How to navigate the dirtiest, poop-iest time of the year

4 things you can do to help the city be slightly less disgusting this time of year.

How to navigate the dirtiest, poop-iest time of the year
Doo or doo not, but please put it in the trash at least. (Photo by Billie Grace Lord/Flickr)

The prettiest time of year in the city turns into the ugliest time of year pretty quickly. 

Last week gave us two much-welcomed, smothering snow storms, and the eager excitement over the return of snow was enough to encourage mass truancy and absenteeism citywide. But those snows faded away quickly, and what was revealed underneath was the sad truth of late winter in New York City: It’s the filthiest time of the whole year. 

People do a lot of complaining about the heat and the stink during high summer, but a confluence of things make the city’s streets, sidewalks and public areas particularly foul right now, during low winter: the lack of general outdoor activities means fewer eyes on the streets while the salt on the streets colors everything — from the floor of a subway train to the lobby of your building — in a gray pallor. Then there’s the reduction in litter basket service this year and the Sanitation trucks that get diverted from their routes to become snow plows. And let’s not forget the fact that dog owners seem to think that snow is a magical substance that will absorb dog poop into an alternate dimension where it is some sort of much-sought after currency or something. Dog waste on the streets has been particularly bad since the pandemic, and 311 calls for it historically spike in late winter

"I'd say it could be related to the cold and less people wanting to go outside and clean up their adjacent sidewalks," Catie Savage, founder of the Litter Legion, a Hell’s Kitchen cleanup group, told The Groove. She checked her cleanup data and found that the group collects higher weight totals from November to March than they do the rest of the year. "In the warmer months where there is more foot traffic, there is definitely more incentive to have a tidier appearance to your property." 

Late February doldrums can hit extra hard when you walk out of your home only to see the bare trees on your block swaddled in litter and drowning in dog doo. The good news is both that spring is not far away (Daylight Saving Time is only two weeks away!) and that you can actually do something to help clean up.

Here are four ways to help you navigate the dirtiest time of year:

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Let's get hyped for business containerization on March 1 

The city has been nudging its way into the 20th-ish century this year with some new (old) innovations in trash management aimed at getting bags off the streets. A big one is coming up in just a few weeks: starting March 1, all businesses in the city that have curbside trash pickup will be required to containerize their trash bags each day. 

That means saying goodbye to gigantic mountains of black trash bags piled up outside every single business every single night; and hellllooo … giant walls of sealed trash cans on every single street every single night? We’ll see how that goes down, but putting those big mounds of bags in bins instead of raw dogging them on the curb, where they can easily get ripped open and spew their guts down the street in our never-ending parade of plastic headed for our oceans, might go a long way to making the city look cleaner. 

And when it does snow again, those cans won’t easily disappear behind snow plow banks until the thaw anymore.

Just call 311 and complain with abandon 

Don’t ever sleep on calling 311 when you don’t know what else to do. Your mileage may vary depending on neighborhood, but 311 has its fans out there for being one of the more responsive and helpful city agencies (or, as one Reddit user succinctly put it, "I’m such a slut for 311.") And the best part is you don’t even have to call 311 any more: the agency’s website and app make snitching available to even the most phone-averse introvert. 

While you can’t call the number to ask "can you check if my boyfriend is married," you can use it for a full list of trash-related complaints and issues . It’s good for snitching on the big piles of stuff that someone should get in trouble for: dirty sidewalks, repeat dog waste offenders, illegal dumping, unsecured trash bags and storm drains that are clogged up. 

A year ago, I was walking to my neighborhood rec center when I got sick of passing the same long wasteland of trash, dog poop and other debris that lined about half a block along the route, overflowing from tree beds and spilling into the street next to an industrial building, clearly under no one’s purview. Perhaps the spot is on some sort of hot list of bathrooms for city dogs, I don’t know, but it didn’t seem right. So I submitted an anonymous complaint through 311’s website and in a few days, the piles were gone. I don’t know if it’s returned, but in this case the system worked. 

Snow can hide piles of trash for days or (when we used to get blizzards) months. (Photo by Susan Sermoneta/Flickr)

Join a group, make a friend, pick a litter 

I know, I know, the answer to dirty streets you were looking for probably was not just "get yourself some gloves and go clean it yourself." Maybe it shouldn’t fall on you, the individual disgusted citizen to do something about the state of trash on our streets — but the "can't someone else do it?" strategy doesn't seem to be working. So, until decades of anti-littering campaigns start working on the many New Yorkers who seem to love throwing trash directly out of moving vehicles, it’s on the rest of us to tidy our blocks, save our street trees and put the "u" in beautify.

Here is a brief rundown of some neighborhood cleanup groups, which also make for an interesting and slightly weird way to meet more of your neighbors and feel more ownership of your community: 

Nasty New Yorkers 
A directory for neighborhood cleanup events; the group hosts free clothing swap events too. 

The Clean Bushwick Initiative
Organizes community clean ups, rain-garden maintenance and other events around Bushwick.

The Sanitation Foundation
The official non-profit partner for DSNY is always looking for volunteers for its various cleanup series around the city (though they’re mostly in the warmer months), street tree care events and more. They also have resources for starting your own neighborhood cleanup, including how to borrow cleanup tools such as pickers and bags. 

Clean Up Crown Heights
The cleaners of Crown Heights power right through the winter, holding regular clean ups as often as every week, all year long. The events don’t require any registration and tackle a few blocks at a time, pulling heaving bags of trash from tree beds and curbs. 

Team Clean Up West Harlem
Keep an eye on this account for community clean ups in Harlem and Upper Manhattan in the spring, 

Litter Legion
Led by Savage, the "Trash Queen of Hell’s Kitchen," Litter Legion does regular clean ups around Hell’s Kitchen, including one happening during St. Patrick’s Day this year, if you’re really committed to the cause. 

Locals Cafe 
The Rockaway Beach coffee shop/surfboard storage is run by the folks who run the surf school of the same name and they take protecting the beach seriously by holding regular beach cleanups on the first Saturday of every month, all year long. 

All the rest: A user on Reddit a few years ago put together a list of every neighborhood and park beautification group they could find in all five boroughs, check that list here (and make sure to double check the info is up to date). 

A question: Should you confront people who don’t pick up their dog shit? 

As I said earlier, the scourge of dog shit on our streets has gotten noticeably worse since the pandemic, maybe Chloe Sevigny is on to something there. It is a great, humbling and uniting aspect of this city that no matter how exorbitant your rent is, how private your hospitals are or how strong your Faberge egg addiction is, you will be dodging at least some dog shit on your sidewalk like the rest of us. 

The fact that there is often SO much of it can boggle the mind, and lead one to wonder what kind of lazy, broken world we live in where anyone thinks this is acceptable behavior. So the fantasy of confronting these scofflaw pet owners may rule your waking moments when you’re hopscotching around the sidewalk. 

But actually confronting someone is probably a bad idea, because you don’t know what reaction the perpetrator has loaded up in their brain chamber, waiting to go off. Just last week, someone was stabbed after he asked a man to stop pissing on a building. The request may be reasonable, but minding your business is often the most reasonable way to avoid getting stabbed. 

"Unfortunately, I have witnessed some loud arguments and physical altercations almost erupt over this issue," Savage said. "Given that it's really hard to gauge how an individual might react to being confronted, I would not suggest anyone do it for their own safety." 

If you do feel like dancing with the devil, Soleil Sabalja, founder of Nasty New Yorkers, recommends knowing your stuff first. 

"I always find it easier to confront people if there’s an actual law that's being broken," Sabalja said. "If people have the correct facts, it feels more official and even educational to approach someone else, especially if you have a link to a website to show people the law as well." 

That law is New York State Public Health Law 1310, which says dog owners must pick up the dog waste and dispose of it in a legal way, with a fine of up to $250 if caught. 

If you want to do this, it's probably smart to confront someone from a wide distance at least. A person who doesn’t give a shit about leaving shit on the streets probably doesn’t give a shit about anything.