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The Lean CDC: How Investing in Human Power Keeps New Kensington Clean

By Alex Vuocolo |

In Center City and University City, uniformed streets cleaners are almost as ubiquitous as police or Parking Authority officers. They are a fixture at parks, public spaces and business areas, changing out trash bags, sweeping, and operating large industrial street sweepers.

But to find Mariusz Turk, the only paid street cleaner in Kensington, Fishtown and Port Richmond, you may have to wander along Girard Avenue or up Frankford or even check beneath I-95. The best bet is to keep an eye out for his green-painted tricycle, which was built to haul drum equipment but now carries brooms, trash bags and cleaning chemicals.

Turk is employed by the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), a broad-based community development corporation that engages in housing assistance and streetscape improvements. He is paid a little more than $13 an hour and works about 30 to 35 hours a week.

Over the last year, NKCDC has experimented with its Corridor Cleaning Program to find a model that fits its needs while staying within a tight budget paid for by the Philadelphia Commerce Department. Henry Pyatt, commercial corridor manager for NKCDC, explained that the program today is very different than prior models which used part-time or volunteer workers.

By focusing on a single worker, NKCDC is able to pay Turk a living wage along with benefits and sick time. Turk is now the sole expenditure of the program with the exception of bike maintenance and cleaning products.

“We sat down and did the math and figured out how can we give him as many hours and as much money as possible from this grant without running out of money,” Pyatt said.

In University City and Center City, street cleaning is paid for by large and established improvement districts with significant financial resources. And while other parts of the city look to these areas for guidance, there are also unavoidable differences in funding and public attention that smaller organizations like the NKCDC have to reconcile with.

NKCDC’s current model, lean and worker-focused, is an example of an alternative to the types of programs used in denser, wealthier improvement districts.

Prioritizing the Worker

Mariusz Turk moved to the United States from Poland in the late eighties and has since worked in maintenance and landscaping. He is soft-spoken and focused on the work at hand but also approachable and friendly.

Pyatt met Turk through outreach in Port Richmond, an area NKCDC has only worked with for about two years. Hiring Turk was a way to strengthen ties with the area and its distinctive Polish community, Pyatt explained.

The program began in June 2012 with Turk and a second worker. They split the hours, working part-time, and cleaned different sections of Girard and Frankford. Soon though, it became evident that the other worker was not taking the job as seriously as Turk and was actually giving the program a bad public image. So NKCDC parted ways with the other worker and doubled Turk’s hours. Now, with more hours, pay and benefits, Turk cleans large stretches of Girard, Frankford and Allegheny by himself.

Additionally, most of the funds for the program go towards Turk’s wages, rather than on large cleaning machines that require gas, garage space and maintenance. Tricycle maintenance and cheap cleaning supplies are the only equipment costs.

But without Turk’s commitment and work ethic, Pyatt said, this worker-focused strategy would fall flat.

“[Turk] understands that this is important to our community’s pride and functioning, and the way that people live here regard themselves, the way business owners regard themselves and the way that visitors perceive us,” Pyatt said.

Turk’s presence has also inspired the community to take better care of the streets. Turk noted that his job has gotten easier since he started due to less littering and more cooperation from businesses, some of which now try and sweep the sidewalk in front of their stores.

“I guess that people notice… that those areas are cleaned and maintained, and they appreciate it and litter less,” Turk said. Pyatt believes that having a permanent worker, as opposed to volunteers, has caused this change in behavior.

“Cleaning up four times a year is great for neighborhood pride and developing good habits, but its not nearly as powerful of a presence as [Turk] being here every single week,” Pyatt said.

Fighting for a Shoestring Budget

Even with a program as simplified as NKCDC’s Corridor Cleaning Program, funding remains an issue. The grant from the Commerce Department that has funded the program since last summer will expire in June 2014, and NKCDC is now looking at other options for generating revenue.

The funding comes from a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) that is allocated to the city by the Department of Housing and Urban Development each year. Much of the grant is invested in affordable housing development, but a portion is given to the Commerce Department for economic development.

For the last three years, the Commerce Department has distributed funds to community based organizations for the purpose of sidewalk cleaning along commercial corridors. 17 organizations received funding in the 2013 fiscal year, according to the Commerce Department.

The amount given is based on surveys that assess an area’s need for street cleaning. Going forward, the Commerce Department will also look at an organization’s ability to raise matching funds.

“The CDBG allocation to the city has been going down. So in this program the average awards to groups has also been going down,” said Denis Murphy, manager of the Commerce Department’s Business Improvement District program.“Our hope would be that when groups come to us next – which would be year four of the program – they will have some matching funds.”

NKCDC has known about this expectation to raise matching funds from the beginning. So Pyatt is now reaching out to businesses to gauge their interest in a voluntary business improvement district (BID) that would levy a fee on participating businesses to pay for Turk’s position. He is also looking into requesting a lump sum from Sugarhouse Casino, which is the nearest large institution to NKCDC’s targeted areas.

“We’ll probably make the BID as small as possible to make it as minimally controversial as possible,” Pyatt said. “The problem is that everybody is getting this service now for free. Now we need to convince them to pay…”

Pyatt is hopeful that some businesses will participate, after seeing Turk’s benefit to the community. But his biggest concern is that gaps in commercial density will make it difficult to get enough funding.

The area around the Girard subway stop of the Market-Frankford line, for example, is dense with businesses. But there are also sections of Frankford, currently cleaned by Turk, that lack what Pyatt called a “critical mass” of commercial activity that could fund a cleaning program.

For now, though, Turk continues to keep the corridor clean and build support day-to-day. “Everybody knows that he’s worth it. Its just a matter of convincing them to start paying,” Pyatt said.

(Photos by Neal Santos)

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