Retired science teacher Philly leads cleanup efforts at Cobbs Creek Park

“My wife told me I failed to retire,” Richard Giovanti says with a smile. “Retired” in 2011 at age 65 after teaching science for 24 years to students at Philadelphia High School in Germantown, University City, Northeast Philly (Samuel Philly), and North Philly (Girls’ High School). It didn’t take long for him to get anxious. “I hate feeling useless,” he says. “I think the work is only in my DNA.”

Ten years later, Giovanti, now 76, tackled one of Philadelphia’s most famous and intractable problems, the garbage problem. And he did it the old-fashioned way: meeting neighbours, partnering with organizations, and doing work, day in and day out.

Guffanti’s first post-retirement project was to help the Spruce Hill Community Association maintain a hidden gem bird sanctuary established by sculptor Anne Froehling in 2011. He also began volunteering at a local library, where he met his neighbor Andrew Wheeler, founder and CEO of the search firm Lincoln Leadership. Wheeler shared Guffanti’s affinity for outdoor activities and public service. They talked about improving the community and decided to carry the foliage along 63rd Street near Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Center.

Guffanti says the city’s current paper removal services are inadequate: Crews don’t come in often, and heaps rain on resistant brooms and paper cranes. So, he and Wheeler began to fill in the gaps. In December of 2017, after countless hours of cleaning up the sheets, the pair turned their attention to the trash. Little did they know they were on the verge of something bigger.

“I always tell my kids to never assume that someone is doing something about the problem you’re seeing.” – Timoa Wright

Compared to other major American cities, Philly has insane amounts of rubbish and a dysfunctional waste management bureaucracy. The Philadelphia City Litter Index ranks areas along Cobbs Creek Parkway as “moderate to severe.” The worst sections are at the southern end of the park, and as in the under-resourced neighborhoods mostly populated by people of color, they have been neglected for a long time.

By March of 2019, neighbors started getting to know Wheeler and Giovanti, noticed the work they were doing, and joined in. ) and they invited their Facebook page Cobbs Creek Park Cleanups. They adopted a patch of land along the promenade between Catherine Street and Woodland Street that connects to half of the park, and divided it into 10 areas they allotted to individual “ambassadors”. The first ambassador was Wright.

The long-term results of the group are undeniable: half of the garden cleaned by volunteers is more visible than the other half. Guffanti, a careful data keeper, used a luggage scale to weigh garbage bags. The average weight of a full 33-gallon bag is 14 pounds, with no lying, with a standard deviation of 2 percent. The ambassadors count the bags for each cleaning. In 2021, 135 clean-ups removed nearly 6 tons of rubbish. They are on track to remove nearly 8 tons of trash in 2022.

The power of word of mouth

Originally from Malawi, Wright lived in the relatively pristine state of Washington and Alaska before moving to Philly in 2000. “I was really shocked at how much trash there was in the city,” she says. Not a fan of idle cash, she took matters into her own hands. “I always tell my kids to never assume that someone is doing something about the problem you are seeing. Don’t wait and watch it day in and day out. You have the power to do something about it.”

Wright and Wheeler run monthly Zoom meetings to plan weekly and monthly area cleanups. Guffanti is responsible for the organizational structure. Monthly cleanups take place on the first Saturday of every month along the parkway between Whitby and Florence. Wright’s weekly cleanups take place along the Parkway-Catherine Street intersection from March through November. She calls them “energy clocks.”

Cobbs Creek Cleanups grew mostly by word of mouth, though Guffanti’s efforts to recruit members as well. District 4 ambassador Bethany Teigen, president of mushroom monitors for the Philadelphia Mushroom Club, texts club members to join her. Wright enlists volunteers between the ages of 8 and 70 – mostly women – simply by asking passersby to join her next time.

The group gathers before one of Rich Giovanti’s last cleanups on Saturday along Cobbs Creek Parkway.

The garbage they collect varies by region. Zone 2, near the basketball and tennis courts, is filled with empty water bottles. Garbage in District 9, a thin stretch of timber along the Parkway, is mostly associated with food, presumably dumped from the windows of passing cars. There isn’t much in the way of illegal dumping, thanks in large part to Guffanti, who harassed the city for installing gates and boulders to block park entrances to vehicles carrying potential pickup trucks.

…if the group could double their efforts, they could keep all of Cobbs Creek Park…more or less rubbish.

In 2021, they collected 56 tires. So far this year, they’ve picked up 58, mostly from one location, while cleaning up MLK Day. They also found, though not much, piles of concrete, pallets, and other timber associated with construction.

There is one place, though upstream and across the creek from the historic Blue Bell Inn on Woodland Avenue, an illegal dump out of control. In one visit to the park, there were no fewer than four couches at the bottom of a ravine in the creek. This location – which Guffanti notes is on the Delaware county side – shows the limits of volunteer cleanups. Without sufficient manpower or proper equipment, it is not possible to withstand this mass of chaos.

A short walk down the recreational path from the landfill is a small wooden bench that Wheeler has installed to sit by the creek and relax. To prevent it from being stolen, he chained the seat to two cylinder blocks. Recently, Guffanti found both the bench and the stone blocks in the creek. He and Wheeler bravely pulled it out and tied it to a tree, as he sat on a recent visit surrounded by cigar wrappers, grocery bags, and disposable masks waiting to be picked up.

Other than $2,000 a year from Clean Air Council, Guffanti and her company operate with absolutely no budget. He wants to keep it that way. “I want people who have their hearts in it,” he says. But they did not do it alone – they benefited from informal partnerships with many organizations:

Guffanti estimates that if the group could redouble their efforts, they could keep all of Cobbs Creek Park—that is, the areas immediately adjacent to the park’s recreational trails—fairly free of litter. As for the creek and the surrounding floodplains, Giovanti says after years of neglect, dealing with it is very difficult — at least, for now.

Work can be ungrateful. But Guffanti fights trash as relentlessly as trash piles up. His email signature reads:

An optimist knows how bad things can be.

The pessimist learns how bad things are every day all over again.

Pessimism is a luxury we cannot afford.

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