Special Reports

Cleaning up the streets

Many in State College are bracing for State Patty's Day on Saturday, perhaps none more than the men who have to clean up the resulting downtown mess.

On weekends from 4 a.m. to noon and on weekdays from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., Kevin Runkle, Bob Hubler and Denny Barnhart patrol the sidewalks for cigarette butts, beer bottles, food and other trash. They start at a public works shed on McAllister Street, make their way west and then back east.

Home football weekends and State Patty’s Day produce the biggest messes, they say.

“State Patty’s will be a real show,” said Runkle, who is tall with a long, gray beard. “Take the mess during a normal weekend and multiply that by 10.”

Because of excessive drinking, the unofficial holiday has been a source of trouble for both Penn State and State College since it began four years ago. This year, after pressure from the community, university and police, bars agreed not to open early or serve green beer in the hope of increasing safety and decreasing the mess.

While the cleanup crew expects a busy weekend, they say things on the whole have improved since they started almost six years ago.

“On weekends, it used to take us the majority of the eight hours to clean up,” Runkle said. “Now we get most of it done in about four.”

“It’s gotten a lot better,” agreed Hubler, who retired about a year and a half ago but returned because of the struggling economy.

Last Saturday, Runkle and Hubler headed out into a cold and dark but relatively calm morning, thanks to the large student involvement in the IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon being held at the time.

Typically, two crew members work, splitting up to cover more ground. Each hauls a large, plastic garbage can on wheels and carries a sweeper and a picker, which is mostly used to snare cigarette butts, the most common form of trash.

“You could spend a whole day picking up butts,” Runkle said as he put one in his garbage can. “I just try to make a dent.”

In 2008, most downtown bars and restaurants banned smoking indoors, so patrons have to go outside to smoke. There they often disregard receptacles, knock them over or move them.

“This job isn’t for everyone,” Runkle said. “Some things we run into aren’t pleasant.”

One of those things is vomit, a fairly common occurrence. On this quiet morning, within the first two hours of their shift, Hubler encountered it in six places and Runkle in three.

“I usually carry a bottle of water with me to clean that up, but if there’s snow on the ground I’ll use that instead,” Runkle said.

Hubler said he once found vomit completely covering the main door of McLanahan’s on South Allen Street.

Some of their other unsavory discoveries have included human feces.

“Generally I just laugh at everything,” Runkle said. “It’s a mindset.”

Hubler said it can take up to 45 minutes to clean up around a Dumpster.

“People will try to throw a trash bag in there and miss, so the bag rips and everything falls out on the ground,” he said. “Then they just leave the mess.”

Certain places inspire certain stories. As Runkle made his way to a parking lot on Garner Street, he recalled the time they found it covered in broken glass.

“Must have been some kind of beer bottle fight,” he said. “Took a while to clean that up.”

They also frequently find valuable items, such as licenses, ID cards and wallets, which they bring to the police station or to the Downtown State College Improvement District office at 127 S. Fraser St.

The district was established in 2002 to maintain an attractive, clean and safe downtown. Because of the demands of the cleanup job, the district went through several people before finding its current crew.

The men are responsible for the area bounded by Atherton and Sowers streets and College and Highland avenues, although they occasionally get rid of some of the mess from areas not in their zone.

“During the fall, sometimes Penn State won’t clean up the leaves on their side of College Avenue, and they’ll blow over here after we’ve already cleaned ours up,” Runkle said with a laugh.

Other tasks include removing graffiti, shoveling snow, cleaning storm drains and hanging the approximately 80 banners as well as holiday decorations.

Despite some of the unpleasantness, they maintain a positive outlook about the college students after whom they clean up.

“Generally, they’re good kids, and they’re just having fun,” Runkle said. “I was a kid once, so I know what it’s like.”

Hubler agreed. “They’ll say ‘good morning’ to you, and sometimes they’ll even start helping us out.”

“My outlook is that if they were good all the time,” Runkle said, “I wouldn’t have a job.”

Amanda Sokolski is a Penn State journalism student.

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