Jewish Journal


July 29, 2009

Cleaning Up


Here in Pico-Robertson, I often come across people who dream of building things, like a new Jewish center, a new kosher restaurant, a new kind of shul and so on.

The other day, though, I met someone who dreams of getting rid of stuff — specifically, the garbage along Pico Boulevard.

Ever since I moved here three years ago, the trash on Pico — especially east of Robertson — has reminded me of winters in Montreal. Everyone talks and complains about it, but it never goes away.

Boaz Hepner wants to change that.

So when I met him the other day at Pico Café, it didn’t surprise me that one of the first things he did was take me for a walk. The more we went east and the closer we got to his shul, B’nai David-Judea Congregation, the more trash we saw.

The funny thing is, Hepner, a frum, single Jew born and raised in Pico-Robertson, is more of a social animator than a social activist. His claim to fame in the neighborhood is a Yahoo social group called Camp Boaz, with about 350 “friends and friends of friends” for whom he plans regular activities, like theater outings, co-ed softball and Shabbat potluck lunches in his backyard.

A few months ago, he had an “aha!” moment. He was walking along Pico with an empty soda can and he realized, block after block, that he had no place to put it. It took about five messy blocks before he found a trash can.

That’s when his “clean-up Pico” journey began.

He started at the bottom by calling 611 to file a report (“too much trash, not enough trash cans”). The first person put him on hold for about 30 minutes before transferring him to another department, which also put him on hold for about 30 minutes. After what he says was about “four and a half hours of getting bounced around,” he finally got someone more or less helpful, who gave him a case number (No. 09016293).

“I could tell that they didn’t like my next question,” he said. That question was: “When should I call back?”

They asked him not to call back for “several weeks,” so he waited a month and a half. This time, he only got bounced around for an hour and a half, at which point he was told that “this is not our district” and that the file “was in the process right now of being transferred.”

After several more weeks of getting the runaround, he struck gold: He found a city worker who told him the truth. The city has a very limited budget, he was told, and it’s not as simple as adding trash bins. The real expense is in adding routes and manpower to empty out the bins.

It was at that point that he gave up on the city and went to Plan B — Camp Boaz.

“We’re always having these fun events,” he told me. “I figured it’s time to do something different. I’m going to guilt them out with my next e-mail.”

His plan is to mobilize his Camp Boaz “fun troops” for a “Clean-Up Pico Day” late in the afternoon on Sunday, Aug. 30. He’s keeping it simple: He’ll give trash bags and disposable gloves to all participants and ask them to pick up all the trash they see on Pico Boulevard between Doheny Drive and La Cienega Boulevard. Nagila Pizza will donate pizzas after the clean up.

“It’ll be our mitzvah day at Camp Boaz,” he said.

But while he’s excited about the idea, he’s not naïve. He knows that a one-day event won’t really solve anything. So, in classic guerilla marketing fashion, he’s hoping that his clean-up troops will make so much noise on Aug. 30 that the city, the neighbors and the merchants will be shamed into finding a long-term solution.

As it happens, I met someone at another table at Pico Café who had his own idea for cleaning up city streets. It was Rabbi Ari Leubitz from B’nai David-Judea, who told me how they cleaned up so many of the streets in Manhattan: They gave the job to people who had to do community service.

What a concept. A brilliant idea that costs nothing and that beautifies the streets.

Of course, nothing is ever so simple. My friend and community activist Adeena Bleich, who just recently ran for City Council, explains that businesses often abuse city trash bins for their own purposes to save money. But, she adds, “Everything is possible if you have the will of someone in government working through nonprofits, private citizens and schools.”

Whoever that “someone in government” is, Hepner is hoping they will be driving on Pico Boulevard on Aug. 30 and see his Camp Boaz troops in action.

The way he sees it, it’s not as if he’s asking for city permits to build a new building that will increase congestion and traffic. He wants the city to help him clean up, not build up.

Some people walk around with their heads up and dream of seeing new things. Boaz Hepner walks around his neighborhood with his head down and dreams of seeing nothing.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, Meals4Israel.com and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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