Catie Savage works in the Garment District creating the patterns for high-end fashion and shimmering gowns for galas. Her passion is trash.
"Last year, I created an Instagram account @litter_nyc," said Catie, who had seen a similar account in LA of random trash on the sidewalk. "In New York you see a lot of weird things on the street. So I started taking pictures of the strange things I would see. I saw a doll thrown in trash. It was standing with its arm up, like it was hailing a taxi. It's found strange, weird stuff like that — then it just evolved."
The account didn't evolve into a huge Instagram following, but it became a passion that she could apply when the pandemic hit hard in the city.
The time was so weird. We had hundreds of people dying every day. It's scary for people. You don't want to go outside and see masks and gloves everywhere.
During the height of the pandemic in April, Catie wanted to help: "There wasn't lots of trash on the streets at that time, because there was nobody out, but there were just tons of gloves and masks all over the place. I know that when you have heavy rains that this ends up washing into the sewer and could end up in the river. So I got one of those trash grabbers and started going out to pick up the gloves and the masks that I would see near my home. The time was so weird. We had hundreds of people dying every day. It's scary for people. You don't want to go outside and see masks and gloves everywhere."
After a break to stay with family in New Jersey, she returned to phase 2, when the sidewalk bars were opening again: "The amount of trash on the streets went up exponentially. You'd have people standing outside with their to-go drinks and plastic cups and getting food and hanging out — but there was no place to throw the trash. I saw a local woman, Julie Ridge, organizing a cleanup down by Manhattan Plaza. I started a satellite version where we would meet on 51st and Ninth Avenue by Jasper's."
She hands out bags and gloves to anybody who shows up. "We divide and conquer the spaces between Eighth and 10th Avenue from 50th up to 59th street. We pick up all the basic trash, not messing with the broken bottles or any syringes that we see on the streets. No one wants to live in a trashy neighborhood. It's just one little thing that's just so easy to control."
Catie can't tell you the last time she saw an empty trashcan on Ninth Avenue. She's talked to the Department of Sanitation and local business owners. She's clear that it's the responsibility of the business owners to clear outside their store and 18 inches into the road. She's sympathetic to the issues business owners are facing, but as she points out: "If you have all this outdoor dining, there should be more of an incentive for the businesses to want to keep things clean. If your diners are adjacent to one of those overflowing corner trashcans, do you think your guests really want to be sitting next to that? It's so easy just to tie it up and help out the Department of Sanitation."
"It's just nice to walk down the street and not see trash everywhere. It's one little thing that makes me feel like maybe New York isn't completely going to shit."
The litter collection has helped her make a connection with neighbors in a new way (her New York journey started with study at FIT in 2004, and she has been in Hell's Kitchen since 2005): "New York is one of those strange places where you can live in the same apartment for 10 years and not know anybody that lives in your building. With the pandemic, and seeing all the people that just got up and left, you have a lot of people that can't afford to do that and are stuck in Hell's Kitchen and trying to make the best of it. So you have no choice but to start getting to know your neighbors – or else you're just isolated. We need to be more friendly with each other and have more of a community and care about your neighbor, because who else is going to care about you? If not your neighbor, the federal government certainly doesn't care about it."
"There's something kind of relaxing about picking up trash – and now it's at a point where it's very difficult for me to walk past trash and not pick it up. Walking to work in the morning, I feel like I need to start bringing a bag and gloves with me, but then at the same time, I'll have to leave for work like an hour earlier or I'll be late from picking up trash," Catie shares. "I went to the beach on Thursday and I looked around. I can't stop picking up the trash."
Catie's helping to connect a community one piece of trash at at time: "It's just nice to walk down the street and not see trash everywhere. It's one little thing that makes me feel like maybe New York isn't completely going to shit."
You can join Catie this morning at 11:30am (Sunday 7/26) outside Jasper's on 9th Ave/51st Street. She will provide gloves and bags (just make sure to wear a mask). If you cannot make it today, then follow Catie at @life_of_savage or @litter_nyc for updates on future Hell's Kitchen Neighborhood Clean Ups.