Buried Legacies: Former Landfills and Philadelphia’s Future

By James Cook-Thajudeen

Garbage, rubbish, litter, and other forms of solid waste are among the most pressing policy challenges faced by Philadelphia in the early twenty-first century. Bold efforts such as Philadelphia’s Zero Waste by 2035 goal and the city’s seemingly endless battle against illegal dumping and littering have recently been front-page news and fodder for discussion among American urbanists. But in a city with a nearly 340-year history, new news is often old news. Much of the history of solid waste management in Philadelphia lies in decaying clippings, blurry microfilms, and dusty reports, but thousands of Philadelphians experience that history in a visceral way each day. Few of the city’s neighborhoods illustrate the ramifications of past actions and inaction with regard to solid waste than Eastwick in Southwest Philadelphia.

Most people experience Eastwick in passing; many of the attendees of this year’s Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting will speed through the area while riding the train from Philadelphia International Airport to Center City. However, were they to disembark they would be struck by evidence of Philadelphia’s steep environmental inequality, much of it a legacy of the dumping and landfilling that occurred along Eastwick’s western edge during most of the twentieth century. The area is home to one of Philadelphia’s four Superfund Sites and borders another in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, both of which are the remnants of former landfills. The story of how and why Eastwick residents came to live in a toxic shadow cast by the very soil and marshland that surrounds them is a microcosm of the history of how Philadelphia disposed of its solid waste, as well as a cautionary tale for the city’s present-day leaders.

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Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Wheelhouse of an abandoned ship near the city dump used as an occupied shack, Paul Vanderbilt, c. 1938, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

For decades prior to the 1950s, Eastwick was Philadelphia’s afterthought. It was a place where trains gathered steam on their way to points west and south, and where dirty business that would not be tolerated in wealthier, more densely populated parts of the city could be carried on unimpeded. By the end of the Second World War, Eastwick had become a center for operators of privately owned dumps—expanses of land where matter and objects that were thrown away would be laid to rest. A dump operator made the most of their land by setting fire to its contents, thereby reducing their volume and making room for more refuse. Dump burning annoyed residents, pedestrians, and motorists, but little was done to mitigate it because of the role dumps played in the disposal of refuse from industrial and commercial establishments, which were not typically served by the city’s Department of Streets and its incinerators. It was so common that the abatement of dump burning became a marquee issue for Philadelphia’s famous reformist Democratic mayor, Richardson Dilworth, who served from 1956 to 1962.[1]

Under Dilworth’s direction, Philadelphia began closing open dumps within city limits. Early in Dilworth’s first term as mayor, the Philadelphia health department demanded that sixteen private dumps cease burning trash. Dump operators fought against city efforts to curtail burning, but lost. On December 31, 1957 the city shut down the offending dumps for good.

City leaders predicted that the dump burning ban would quickly have a positive impact on the city’s air quality, but shutting down the dumps did not eliminate the demand for their services on the part of the their clients. Many commercial establishments reported increases of 30 to 75 percent in the price of refuse disposal following the implementation of Philadelphia’s dump ban, but they found a way to accomplish it nevertheless. The answer lay in dumps beyond the city line, where ordinances and mayoral decrees had no impact. One such facility, owned by Edward Heller, a public official in the nearby town of Upper Darby and a long-time private waste hauler, was adjacent to Eastwick and, despite belonging to Darby Township, was only accessible by road from Philadelphia. Dump fires burned with impunity on Heller’s land.

Eastwick residents promptly complained to the city about Heller’s activities, prompting action. Mayor Dilworth ordered police to barricade the entrance to the dump with railroad ties, but to no avail. Trucks from Heller’s waste hauling company, City-Wide Services, merely bypassed them using a path that observers likened to the Burma Road, the rough, overland route that linked southwest China and Southeast Asia during the Second World War.

pick-it-up-logo.jpgEdward Heller not only subjected Eastwick residents to the smoke that Philadelphia’s leaders had tried to shield them from, he was also embroiled in a scandal in Upper Darby, where he served as sanitation chief. Upper Darby faced its own solid waste problem, which its leaders tried to resolve by agreeing to purchase the land Heller used as a dump for the purpose of erecting an incinerator. The deal appeared to wildly inflate the price of the land, prompting an investigation by a Delaware County grand jury into whether a conspiracy involving Heller and several others had attempted to defraud Upper Darby taxpayers. Despite the legal scrutiny, and despite not having a dumping permit from Darby Township, City-Wide Services continued to deposit and burn trash on the site. Facing the prospect of testifying before the grand jury, Heller asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. In April 1958 the grand jury issued its report on the alleged lease conspiracy, recommending the indictment of Heller and eight others, including the township commission presidents of Darby and Upper Darby. However, the matter went no further; the Delaware County district attorney declined to bring charges against the figures singled out by the jury.

As the efforts of local authorities to halt the continued burning of rubbish on Heller’s dump faltered, the State of Pennsylvania explored intervening, but at the time possessed no agencies involved in the regulation of solid waste and pollutants. In the end, state involvement in the impasse amounted to little more than a few stern warnings; state officials had little confidence that their mandate extended any further. Philadelphia redoubled its efforts to block access to the offending dump, but a more permanent barrier on the street did not close off the “Burma Road.” Eastwick residents continued to call city officials and protest outside the facility’s entrance, but to no avail.

bigbelly-overflowing-with-residential-trash-photo-sent-to-philly311-in-january-2017.0.0.547.610.350.391.c
BigBelly overflowing with residential trash, photo sent to Philly311 in January 2017 courtesy of PlanPhilly.com

Once the scandals of 1958 fell from the spotlight a process of forgetting quickly began. By September 1958 the owners of the offending dump had obtained an injunction barring Philadelphia from barricading its entrance. Broader social forces also worked to the advantage of polluters. Aided in part by the rapid transformation of Eastwick through Philadelphia’s extensive urban renewal program, City-Wide Services and its burning dump ceased to concern city officials. Eastwick, always marginal, became more deeply marginalized during the 1960s.

The re-marginalization of Eastwick enabled the rebranding of the dump as the Clearview Landfill, a name that associated the facility with the comparatively safe practice of sanitary landfilling despite little evidence of substantive change. The Clearview Landfill continued to operate openly until 1973, when it was officially closed. However, the closure of Clearview did not stop Richard Heller, Edward Heller’s son and current owner of City-Wide Services. In defiance of state law, City-Wide Services continued to dump waste on the site into the late 1990s. Finally, in 2001 the State of Pennsylvania imposed a large fine on Heller and the U.S Environmental Protection Agency placed the site on its National Priorities, or Superfund, list. Remediation efforts in areas adjacent to the Clearview Landfill continue more than six decades after the site first became a dumping ground.[2]

In the late-2010s the people of Philadelphia continue to battle the environmental hazards caused by solid waste. New challenges for city leaders have arisen in areas prone to illegal dumping, in particular where the issue often shades into the similarly thorny problem opioid addiction. The story of the Clearview Landfill reveals how difficult it can be for American cities to manage environmental problems—even when the responsible parties were easy to identify. In the case of Clearview, Philadelphia’s difficulties arose from the fact of municipal boundaries, the unwillingness of courts to interfere with a property owner’s access to his land, and the lack of a clear mandate for a higher authority, such as the State of Pennsylvania, to intervene. As a consequence, the palpable traces of Philadelphia’s past include not only such landmarks as Independence Hall, the row houses of Rittenhouse Square, and William Penn’s gridiron streets, but the soil, air, and water. In seeking to create a zero-waste future, Philadelphia’s leaders would be wise to consider not just the waste being produced in the present, but the depth and breadth of its abundantly wasteful past.

James_Cook_Thajudeen_photo.jpgJames Cook-Thajudeen is a PhD candidate in History at Temple University. He is currently writing a dissertation on solid waste and public policy in the Philadelphia metropolitan area from the nineteenth century to the present. 

[1] For more information on the place of Eastwick and the mayoralty of Richardson Dilworth, see: Guian McKee, The Problem of Jobs: Liberalism, Race, and Deindustrialization in Philadelphia (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010). For more on the limitations of liberal reform in Philadelphia, see: Matthew Countryman, Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

[2] For more on the technical distinction between dumps and landfills, as well as a nationwide account of solid waste issues in the postwar period, see: Martin V. Melosi, The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

Featured image (at top): Reading Terminal builder Charles McCaul prepared this lithograph of Phiadelphia, Pennsylvania’s new train terminal and market for the building’s opening in 1893, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

One thought on “Buried Legacies: Former Landfills and Philadelphia’s Future”

  1. Mr. Cook-Thajudeen,It is an educational experience in reading your article and a poignant reminder to me as a student of history of Delaware County fiefdom politics that colorful figures such as Sam Dickey, with a nod from the powerful former state senator and behind the scene powerhouse,John McClure, were eternally hatching personally lucrative municipal corruption schemes, and played significant roles in finding ‘solutions’ to their citizens’ pressing problems.This would include providing clean streets,low crime and taxes, and keeping white areas free of blacks.Also, please read about the Chester Water Works scandal of the 1930’s.Deja Vu all over again with Clearview.Best of luck.We need more historians to uncover truth.

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