Cleaning Up Detroit with the Department of Public Works

mechanical grappler unfolds from Marcus Lusk's waste truck like a robotic arm with steel claws. Lusk, an employee of the city's department of public works' illegal dump-site cleanup crew, is on his first pickup of the day-an abandoned pile of liquor bottles, wood scraps and kitchen sink in front of a home on Detroit's northwest side.

In an echoing crunch, Lusk steers the grappler to scrape up the trash, unintentionally taking chunks of the lawn with the load. Stepping down to assess the damage, he grins.

"Well, at least they don't have to worry about cutting the lawn."

The crew was created after the privatization of garbage pickup. But illegal dumping has always been a major problem in Detroit-and one of the leading contributors to blight. In most cases, Lusk says, construction materials and old auto parts are dumped on the streets or homeowners have personal garbage accumulated in their front yards. In other cases, Lusk says, the conditions for dumping are harder to explain.

"We find dogs all the time. Cats all the time. Squirrels. Deer," he says. Even the occasional wild animal. "Yeah, a baby tiger over in the southwest Detroit area. Somebody had apparently dumped it. About as big as a half-grown dog."


Even the element of surprise becomes routine after a while, says Lusk, who's worked for the department about 20 years.

"We might find anything. You might find somebody." And about two years ago, they did. "They were picking up tires illegally dumped and they ran across a dead body." A missing girl. "She was laying there, face down amongst the tires."

He adds, "We've seen a lot of negative stuff."

However, he sees first-hand that the city is improving. And the Detroit native plans to stay.

"It took a lot of time to get in this situation, and it's going take a lot of time to get back," he says. "I'm not leaving. I'm gonna stay until the walls fall in, which I don't think is going to happen."

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