Cherelle Parker

Mayor Parker has long promised to clean up Philadelphia – but how that happens remains unclear

Her early personnel and policy decisions have advocates questioning if the city will see more of the same

Cherelle Parker is seen during her first press conference after winning the Democratic nomination for mayor in Philadelphia on May 22, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Cherelle Parker is seen during her first press conference after winning the Democratic nomination for mayor in Philadelphia on May 22, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania CHINESEINUS.ORG/PHOTOGRAPH BY HONG

In her first press conference after winning Philadelphia's mayoral primary race in May, Cherelle Parker said that one of the signature parts of her campaign platform – expanding a program called PHL TCB (short for “Taking Care of Business”) – would “be the tool that we will use to eliminate the ‘Filthadelphia’ moniker that has had such a strong grip on our city.” 

The program’s results, although limited to the previous administration’s reporting, trended in the right direction – but the Parker administration and Commerce Department failed to respond to repeated requests for up-to-date information related to TCB.

Parker, the Democrat who became the city’s 100th and first female mayor in January, made her oft-stated plan to make Philadelphia “the safest, cleanest, greenest big city in the nation” a focal point of her campaign. The focus on PHL TCB, a program to keep some of the city’s neighborhood business corridors clean by employing people called cleaning ambassadors to pick up trash, leverages both economic and quality-of-life initiatives with strong echoes of the New Deal work projects from a century ago. In addition to providing marginal improvements on quality-of-life metrics – data shows that the poorest neighborhoods are often the ones most beset by litter – cleaning ambassadors are paid at least $15 an hour, and supervisors can make more. 

As City & State examines several of Parker’s 100-day initiatives, we plan to report on the mayor’s campaign promises – ranging from quality-of-life issues to public safety interventions – and where initiatives stand early on in her first term. 

Now, more than a month into her administration, some of her personnel and policy moves surrounding cleanup efforts have been applauded by advocates, while others have them questioning if the city will see more of the same – streets and sidewalks overwhelmed with litter. 

Personnel picks

“Execution is the proof in the pudding,” Nic Esposito, director of policy and engagement for Circular Philadelphia and the former director of the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet under Mayor Jim Kenney, told City & State. Esposito, whose position was eliminated in 2020, said that while he’s been encouraged by Parker’s initial promises, some of her choices for department heads quickly diminished his excitement. 

Parker was applauded earlier this month when she announced that the streets and sanitation departments would be split – a longtime goal of Esposito and other sustainability advocates – but her selection of Carlton Williams, the streets commissioner under Kenney, as the head of the Office of Clean and Green Initiatives left many disappointed. 

“It’s like gaslighting – it makes you feel crazy,” Esposito said. “Parker says, ‘We’re picking the best and the brightest’ but she basically just reshuffled the deck.” Williams, who has spent most of his career with the city, was Kenney’s point person and took the brunt of the blame for many of the city’s waste and litter problems – issues that grew significantly during the pandemic. 

Shari Hersh, founder of the Trash Academy environmental justice collective, noted that recycling rates under Williams’ leadership went from about 21% to 8% during the height of the pandemic. 

“There were many missteps, and certainly the pandemic provided lots of challenges, but there are so many opportunities to make change right now,” Hersh told City & State. “There are so many people invested in it.” 

While Williams will oversee the new Clean and Green Cabinet – a group within Parker’s administration focused on reducing waste, increasing recycling rates and tackling litter and illegal dumping – Parker picked two women to lead the newly divided streets and sanitation departments. The mayor tapped Kristin Del Rossi as the streets commissioner and Crystal Jacobs Shipman as the sanitation commissioner, noting that Shipman will have a core mission of “ensuring trash is picked up, on time, across every neighborhood in the city.”

Esposito said that he’s hopeful the new commissioners will succeed, but he remains skeptical that Parker’s appointees will be able to move the needle anytime soon. 

“Before she was (recycling) director, she had no experience in recycling … And you appoint a sanitation commissioner who worked for the streets department as a PR person,” he said.

“I want to hear the mayor say, ‘Our recycling rate needs to be in the 30 percents and I’m holding my recycling director to that, and I’m holding this Clean and Green office to that,’” Esposito said. “Are you going to be able to do it with the personnel you’re putting out?”

Business to bank on

The track record of PHL TCB seems to indicate it can be a win-win for small businesses and commercial corridors, albeit with more of an emphasis on creating employment opportunities for residents than keeping Philadelphia’s neighborhood commercial corridors clean. 

Parker first created a hyperlocal version of the commercial corridor cleaning program in parts of Northeast and Northwest Philadelphia encompassed by her 9th Council District. The initiative expanded in 2020 with the goal of keeping some of the city’s neighborhood business corridors clean by employing cleaning ambassadors to collect litter. The launch also came with hopes to increase the department’s existing commercial corridors cleaning programs to 83 areas, up from 43.

According to the Commerce Department, where PHL TCB is based, workers collected more than 170,000 bags of trash in 2021. That number dropped to about 153,000 by 2022, equivalent to 12,750 dumpsters full of garbage (the city has claimed a reduction in trash collected indicates that keeping commercial corridors clean prevents litter from accumulating in the first place). 

As of 2022, 85 commercial corridors and about 200 employees were part of the program, covering just under one-third of the city’s commercial corridors. 

Corridors included in the cleaning program rank slightly better on the city’s litter index than areas without the initiative, according to data from the Commerce Department. 

Litter index rankings range from one to four, with one representing little to no litter and four representing litter that would require heavy machinery to remove. The average Taking Care of Business corridor earned a 2.0 litter index score, while the average score for areas not cleaned by the program was 2.3.

Trina Worrell Benjamin, whose company, TWB Cleaning Contractors, was part of the PHL TCB pilot program, said the initiative helped her small business tremendously.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          “TCB allowed me to grow my company and give job opportunities to the people that live in the communities in which we serve,” Benjamin told City & State, noting that her company went from about 28 employees serving a dozen corridors in 2020 to more than 45 employees now serving 25 corridors. “This gives (people) a chance at gainful employment so that they can feed their families.”

Without mentioning specifics, Benjamin said she has already placed bids for some of the corridors PHL TCB is seeking to expand to, adding that some of the neighborhoods “haven’t received services in decades.” 

Looking ahead, however, Benjamin recognizes the limitations of an abatement program like PHL TCB. 

“Some of the places that we service are more challenging than others,” Benjamin said. “A lot of times, especially around transportation (stations), you can clean up – but because there’s so much pedestrian traffic, it may get littered again really quickly.”

Teea Tynes, a resident of North Philly’s Fairhill neighborhood who helps lead Trash Academy and is part of her neighborhood advisory subcommittee, is adamant that “abatement is not working.” 

“It’s not just the potato chip bag or household waste. Yes, both things are a problem, but you have folks that are intentionally coming into certain neighborhoods dumping their waste,” Tynes told City & State. “It’s not sanitary and it’s not safe – something must be done besides maintenance.”

Systemic sanitation

With the large-scale littering and trash issues in mind, advocates want to hear more from the Parker administration about how the “clean and green” vision will come to fruition. 

“‘Clean and green’ sounds like something from 1995. It sounds stale,” Esposito said. “We’ve been trying to solve 21st-century problems with 20th-century tactics. We need to employ better technology data, new techniques and new ways of handling waste creatively.”

Parker has said that part of the Clean and Green cabinet’s mandate is to collaborate with stakeholders to develop a “comprehensive and data-driven action plan.” 

But more than a month into her term, the mayor and her team have provided scant details on just how the administration plans to tackle waste, recycling and litter. In addition to a lack of clearly articulated, concrete plans – aside from the broadly sketched-out and metric-free 100-day initiatives related to the Clean and Green cabinet – Parker has yet to provide any public-facing information on what to expect and when, although it would be surprising if she failed to do so when she delivers her budget address in March.    

“We’re being told this is like this deliberate, thoughtful, smart process. And it’s like, what’s going on?” Esposito said. “They’re moving at a glacial pace right now and if they keep this pace up, what’s going to get accomplished in four years?”