A teddy bear, a pair of bejeweled toddlers’ sandals and stacks of clothing and papers are strewn around the entrance of Lillie Mae Jones Trail, a recently transformed section of the Richmond Greenway.
Just last week, this spot, which is the site of the city’s new Unity Park, was immaculate.
It is just one of dozens of waste piles illegally dumped throughout the city of Richmond on a daily basis. According to a city report, in 2017, Richmond’s abatement staff collected more than three million pounds of illegally dumped debris from 13,430 locations. But to see the Lillie Mae Jones Trail trashed is particularly disheartening.
The completion of Unity Park earlier this year marked the culmination of a five-year project lead by the Friends of the Richmond Greenway. The park is a reflection of the vision of community members and 17 member organizations who came together to build a vibrant green space open to everyone.
Many Richmond residents and community organizations are taking on the challenge of fighting illegal dumping, but at times it can feel like a losing battle.
Consider Hilario Hernandez, a 20-year resident of Richmond and father of two young children who cleaned up an abandoned lot a few doors down from his home and a half-block away from Unity Park. He and his neighbors gave the walls and fences of the adjoining properties a fresh coat of paint, alternating vibrant turquoise with yellow, and red. Swings were hung from tree branches for neighborhood kids to play on.
The spot was so beautiful that Hernandez even made it the venue for his son’s first communion celebration. But unfortunately, he says, eventually people began illegally dumping their trash on the lot again.
“It makes me feel really sad to see because of the amount of work we put in,” says Hernandez.
Rich City Rides adopted the section of the greenway located between 2nd and 4th streets and organizes a volunteer clean-up on the second Saturday of each month. Volunteers often pick up enough waste to fill a truck bed, says Roshni “Taye” McGee, program manager and lead mechanic for the bike shop.
Lt. Matt Stonebraker, chief of staff of the Richmond Police Department, says his department receives approximately 20 calls about illegal dumping each month and responds to each one. Although the department has noted a decline in reports of illegal dumping over the past three years, Stonebraker says it, “continues to be a huge quality of life issue and we will continue our efforts to enforce such crime.”
Mayor Tom Butt views Richmond’s trash problem as a cultural issue rather than a law enforcement one. He says it is a “long embedded tradition” similar to setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July or gunshots on New Year’s Eve.
“At the end of the day, you can’t change culture with law, you’ve gotta change people,” says the mayor. However, the mayor is backing a new measure on the November ballot that would place a special tax on vacant property with the intent of raising additional funds, some of which would go to fighting illegal dumping.
Although Hernandez didn’t win his battle against dumping in his own neighborhood, he regularly works as a volunteer to take care of the Richmond Greenway. On a recent Saturday afternoon, he was out walking with his two children, teaching them the value of taking an active role in their community.