Volunteer ‘Litter Mob’ Takes Over
By Zach Campbell
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
PROSPECT PARK — Marie Viljoen and a handful of other volunteers come here every two weeks for what they themselves describe as an entirely Sisyphean task: picking up the trash in Brooklyn’s only forest, the Midwood section of Prospect Park.
Starting last May, the group, known as the “Litter Mob,” has donned boots, gloves, trash bags and grabber-claw tools to help with Prospect Park’s widespread litter problem. The group spends hours every other Tuesday morning trudging through the area, picking up what refuse was discarded in the past weeks.
“Most of what we find are used condoms,” Viljoen said, putting another clump of litter in her trash bag.
Viljoen explained that the Midwood has, in recent years, become a well-known cruising spot, particularly for men from neighboring communities, many of which are very conservative. Condoms aren’t the only problem though, she said, adding that the grounds are usually also littered with beer and liquor bottles, takeout food containers and heaps of cigarette butts.
Trash has long been an issue here. Part of the reason it doesn’t always get picked up, Viljoen explained, is due to the way the park is administered.
Responsibility for Prospect Park is divided between the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the Prospect Park Alliance (PPA), an organization founded in the early 1980s to help funnel private investments into the then-derelict park. The city funds one third of the PPA’s $12.3 million annual budget, and the rest is provided by grants and donations.
According to representatives from both organizations, there is no clear delineation or distinction between either group’s responsibilities in the park. Both employ a maintenance staff and foresters, and both develop capital projects. Even the president of the Prospect Park Alliance, Emily Lloyd, is also an employee of the Parks Department, although according to PPA tax records, Lloyd only receives a salary from one organization.
Many have asked why the PPA has been able to fund major capital construction projects while neglecting basic trash pickup in the park. They specifically point to the Lakeside complex, a $74 million development that is currently under construction, which is due to include a new skating rink, cafe, education center and other new features.
Paul Nelson, a spokesperson for the Prospect Park Alliance, says this issue is out of the PPA’s hands.
“The majority of money we get is going to capital projects, and is non-transferable” Nelson said, referring to the private funding for projects like Lakeside. Much of this funding comes from individuals, including elected officials. Nelson also explained that donating to capital projects like the Lakeside skating rink makes for much better publicity than donating to trash pickup.
Later in the day, Litter Mob volunteers broke from their collection work to help transplant native Rubus plants, a type of blackberry, from a hill overlooking the park’s rolling meadows to lower lands where, they say, the plants will help with the lakeside erosion and their thorns will discourage littering. Litter Mob is one of many volunteer groups working to make Prospect Park cleaner and more beautiful for all of its 10 million yearly visitors.
“They don’t have the staff,” said one volunteer, when asked about the prevalence of trash in the park. “If it weren’t for volunteer groups like this, a lot of the work wouldn’t get done.”
Last week, another group of volunteers, alongside PPA and Parks Department employees, drained part of the the lake so they could install piping for the Lakeside construction. Nearby, along the lake’s bank between the volunteers and a group of ducks and Canadian geese, was what looked like a fire pit and a pile of bottles, Styrofoam food containers, condom wrappers and a bundle of paper covered in excrement.