Can we do something: The ‘S Curve’ has become the mess curve

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 27, 2004

Get close enough and you can almost read the temperature setting on the lonely oven.

Keep driving and your eyes dart toward a yellow cup accompanied by a two empty Bud Lights.

Continue east and you’ll find three or four free newspapers that have nearly recycled themselves into a pebbled parking lot.

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Then approach the bridge running over a canal. Plastic bottles, more beer cans and a blob of tissue paper escort you over a body of water that might as well serve as the city’s sewer main.

You’ve just completed a drive through the famed “S Curve” of Demopolis, where filth is almost as common as tight turns.

Rob Fleming and Woody Collins take in the turns — and the sights — every day.

“We’ve done so well with some areas around town, like the parks and the entrance to the city,” Fleming said Thursday. “It would be nice if we could get this area cleaned.”

Collins, in his succinct manner, has a better way of putting it.

“It drives me crazy,” he said. “And when the water comes up, the river looks terrible.”

Does it ever. Scattered along the banks of the canal that meanders under Jackson Street, belligerent white paper products and plastic soft drink bottles have invaded the shoreline.

“It’s something that’s been addressed before,” Mayor Austin Caldwell said. “But there’s not much we can do, especially in the water. We don’t have jurisdiction of that.”

For that matter, the city of Demopolis has no jurisdiction over any piece of land contained within the flood easement of the river.

Jeff Manuel, the city’s public safety director and interim police chief, can’t offer much more than a shrug of the shoulders.

“You can’t catch people who litter,” Manuel said. “They’re not going to throw out trash when a police officer is around.”

But there’s more to the problem than just speckled litter.

A stagnant fortress of concrete caskets has sat for so long that a fortress of dormant weeds surrounds it. An oven that greets passers-by every morning has not grown legs and walked to a dump in the near month it has been left by the road.

Junior Brooker, who runs the city’s street department, said his employees work hard to clean some of the larger items trashing the town’s streets. As for the lonely oven, Arrow Disposal is paid to clean “white goods” — or appliances — in the city.

“There are a bunch of things we’re really not supposed to do, but we try anyway,” Brooker said. “We’re not supposed to pick up tires, for instance, but there are times when we go ahead and do it.”

For Brooker, whose family has vested itself fully into the Demopolis community, the litter problem — and not just in the “S Curve” — serves as a hindrance to growth.

“I think we’re missing the boat on tourism and attracting people to our city,” he said.

And in this specific section of Jackson Street, Fleming admits the trash is a bit embarrassing.

“About 50 percent of my customers come from out-of-town,” he said. “It would be nice if they saw a clean town.”

The area in front of Fleming’s business would be considered anything but clean.

A few years ago, Collins saw — firsthand — the approach some citizens take to the area’s appearance.

“This family that rented a house next to our office chose to dispose of their garbage in the canal,” Collins recalled. “There were bags and bags of cans and trash that had been dumped into the water.”

Let there be clean

So why is the “S Curve” such a mess? Why, in the areas leading up to the winding road, can’t something be done to sweep up the filth?

The first problem may be figuring out who holds responsibility for the area. On private property, the issue is quite clear. City officials have the ability to issue citations, but fining someone for trash is next to impossible.

Amanda Smith, for instance, leads the city’s horticulture and beautification department. But nearly every morning, Smith can walk into her yard and find trash. She didn’t put it there, and the city could not fine her for litter.

As for the “S Curve,” Brooker said the area is zoned for light industrial buildings and he believes businesses in the area were grandfathered into the zone. In a light industrial zone, businesses are supposed to have privacy fences to shield stored products. However, businesses like Doric South were in existence before the zoning change and thus aren’t held to new zoning requirements.

In reality, cleaning the area around the “S Curve” is the responsibility of people who drive the area and decide to dump trash. And if businesses want to improve the appearance of that stretch, they must take it upon themselves.

As for the canal, that’s an entirely different boat — literally.

The Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction over the water, and according to David Stephens, the Corps holds an annual cleaning day along the river banks.

“We get volunteers to come out and help once a year,” Stephens said.

Unfortunately, that cleaning day is held in September. Until then? Hope for a flood.

“Sometimes, when we get a good flash flood, it will wash some of that trash away,” said Stephens, who has worked with the Corps for 25 years.

And during his those years of service, Stephens has come to the same conclusion as Manuel.

“In all my years, I’ve never given one ticket for littering,” Stephens said. “It’s too hard to catch people. And even when you think you see someone throw trash in the water, you’re so far away that you really can’t prove it.”

Brooker has a suggestion for that. Apparently, a city in North Carolina has cured its litter problem through the local police force.

“They write tickets up there,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve written a ticket for littering in 15 years here.”

Though Brooker couldn’t recall the name of the city, he said police officers are given two choices: Write littering tickets or clean up the litter.

The city of Demopolis — like others in the area — already has a shortage of police officers. Thus, it would be difficult to justify having uniformed officers holding plastic bags and sticks with nails on the end.

Brooker doesn’t place all responsibility on the police department, either. With some extra money in his budget, Brooker said he plans to purchase a Gator. The golf-cart-like vehicle will allow his department to reach out and pick up trash along the way.

But as for the water, Brooker’s Gator won’t swim and citizens are left to hope for a good flood.