As It Happens

'Herds of rats' were invading Harlem, so the city took garbage bins away

New York City removed over 200 trash cans from Harlem after residents complained that the garbage was piling up. Now the streets are overflowing with even more garbage — and rats.

Local resident says the city is making 'a nasty situation' worse

A rat pokes its head through a trash can in New York. Residents of Harlem say vermin have swarmed their neighbourhood after the city removed hundreds of trash cans. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

For months, residents of New York City's Harlem neighbourhood have complained to sanitation officials that the public trash bins on their streets were overflowing with garbage.

And now, in a move that has baffled many residents, the city's sanitation department has responded — by removing more than 220 of the bins.

The garbage is still piling up and now New York's notorious rats are flocking to Harlem to take advantage.

JoLinda Ruth Cogen is a real estate broker and Harlem resident. Cogen spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the curious move and why she thinks her neighbourhood deserves better. Here is part of their conversation.

Ms. Cogen, what do the streets around your neighbourhood look like now that these trash bins have been taken away?

We have to maintain and clean these streets ourselves, because as people walk through the area, they don't have any opportunity to drop their trash in a trash bin. There's only one, and we have to look out for that. 

What is happening is that some people were dumping. So they would actually leave their entire household trash. So then it would rot and it created a rat situation — herds of rats — 20 to 30 rats you might see, and raccoons. 

Cogen says instead of removing the trash cans the city should better enforce laws against residents who illegally dump their garbage in public places. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Though this was the rationale that the city used to get rid of the bins because they said that people were putting the trash in there and it was attracting vermin.

Yes, that's what they said, but that's not the first line of defence. This is a new thing for New York City. Before, you used to call enforcement. Enforcement would come out and catch anybody or deter anyone from doing that. After a few days, people got the message and would not do it.

We requested the enforcement. If the city decided, well, the way we will handle it is take away the trash bins, then you need to ask the community. That's how we work here. You're public servants. You serve us. We work with you. So, therefore you ask us first.

You don't arbitrarily take the cans and then tell us, "Well, we're not putting the cans back and oh, by the way, we upped the fine from $25 to $100 and we're not going to do a moratorium. We're going to write the tickets anyway — your trash or not."

Since the trash cans have been removed Cogen says there has been a spike in the amount illegal dumping in her neighbourhood. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

So, people don't have these bins to put their trash in. It's ending up, as you say, in front of people's properties. And, who is getting fined?

The homeowner is being fined and the small business owner. So, it doesn't help. Of course, it's a nasty situation anyway. But now, you're driving people out of business or driving people out of the city.

This rat problem is a big deal in all the North American cities right now. But it's especially big right now in New York. Are you using that as an argument for maybe getting the bins back?

Absolutely, because we knew that since they removed the bins, people began to go and dump their trash. I'm also by a subway station. So, of course, there's rats in the subway station.

The Metropolitan Transportation Association, they tried this for a week, removing all the cans so there would be less trash on the tracks — they put the cans back, within a week. So the rats just came upstairs and said, "Oh, we have a feast!" And now, they're very bold. They're out during the day.

Cogen lives near a subway station and says the garbage is drawing rats up from the underground to feast on the trash. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Is Harlem being treated differently than other parts of the city?

Yes, we would have to say that because many of us have gone to different neighbourhoods and seen the trash cans. Because we also were told that trash cans are not in residential areas, which is not true. Many of us have walked on the east side. We walked on the west side. So yes, Harlem is being treated differently. 

Written by Donya Ziaee and John McGill. Produced by Donya Ziaee. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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