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The canyons surrounding Azalea Park seclude it from the dense, vibrant cacophony of urban City Heights. Arriving in the neighborhood through one of its few entrances, a peaceful calm pervades.
“We call it paradise,” said Sandi Brooks, 56, who has lived in Azalea Park since she was born.
It’s a paradise that well-organized Parksters, as they call themselves, have worked hard to build and maintain since the early 1990s. A paradise reflected in its neatly manicured yards and tidy alleys. But a paradise whose residents have, for years, grown ever-more frustrated with an activity common across City Heights but little-tolerated in Azalea Park: trash scavenging.
Early this month, the Azalea Park Neighborhood Association voted to buy 1,200 industrial strength stickers that will adorn the trash and recycle bins of the neighborhood’s roughly 800 homes.
They’ll warn prospective trash scavengers to “STOP: It is against the law to remove any item from this container.” Inside a circle with a line drawn through it, the stickers will depict a figure reaching into an open trash can.
The stickers are a response to recent frustrations aired by some residents over the neighborhood’s e-mail list serve, which shoots out hundreds of messages a week.
Since January, some residents have been documenting what they say is a growing problem of scavenging for recyclables by neighborhood outsiders — especially homeless residents of the surrounding canyons. They emerge onto Azalea Park streets early on Friday mornings before the trash truck arrives to haul away the goods, residents say, leaving the streets littered with debris. Sometimes, they trespass onto properties, raising fears of home invasions.
The neighborhood is the first in City Heights to adopt the warning stickers, which also cite the municipal code prohibiting trash scavenging. The Azalea Park decision prompted the City Heights Town Council, an umbrella organization of neighborhood associations, to launch a pilot project testing whether warning stickers might deter trash bin scavenging in other neighborhoods, said Guy Mock, the council’s co-chair.
In Mission Beach, where residents affixed stickers, locks and posted signs to discourage scavengers, active residents say anecdotally they have noticed fewer property crimes.
Trash scavenging is a citywide issue. Each morning in City Heights, a veritable army of roving recyclers — poor immigrants and refugees supplementing meager incomes, homeless residents and transients — hits the streets in search of aluminum and glass containers they recycle for pennies a piece.
But the push for greater control and enforcement in Azalea Park highlights particularities of the neighborhood’s relationship with the rest of City Heights.
“It’s always been almost a gated community sort of separated from the rest of City Heights,” said Linda Pennington, an Azalea Park resident and activist key in the neighborhood’s revitalization.
There, police officers have been more vigilant over the trash bins than in other parts of City Heights, even though scavenging is more prevalent elsewhere, said David Tos, the Police Department’s Mid City Community Liaison.
“There’s so much crime going on that that’s a very low priority unless it’s very prevalent,” Tos said. “There is more ticketing in Azalea Park because its residents are more concerned with it.”
Residents of denser, lower-income City Heights neighborhoods see scavenging less as a problem, and more as a way of daily life, he said.
Last year, the city received 520 resident complaints about scavenging, and issued 72 misdemeanor citations, Dennis Williams, a spokesman for the city’s environmental services department, said in an e-mail.
“Scavenging has increased, as well as complaints … as the economy has declined,” Williams said.
Pennington said Azalea Park’s geography and nearby facilities make it especially attractive to scavengers, and make it incumbent on residents to be especially vigilant.
Many people who scavenge, she said, emerge from the canyons, take recyclables to a recycling center located just outside Azalea Park’s boundaries, and walk another block to a local liquor store.
“There’s this whole support system for transients to go through trash, to live, and to buy their alcohol,” she said.
Some residents of Azalea Park have started sorting out their own recyclables before moving their bins to the street. They have cashed in cans and bottles and donated the revenue to the neighborhood association or local recreation centers in order to keep it out of the hands of scavengers, hoping to discourage the activity.
The stickers, Pennington said, will ensure that the city gets the recycling revenue, which last year totaled more than $4 million, according to city figures. They will also make it harder for scavengers to plead ignorance when approached by residents or police, she said.
But other Azalea Park residents have expressed concerns about limiting access to trash bins indiscriminately.
At the meeting where the sticker issue was decided, two residents opposed it vehemently, Pennington said. They were concerned for the ability of the community’s homeless residents to sustain themselves.
Katt Eaton is an Azalea Park resident who has started speaking with local homeless and immigrant service providers. She wants neighbors to work out agreements to sort out recyclables that homeless or immigrant residents can pick up without digging through bins or trespassing.
Many scavengers, Eaton said, have few other options. She recently noticed two women who appeared to be immigrants from Asia, likely poor but not homeless, walking through the neighborhood collecting cans and bottles. Seeing them, she said, shocked her into contemplating the disparities that exist within the greater City Heights community she and the women share.
Not long after, she received an e-mail containing a picture of the two women in the act, calling them “recycle thieves.”
“The law has its limitations and we’re left to deal with these cultural relationships that we have,” she said. “There’s a better, more long lasting and comprehensive way to do this.”
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