JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – In October 2020, the downtown breezeway project was unveiled.
The space downtown prior to renovation was in desperate need of fixing up and turned out to be a $39,000 investment for the city, but it was an investment city leaders said the area needed.
Officials with the Johnson City Development Authority helped spice up the space with seating, greenery, murals, and other attributions that helped to transform the breezeway into a beautiful spot downtown, but lately, it’s been anything but.
Downtown business owners and residents told News Channel 11’s Kelly Grosfield that in recent weeks, the trash in the breezeway has become a consistent problem. On Monday, photos posted to social media showed just how much trash accumulates in the space.
While a large amount of trash did follow a weekend, those who work downtown said this is a regular occurrence no matter what day it is, and they’re looking for a solution.
Nikki Myers works downtown near the breezeway and said while the city does come out on weekday mornings to help clean, it’s time for the community to do its part. She wants to be a part of the solution and said forming a community watch group or clean-up crew wouldn’t be a bad idea.
“I think there’s a lot of pointing fingers, well it’s this business, it’s this group of people, it’s this demographic, trash is trash. I don’t care who that trash belonged to, let’s pick it up,” said Myers.
She said she’s worked downtown for years and in recent months, the trash problem has become a bigger problem. She said she has seen more groups gathering and more trash in close proximity to her workplace.
While Myers said she sees the city workers hard at work cleaning these spaces, she does believe it can get overwhelming and believes if people pitch in, it will make downtown better all around.
She said she would love to see all age groups participate in a volunteer cleanup, of course wearing the proper protective gear not only for COVID protocols but also regular safety measures.
Myers said at the end of the day, it’s everyone’s downtown and others who work in the area agree.
“I think that leaving your trash, in general, whatsoever, anywhere, is inconsiderate,” said Ashley Cavender.
Cavender said she loves downtown Johnson City. She told News Channel 11 that she attended ETSU and has stayed in the area since, witnessing tremendous growth downtown over the years, including the breezeway project.
She said the city did an awesome job on the project and it’s come a long way from what it used to look like, but she does agree the trash can be an issue at times, especially for surrounding businesses.
“When people, clients, come to these downtown areas and see all this trash, it does affect everyone,” said Cavender.
Phil Pindzola, the public works director for the City of Johnson City understands the toll the trash can be taking on area businesses. He said based on their observations, the city believes the trash problem can be attributed to an increase in the homeless using the space.
“That was not the intended use of that space so that has to change but in order for it to change, everybody needs to come together and decide how to provide the services so the business community can conduct business without being interrupted,” said Pindzola.
Pindzola said service providers and businesses should work together to come up with the best solution for serving this population but at the same time, not creating a litter problem in shared spaces downtown.
While overall it’s a combined effort to find a long-term solution to keeping the area clean, Pindzola said on their end, they are adding back Sunday cleaning services that were cut back on during COVID so crews can tend to the area seven days a week.
He also said as of Tuesday morning, they’ve added more trashcans in the breezeway.
Nik H Bang, an advocate for the un-housed community and owner of Projexx in Downtown said she believes the problem is a combination of everyone, not just one group, and to blame the homeless in her eyes is wrong.
Bang said she hasn’t really seen trash in that space in the times she’s passed it but she has seen a number of people utilizing the space which she said was its intended purpose.
However, after its first reveal, Bang said she was disappointed in some anti-homeless architecture that seemed to have been worked into the project which to her made it seem like the space was intended only for certain groups.
“There’s just a lot of pushing people out of certain places and as our community downtown gets gentrified, there are fewer places for people to take refuge,” said Bang.
Bang said the un-housed community seems like an easy target in terms of who to blame the trash on but she believes they could actually become a part of the solution.
“Get the un-housed folks involved in trash pick-up, give the un-housed folk something to do. I can’t tell you how many times people are begging to volunteer with me here, they really want to help,” said Bang.
She said the solution to problems downtown can be solved if city officials heed the advice of citizens and groups who regularly help and work with the homeless population, and the key is taking in all perspectives.
Victoria Hewlett, who volunteers with Tri-Cities Mutual Aid said they have resources that can help this specific population, but they aren’t the only ones.
“We have to look at systemic solutions, we have to get creative about it. There are a lot of resources in this community. How do we mobilize those resources to house these folks,” said Hewlett.
Currently, they have two programs weekly, including their food household and hygiene assistance program, but anyone in need can contact their hotline at 423-518-0445 and leave a voicemail.
Hewlett said they’ve been working mainly online due to COVID but they do return calls as soon as possible. You can also reach out online through their survey.