neighborhood I once hoped it would have so I’m open to trying new approaches.
Dustin: A lot of people think complicated bureaucracy and government are inseparable, but misguided policy and complicated forms and procedures are the product of bad design and aren’t inherent to the mission of public service. And as local governments struggle to become more collaborative and transparent, solving these design problems will become a necessary priority. From a city wide perspective community led programs represent a unique opportunity to mobilize people towards greater democratic power and community stability when thought of as not just an interesting isolated phenomenon but as models for civic engagement that can be nurtured. While this involves addressing the design problem of simplifying overly complicated bureaucracy and expanding grant schemes, at its core it involves building sustained relationships, common resources, and coalitions between neighborhood community groups and local government.
I find your description of the symbolic function of the tools and sense of responsibility quite interesting. The DIY nature of the street clean up allows for a strong sense of personal ownership and agency which is a very important thing, but I have the desire to flip your thinking on its head in terms of what you said about the tools, I would say it’s actually important to realize we don’t have everything we need as individuals or even neighborhoods. That accessing the tools from the city is way activating the commons, and celebrating interdependence. If we isolate or atomize the responsibility that you describe I think we risk romanticizing the neighborhood rather than understanding it as part of a greater whole.