Green spaces and vacant lots in some of New York’s lowest-income neighborhoods are filled with illegally dumped debris — and residents say the filth is a persistent problem despite Mayor Eric Adams' pledge to clean up city streets.
The stray trash is especially bad in East New York, which last year saw more 311 complaints for chronic illegal dumping that were confirmed by sanitation officials than any other neighborhood in the city.
Staffers and volunteers at the East New York Farms and the United Community Center in New Lots said mystery bags of garbage are dumped there on a daily basis.
On a recent visit, project director Tiana Rainford pointed to black garbage bags filled with drywall scraps that were left overnight in a heap next to the farm, forcing the community group to throw them out.
Since the dumped debris is “not in front of a home, or a garbage pickup area, it gets left and lost and not thought about because it's not in front of anything that is required by DSNY to pick it up,” Rainford said.
Rainford and her coworkers are regularly forced to haul abandoned mattresses and car parts for the sanitation department to collect.
“It's really difficult, because then we have to coordinate how to move it to the appropriate place, how to dispose of it appropriately. And it wasn't something that we dumped,” she said.
Rainford said she believes the dumping persists in low-income industrial areas that are mostly home to Black and Latino residents, who receive less attention from the city.
Public complaints about the problem suggest the same. An analysis of 311 data by Gothamist found that 15 of the 20 zip codes with the most substantiated complaints for chronic dumping last year have median incomes lower than the city average. They include Flatbush in Brooklyn, the Bronx's southern and southeastern areas, and Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Problems with illegal dumping are also common in open fields and industrial areas across the five boroughs.
In a parcel of undeveloped land on 248th Street in Rosedale, Queens, near the Nassau County border, old tires and plastic bottles lay in the grass near what appeared to be an abandoned boat. Former Borough President Claire Shulman had dedicated the lot as green space for the community, said Fay Hill of Queens Community Board 13, who called the area’s garbage “atrocious.”
“We have seen everything you could think of just dumped there,” said Hill, who chairs the board’s parks and environment committee.
City officials acknowledged illegal dumping “has a disparate impact on lower-income neighborhoods” and said they’re taking steps to crack down on the issue. The sanitation department recently deployed crews to several dumping locations after requests for comment by Gothamist.
“To us, it is not just a quality-of-life issue, but an equity issue, and it has been ignored for far too long,” said sanitation department spokesperson Vincent Gragnani.
Gragnani said the Adams administration has beefed up enforcement efforts with funding for another 200 surveillance cameras.
“We consider dumpers to be among the stupidest criminals in the city, and we are putting them on notice that when — not if, but when — they are caught, we will impound all vehicles caught in this crime, and those responsible face fines that start at $4,000,” Gragnani said.
But it’s not clear where the promised cameras have been deployed. One section of Newtown Creek in Greenpoint is notorious for illegal dumping, including of metal street barricades ditched there in 2021 by opponents of the Open Street program.
Willis Elkins of the Newtown Creek Alliance said the group has for months requested that cameras be installed at the creek to deter dumping. City officials declined to confirm whether surveillance cameras were deployed at the location, citing security reasons.
“People that are dumping here, it's having more of an impact in terms of environmental health because it’s going directly into the waterway,” Elkins said.
Much of the illegal trash is made up of construction debris and large furniture. But household trash is also a big problem for business owners in some areas.
Charmaine Smith, who owns the restaurant Good Hope in Flatbush, Brooklyn, has installed her own security cameras to catch people who leave bags of dirty diapers and household garbage outside her business.
Smith said she and her neighbors have made dozens of complaints to 311 about illegal dumping on their block.
“You have people that literally take here for a dumping ground. People that we see on camera that we know from the neighborhood,” Smith said. But she said her only recourse is to constantly clean up the mess so that she doesn’t get fined by the city.
Smith added that the city needs to make enforcement more robust because she doesn’t have the resources to do more.
“They need to come around and speak to each and every one of these business owners and see what's going on with the issue,” she said. “It's keeping occurring over and over. So I don't know how to get rid of that.”
Bahar Ostadan contributed reporting