November 18, 2018

Trashcan warrior wages a street fight with garbage

When it comes to civic activism, ordinary citizens can make a big difference: They just need patience, perseverance and, in one case, the willingness to deal with some garbage. Just ask Boaz Hepner, who has been on a lengthy campaign to punctuate Pico with trash receptacles.

In 2008, if you found yourself strolling down Pico Boulevard between Roxbury Drive and La Cienega Boulevard, you might walk for blocks before you found a garbage can. Consequently, the streets and gutters were full of trash. Today, the same area boasts more than 80 trashcans, and there is less litter, thanks to Hepner, a religiously observant Jew who lives and walks a lot in the neighborhood.

“Trash creates trash,” Hepner said in an interview with the Journal at the Starbucks at Pico and Robertson Boulevard, viewing distance from one of the garbage receptacles under discussion. “If people see [trash] there [on the street], they’ll be more comfortable with littering. If you walk into a nice place and you drop something, you’ll want to pick it up.”

By 2009, Hepner, an L.A. native who is a registered nurse at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, had called City Hall to ask for more cans on Pico. His request was shuttled back and forth for weeks without resolution. One city employee leveled with him: There was no way the city would approve his request because of the lack of available personnel to empty them. But Hepner was not discouraged. 

“I like to complete things and fix things. I see there are no trash cans there; I see it’s ridiculous,” he said. “This is a big neighborhood and we’re affluent. How could it be that we have nothing? The more I got into the thick of it, the more I got swept into the “Alice in Wonderland” quality of bureaucracy. It became a passion project.”

Hepner encouraged local businesses to sign up for the city’s Adopt-a-Basket program, which requires merchants to provide trashcan liners and to empty cans when they are full. During a Pico-Robertson cleanup he organized in 2009, volunteers pitched local businesses to adopt trashcans; about 20 businesses agreed. For several months after that, Hepner raised the number to more than 80. 

This was Hepner’s own solution — even the paperwork was homegrown, printed and copied by his friend Noah Bleich, a local entrepreneur.

“I had been told the city would not do it and did not have it within their budget, so this was the only way to get the city to help, getting them to give me the Adopt-a-Baskets for anyone who signed the paperwork.” 

Coverage in the Journal brought Hepner’s quest to the attention of City Councilman Paul Koretz, whose involvement led to a high-profile piece in the Los Angeles Times. City officials finally notified Hepner that they would add trash receptacles but only if local businesses continued to empty them.

In May 2015, Koretz’s office emailed Hepner, saying there was finally budget money for 50 new trash cans. John Darnell, district director at Koretz’s office, asked Hepner — as the resident trashcan expert — to decide where they should go. Over a few days, Hepner walked from La Cienega to Roxbury on Pico and from Whitworth Drive to Cashio Street on Robertson, identifying 50 ideal spots, along with 15 runners-up. 

In time, he found that business management changes can pose problems. Two years ago, he said, a Starbucks — one of the first Adopt-a-Basket locations — had a green metal wire can, indicating that it was one maintained by the business. After new management failed to empty it properly, the location got “a hooded can that looks like Darth Vader; that’s the one city takes care of,” Hepner said. A few white and metal cans on Pico pre-date Hepner’s efforts, but most receptacles are either the green metal wire ones or the “Darth Vaders.” 

Hepner was told that the new cans would be put in place within a few months; only a year later did 19 of them appear, but in the wrong spots. More emails ensued. “The bureaucracy could be infuriating,” he said. The remaining cans were put out in August 2016. 

Today, there are 33 Adopt-a-Baskets, a dwindling number that Hepner attributes to business management transitions, a lack of interest in emptying them, theft or car accidents. Among the businesses still maintaining them privately are Nagila, Jeff’s Sausages, B’nai David-Judea Congregation and Bibi’s Bakery. Twenty businesses have been tending cans for six years. 

Hepner has become so much associated with this project that friends congratulate him on new cans and come to him with trash-related issues. Once, he was recognized while donating blood at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “I don’t get paid,” he said. “So it’s nice to get something out of it even if it’s only a pat on the back.” 

But there is still work to be done, he said, citing Hebrew and Farsi newspapers, as well as copies of the Journal, left out in front of local markets that litter streets and clog gutters. Hepner has tried to persuade the business owners to bring newspaper stacks inside their stores, “but most shooed me off.” 

Despite the work that remains, Hepner sees that his efforts have made “a huge difference.” 

“Trash had nowhere to go, and now it does,” he said. 

To see real change, he said, local citizens and businesses will have to help to create a more beautiful — or at least, cleaner — Pico Boulevard. “I would love to have recycling but have been told that we can’t do it right now,” he said. “Anyone who is reading this and knows how to get this moving is welcome to do so.”