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Suppose you stocked your refrigerator full of juicy, fresh-killed chickens, turned off the power, and took a monthlong vacation. Imagine returning, reopening the fridge, sticking your head inside, and inhaling deeply. Multiply that smell by 10, and you have approximated the stench in the alley between Neal Place and Morse Street NE.
On this summer afternoon, the alley is a scene from poultry hell. Someone chucked two boxes of chicken entrails onto the ground a few days ago, and no one’s bothered to clean it up. The ribs and guts are festering in the July heat wave, dripping vomit-colored juice onto the cement. The chicken parts rest on a bed of greasy rice—no, check that—maggots. The vermin writhe ecstatically, ravenously devouring a feast of slimy viscera. A haze hangs over the foul pile, a miasma of pure stink.
Washingtonians have been complaining incessantly about garbage since the onset of D.C.’s financial crisis. Some folks gripe about the city’s recycling woes; others about street receptacles overflowing with uncollected trash; others about alleys littered with rusty refrigerators and decomposing mattresses. But people who think they’ve got trash problems should make a quick visit to the Florida Market, which has got real trash problems. The four-block community of wholesale and retail food suppliers, which is wedged between Florida Avenue and New York Avenue NE, is the most putrid spot in the city.
“Some days it smells so bad out there that I just want to puke,” says Steve Young, who manages a sporting goods store that is one of the few non-food establishments in the market.
Of course, Florida Market ought to be a little grimy. Produce retailers have to dispose of their rotten fruits and veggies; butchers must get rid of old meat and wash away blood; seafood wholesalers need to unload smelly fish carcasses. But grimy doesn’t begin to describe the market. It’s more like Calcutta on the Potomac. Many food stores ignore dumpsters and toss their refuse onto the ground. In addition, “fly dumpers”—outsiders who don’t have a place to unload their garbage—cart trash in and scatter it in the alleys.
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Just past the alley of chicken entrails, for example, loom three pitcher’s-mound-size heaps, the market’s answer to the Great Pyramids of Giza. The heaps bulge with empty beer bottles, cardboard scraps, and broken wooden pallets. Rotten fruits and vegetables mortar the rubbish together. Hundreds of flies orbit the mounds, occasionally diving in to grab a tasty morsel. Around the corner from here, right next to Chan’s Market, lies a sea of detritus. Pallets, boxes, appliances, Styrofoam rug padding, termite-eaten logs, and enough tires to outfit a convoy of 18-wheelers are strewn over a pair of idle railroad tracks.
These ad hoc dumps (and others) are connected by streets and sidewalks awash in trash—empties, moldy bread, the occasional bag of rancid red onions. On one corner, a street-lamp’s base has been swallowed by a pile of refuse, while odd-colored food runoff creeps down the cement sidewalks. The Florida Avenue underpass floods with oily water after every storm. These deluges, say city officials, are caused by store owners pouring grease directly down the drain. The market’s tenants wouldn’t bat an eye if the fire hydrants spat out raw sewage.
t’s worse than I’ve ever seen it,” said D.C. Councilmember Harry Thomas at a July 13 hearing. Thomas’ Ward 5 district includes the market, and he chairs the committee that oversees the Department of Public Works (DPW).
But the Florida Market mess is one problem Washingtonians shouldn’t blame on their government. In recent years, Thomas has repeatedly leaned on DPW to clean the market and punish its polluters, and DPW raids the area as often as it can, given its skeleton staff of five sanitation inspectors.
Leslie Hotaling, DPW’s director of solid waste management, rates the market as one of the city’s most intractable sanitation problems. Every six weeks, she says, the department must deploy an alley-cleaning crew at the market—simply to avert a public health crisis. Most of the city’s alleys, by contrast, see a crew once a year. “The operators dispose of their trash in an uncontainerized manner,” complains Hotaling. “And it comes onto the street as raw garbage.”
“ “Frustration’ would be a good word for how we feel about the situation,” Hotaling says.
No wonder. A recent raid by DPW inspector Jeri Glover barely interrupts the mess-making. Glover arrives at the market at 9 a.m. and heads straight for Florida Beef Inc. on Morse Street. Its alley space is ankle-deep in refuse. As Glover rattles off violation after violation, manager Jin Bae dispatches three workers into the alley with brooms and snow shovels. Before Glover finishes her lecture, they have filled the store’s dumpster with trash.
Even so, Bae pleads innocence, arguing that the mess is the work of fly dumpers and “poor people” who leave their garbage at the store’s back door during the night. Picking up an empty vodka bottle, Bae pronounces, “This isn’t mine.” A member of his cleanup crew displays a bag of lawn waste. “See?” Bae asks. Glover writes him a ticket anyway.
The commotion at Bae’s shop ignites a chain reaction down the alley, as neighboring shopkeepers grab their dustpans, brooms, and shovels in anticipation of Glover’s visit. Glover moves down the block. She busts Eastern Seafood Inc. for exposed trash and cites Sam Sung Tofu for allowing oily tofu waste to spill through the store’s back door, across the alley, and down to the street. Glover also berates the store’s manager, Yung Kim, for other transgressions: ancient tofu piled against the back wall; open drums of tofu residue covered with flies; and a white bucket full of bean curd atop a heap of garbage. As he tosses the bucket in a dumpster, Kim says his store is not responsible for the drums. “I really don’t think there’s a problem,” he says.
But the visible results of the cleanup are short-lived. Many tenants all but ignore city inspectors, and it’s hardly surprising. Raids are infrequent because of the small number of inspectors. More important, fines run a mere $50 per violation, with no greater sanction for repeat offenders. Some shop owners simply take their citations from Glover, make a few excuses, and keep doing what they’ve been doing once she leaves. (Most businesses don’t even bother to pay their fines: According to DPW, the city collects payment for only 10 percent of the garbage tickets it issues.)
Since mild coercion won’t persuade market tenants to clean up after themselves, District officials are hoping that stiffer penalties will. In March, Mayor Marion Barry signed a law raising per-violation penalties to $75 and imposing fines of up to $2,000 for repeat violations (four citations in two months). DPW plans to start enforcing the new law this fall. In addition, the council’s fiscal 1996 budget proposes hiring 19 new sanitation inspectors.
And soon DPW may receive heavier artillery to punish businesses that ignore fines. Under a “clean hands” measure introduced by Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, the city would deny all permits and licenses to individuals and businesses that owe fines to the city (see “City Desk,” 7/21). DPW expects that hardened polluters will mend their ways if they’re facing the loss of a business license or driver’s license. “When we issue these fines, we’re serious, and we want them to know that,” says Hotaling.
But for now, even the market’s vagrants are complaining about Florida Market’s garbage problem. Mack Campbell, who scavenges the market’s alleys, says that the soybean waste that “covers the pavement” has thinned his hair and damaged his lungs. So why doesn’t he go somewhere else? “Well,” he says, mounting a bulging blue dumpster that’s ringed by trash, “sometimes they leave beef hot dogs in here.”