Mayor Edward Rendell

Philadelphia Partners with 6,500 Residential Blocks to Keep Neighborhoods Clean

Fifty-three years ago a first-of-its-kind program -- known as the "Clean-up, Paint-Up, Fix-Up" campaign -- initiated an urban environmental partnership between the City of Philadelphia and its residents. Today, it remains the most workable approach to fighting neighborhood litter and blight in Philadelphia.

Though the name has evolved to the "Clean Block Program," its goal and management has remained the same. The City and its 6,500 neighborhood block captains coordinate cleanups and beautification efforts, in 1999 alone cleaning up 10,800 blocks and removing 1,200 tons of litter and trash from residential streets. With more than 100,000 volunteers, this partnership has grown to become both one of the oldest and largest volunteer organizations of its kind in the country.

Program History

In 1938, Swedish immigrant and community activist Sigrid Craig began a one-woman crusade to clean up Philadelphia, one block at a time. Tired of hearing the word "Filthydelphia" applied to her adopted home, Mrs. Craig approached local government officials about initiating programs to clean up the community.

Initially, her unstructured and open call for cleanliness was met with disdain. However, Mrs. Craig was able to organize a small group of concerned citizens to champion her cause and join her in urging local government to develop a workable solution. In 1945, her call for change received attention and local government officials worked to develop an approach that would combat neighborhood deterioration at its smallest organized level: a City block.

The City program began by targeting a single person on each block who would assume the responsibility for organizing their neighbors to keep the block clean. The program was publicized by Ms. Craig and her group of volunteers through door-to-door solicitation, presentations at block meetings, and educational programs in schools. Once a block captain was identified, the program managers didn't have to worry about delivering a cleanliness message to the entire population of Philadelphia. These "Block Captains" served as their information conduits. Instead of using strangers or municipal employees, the Block Captain system meant that the program was being personally organized by a resident of the block who had a legitimate interest in the cleanliness of the block.

The selection of the Block Captain was not unilateral; rather, a certain prestige became associated with the title and the position of Block Captain. In some ways, it became akin to being the "mayor" of the block. So, to make the selection process democratic, nominees had to circulate a petition and get a simple majority of the households on the block to support their candidacy.

Establishment of Clean Block Program

This effort to organize blocks became known as the "Clean-Up, Paint-Up, Fix-Up" campaign. As the program expanded, a Police Sanitation Unit was formed in 1953-54 to offer guidance and support, as well as enforcement of the Litter Code. And, since an obvious and close relationship existed with the Sanitation Division of the Philadelphia Department of Streets, a unit was created there to focus on City neighborhoods. The program's efficiency was marked by Philadelphia's recognition as the "National Cleanest Town" for 12 consecutive years from 1947 to 1959.

In 1965, in conjunction with the national beautification movement espoused by the Johnson Administration, Mayor James H.J. Tate formalized this public/private partnership and renamed it the "Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee" (PMBC). He inducted Mrs. Craig as chairperson of the 75-member group he enrolled to oversee the program, and provided City Hall offices for its operation and a paid five-person staff. The Mayor said, "I look to this committee to develop the rhyme and reason to our tree and flower planting, the fencing of junk yards and the elimination, if necessary, of billboards if they blight our City. It is my sincere hope," he continued, "that this committee will awaken in the people of Philadelphia an attitude of pride in the beauty of this City."

In conjunction with its formalized relationship with the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee, the partnership between Mrs. Craig's group of volunteers and the municipal operating departments became known as the "Clean Block" program in 1966. More than 2,600 Block Captains signed on over the next three decades.

Program Structure

PMBC has continued to grow ever since it was established 34 years ago. It now boasts a paid municipal staff of 20 employees and is headquartered within the Streets Department's Sanitation Division. Support is provided by other municipal operating departments, youth groups, the Probation Department, the nonprofit Keep Philadelphia Beautiful and the private sector. The program goal remains the same as in Mrs. Craig's day: to educate and exhort citizens to clean, repair and beautify their own residential blocks.

New Block Captains continue to be recruited today through promotional brochures, organizational manuals, and other materials distributed by PMBC. Enrollment applications and petitions are available to any residential block through PMBC. Keep Philadelphia Beautiful, an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, Inc., also sponsored a television public service announcement for recruitment of Block Captains. Additionally, the City hosts beginning and end-of-season rallies to recognize Block Captains and reward their efforts. More than 6,500 Block Captains, representing 25 percent of all City blocks in Philadelphia, currently manage cleanup activities in their neighborhoods.

Block Captains are unpaid and do not receive funding from the City. All funding must be raised independently through private donations, events, or dues. However, through PMBC's 14 Clean Block Officers, each of whom has responsibility for recruitment and program delivery within a distinct geographic boundary, PMBC furnishes bags, brooms, shovels, rakes, guidance, signage, City services information, logistical support and incentives. Provided with this kind of City support, Block Captains and their groups of volunteers organize their own cleanup activities.

PMBC's Clean Block Program is community development at its smallest and, some would say, at its best. Although cleanliness is the common denominator for all Clean Blocks, and the issue that neighbors initially and easily rally around, most blocks effortlessly move on over time to tackle other issues. Many either organize or participate in townwatch patrols. Several operate after-school, day-care, tutoring and shut-in programs. Some organize food banks, play streets, safe houses, block parties or garden clubs. And most remove graffiti, plant trees, maintain exteriors of abandoned houses, and raise funds for the purchase of matching storm doors, flower boxes, security lighting and other amenities to improve the appearance of their blocks.

It is this multiplier effect that fuels the perpetuation of the program from year to year, administration to administration, generation to generation.

The major Citywide Clean Block Program activity is the seasonal Saturday Clean-Up campaign. On scheduled Saturdays from May through September, Block Captains within select police district boundaries are invited to organize and participate in three neighborhood cleanups. Additionally, through this Clean-Up campaign, each block receives an exclusive invitation to participate in Keep America Beautiful's Great American Cleanup. Through this program, they receive additional national recognition for their efforts and achievements.

It normally takes six Saturdays for PMBC to pick up collected litter from cleanup events in each of the City's 24 police districts. PMBC usually picks up trash from three or four districts each week. In addition to supplies, which are distributed in advance by the Clean Block Officers following a block's registration, the Sanitation Division offers same-day municipal trash-collection services; however, no bulk or household trash is collected as part of the Saturday Clean-Ups. As an added incentive and reward, from April through September several blocks each week are visited by representatives of municipal operating departments as part of the "Clean City Caravan," complete with police escort, costumed mascots, refreshments, literature and giveaways.


The annual budget for the Clean Block Program is approximately $1,200,000 (including the Saturday cleanup program), and its investment proves its value through dramatic results. In 1998, 100,000 volunteers cleaned 10,800 blocks and removed 1,200 tons of trash, as well as collecting 116 tons of tires. Most of the tires were collected through the Street Department's innovative "Tire Bounty" program, which carries the tagline: "Wanted: Tread or Aligned." Volunteer groups are paid a per-tire bounty for collecting and delivering illegally dumped tires to a pre-determined drop-off site manned by Sanitation Department personnel and compactors. In 1998, community groups received 50 cents per tire, and the City of Philadelphia paid out a total of $5,400 for collection of these tires. Only organized blocks, community groups, scout troops and other pre-screened entities may participate in this program, with the caveat that the funds be used only for pre-approved community-beautification activities.

Awards and Recognition

The highlight of the PMBC program year is the annual Clean Block Contest conducted in the fall. The contest is open to any block that has been organized for two years or more. Between 20 and 40 blocks enter each year.

Over the course of six days in September, 25 to 30 judges, who are community, government, and business leaders, are selected by PMBC to review all competing blocks and choose the winner. The judges make site visits to each block and talk to the Block Captain about the block's history and activities. Using a 100-point scale, judges rate each block for its organization, cleanliness, improvements and amenities. The block's "organization" rating, including elements such as monthly meetings, fundraising and participation levels, is actually more critical in the judges' scoring than the block's cleanliness, accounting for up to 50 points.

The winning blocks are announced at a gala Clean Block Banquet in October, where each participating block receives a corporately donated cash reward - ranging from the top prize of $1,000 to the minimum prize of $150 - that is used to expand or maintain block improvement initiatives.

The Clean Block Program is a true example of a partnership that promotes civic pride, public safety, and neighborhood empowerment among the thousands of volunteers working to keep their communities and the City of Philadelphia clean, safe, and beautiful for its residents.

For more information, please contact:

Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee

2601 Glenwood Avenue

Philadelphia, PA 19121

Phone: (215) 978-3981

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The United States Conference of Mayors

J. Thomas Cochran, Executive Director
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