For five years Kristen O’Connor listened to a cascade of glass as she lay awake in her North End apartment all hours of the night.
“It was terrible,” she said.
O’Connor is not alone.
Many residents of Boston’s North End are tired of being woken up by the nightly parade of garbage trucks and are demanding that trash collection be regulated. State and city officials held a hearing earlier this fall about an “emergency law” that would give the city of Boston the right to control commercial trash pickup. Because officials currently lack the authority to regulate private garbage collection companies, they have asked the state Legislature to pass a law giving them that authority.
Businesses in the North End hire private companies to collect their trash, but the new law would give the government authority over these companies, which currently come anytime between midnight and 6 a.m.
With restaurants crammed up and down the narrow streets of the North End and a population density of more than double that of Boston as a whole, according to City-Data.com, businesses are running out of room and residents are running out of patience.
O’Connor, 37, used to live above Polcari’s Coffee on the corner of Parmenter and Salem streets, and said it was especially difficult for her to sleep once she was home from her night shift as a registered nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital. O’Connor thinks the city should have the right to control when trash is collected, and would like to see it limited to the early morning, since any later would clog the streets of the North End and complicate the morning commute.
“I think that’s a good idea because there are so many restaurants,” said O’Connor, now a resident of Jamaica Plain. “I used to hear all the bottles.”
Boston and Cambridge attracted 20.4 million tourists last year, according to the Greater Boston Visitors and Convention Bureau. No doubt many of them couldn’t resist a trip to the North End for some authentic Italian cuisine. The cobblestone streets are lined with eatery after eatery, which produce different and louder trash than a residential neighborhood.
According to the state’s Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, there are currently 1,971 privately owned food services and drinking places listed in Boston, a number that has been steadily climbing in recent years.
About 80 of these restaurants are located in Boston’s North End, said Jim Becker, a guide at Boston Food Tours, who works in the waterfront community six days a week leading tourists on a sampling of the food the Italian district has to offer. Becker said the number of restaurants has increased annually, and that there isn’t much room left.
“There’s only a certain number of available places,” Becker said. “I don’t think I’d like to see it grow. It’s pretty much at capacity right now.”
Blake Webber is the legislative aide to North End Representative Aaron Michlewitz, who supports the proposal to regulate trash collection in the restaurant-packed neighborhood. Webber said the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health has until March to decide whether the law will be enacted. He said some officials want trash picked up at night, while others want it to happen during the day.
“Just because it’s during the day doesn’t mean it’s the height of the day,” Webber said. “Specifically in the North End, residential pickup is around 8 or 8:30 in the morning. Commercial pickup could be an hour or two earlier.”
Carol Russo, who has lived in the North End for 69 years, thinks this would be a great idea. Russo specifically hates the “backing-up noise” of the garbage trucks, and although she has become used to it, she is worried that she will lose tenants because of the constant noise.
“I have tenants that have to go to work the next day,” Russo said.
Russo said the problem stems from the fact that the neighborhood is overwhelmed by restaurants.
“We go through holy hell here,” she said.
Russo said many of the restaurant owners don’t live in the North End. “They don’t know what we go through during the night,” she said.
Bob Eustace is the owner of Polcari’s Coffee, which looks much the same as it did in 1932. Eustace took over the business when his good friend and mentor, Ralph Polcari, passed away.
Polcari’s is an authentic Italian shop, offering a wide array of spices, coffee beans and tea, stacked in jars from floor to ceiling. Polcari’s is one of the closest things to a grocery store in the North End and is frequented by locals who say they are treated like family.
Eustace does not live in the North End, but said he will get behind any initiative that will please those who do.
“As a merchant I want to make the residents happy because they contribute to my success and my livelihood,” he said.
But Eustace is affected by a separate initiative regarding trash in the community. City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, who serves as the chair of the Committee on City, Neighborhood Services and Veterans Affairs, wrote a letter to residents and store owners encouraging them to put their trash out in metal or plastic barrels, not just bags, to keep rats away. Though restaurants are already required to use covered trash barrels, LaMattina co-sponsored a public hearing in October to determine if using bags alone should be banned for residents and other businesses as well.
Eustace said this wouldn’t be too much trouble for him. “If it would be good for the community I wouldn’t mind,” he said. “I have a barrel. I guess I could bring it out and take it in, as long as it doesn’t get stolen.”
Though he is fine with it, Eustace said the proposal might receive opposition from bigger businesses or large apartment complexes.
“For me being a small, small, small business, I don’t generate the trash,” he said. But he is worried that places that do create more waste might not have room to store enough barrels.
Eustace said the challenge is there is no place to put the barrels when they are not on the street. “Over here we just don’t have the real estate,” he said.
Bill Lane, a member of the North End/Waterfront Neighborhood Council, agreed that there is no room for trash cans.
“As in Beacon Hill, there’s no place to store the barrels,” he said. Lane lives in a six floor apartment complex with a communal dumpster, but admits that this is rare in the North End. Lane said most landlords even rent out the basements of their buildings, leaving them with no place to store garbage cans.
But Lane said these barrels are needed to stop rodents from ripping through trash bags and leaving garbage along the streets. Smaller pieces of garbage often get overlooked by trash collectors he said, which only attracts more pests.
“They pick up mass trash, but they will not pick up small messes strewn by rodents,” he said.
Lane said Councilor LaMattina proposed another way to stop rodents, which would ban residents from putting trash on the streets before 5 a.m. the day of pickup. But Lane said the proposal was dropped because it was so unpopular. “People did not want to wake up early,” he said.
Lane is not as disturbed by trash collection as he was in the past. He said he used to be woken up by the loud noise of the mechanical arm of a garbage truck that empties barrels into the back of the truck, but that things have changed.
“I have a hunch that hauling companies are trying to be more sympathetic and getting quieter mechanisms,” he said.
Gloria Romano has lived in the North End for 73 years and said she is often disturbed by the noise of the trucks. She said the problem is that the restaurants each hire a private company to collect trash, unlike in residential neighborhoods where garbage collection is the responsibility of the local government.
“What they should do is have one company pick up trash in the North End,” she said.
Romano said that sleep is impossible seven nights a week since trash is collected every night.
“Even if they picked it up by midnight, at least you could sleep through the night,” she said.
But most restaurants have license to operate until 2 a.m., making midnight pickup unlikely.
Romano said ideally, she would like to see garbage collected at 6:30 or 7 a.m. since any later would worsen traffic and would only create more noise, with drivers honking to get around trucks.
Kristen O’Connor, the Mass. General nurse, said she experienced the good and the bad of the North End while she lived there. Despite many sleepless nights, she said the key to being a happy resident of the waterfront community is to embrace what makes the area special instead of complaining so often.
O’Connor said it is easy to find things to complain about, such as a lack of grocery stores in the North End, but that residents have to find a way to focus on the positive aspects of the community.
“This is a unique neighborhood with restaurants, tourists, foot traffic,” she said. “It’s charming if you don’t have a car and you embrace what the neighborhood has to offer. You really have to love the history.”
This article was reported and written by under the supervision of Journalism Professor Dan Kennedy, as part of a collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern University.