Stephen Carb reflects on his years of service as a block captain


Philadelphia has the nickname of “Filthadelphia,” and Cedar Avenue block captain Stephen Carb, 60, understands why. While many blocks benefit from the oversight of a block captain to organize cleanups, not every block gets the attention it deserves.

According to its website, the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee (PMBC) works with block captains to organize block cleanups and provide them with cleaning supplies and guidance.

Carb has been a block captain for over 30 years, first in Graduate Hospital, and for the last 25 years in Cedar Park.

We sat down with Carb to ask him more about his career as a block captain.

What made you want to become a block captain?
I will liken it to the Greek [myth of] Atlas holding the world: [Atlas rids himself of the task] and [Hercules] tricks Atlas into taking it back. Before I moved here, I lived on Pemberton Street in Graduate Hospital. I had been there maybe two months before someone said, “You’re gonna be block captain!” because they sensed a young, enthusiastic chump [laughs]. So I was the block captain of that street, and, as soon as I got here, after maybe two or three months, someone else said, “You’re gonna be block captain!” So I said “Sure, okay.”

As I get older I wonder, who will I pass this “world” on to?

What are some of your duties as a block captain?
I’m no longer really affiliated with the City. They had me fill out a form I think in the summer or spring; they send me lots of information, but I don’t do block cleanups when they want block cleanups. They schedule, like, three or four a year; they’re never good times. I try to coordinate it when there’s actually dirt on the streets. That’s when the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee literally falls off the map. Like, their last cleanup might be in August. So I said, pretty much, just do it on my own.

At the time years ago there was a representative who I thought was really on point, and she would call me and she would deliver brooms, bags and gloves and all that kind of stuff. Since she left, another guy took it over, and we’ve had no communication whatsoever. I run out and buy the bags and try to get other people to do the same.

I’ve just been a maverick ever since.

Are the people who come out consistently mostly people who have lived here a long time?
It’s a pain in the butt to get people to actually participate. It’s usually the same 10 good souls who show up, and then a few random people on the block I can coerce. There’s some people where you’re wondering, “Why do you not ever join us? You’ve lived here for a hundred years too, but you want nothing to do with any of us.” I always find that odd.

The one thing I will say is that — though I’m happy to do it — there’s a vague bee in my bonnet because it’s essentially the City abdicating its responsibility. I don’t know how every other city works, but I used to live in New York, and I know damn well they clean the streets, like, twice a week, making all the people move their cars, and we don’t do that in Philly. And so they basically go “Hey! Block captains!” Which is great, I’m a block captain, but [points to the next block] they don’t have a block captain, [points to another block] they don’t have a block captain. So some streets just get filthier and filthier.

Stephen Carb has taken initiative to keep his neighborhood beautiful for over 30 years. Photo by Chris Baker Evens.

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Latest from #165 February 2023