Flushing stinks. A potent sour, fishy, and greasy stench lingers in the air, which residents and visitors say is unique to Flushing.
The problem is most acute along Flushing’s Main Street, between 41st and Sanford avenues, according to Marilyn Bitterman, district manager of Community Board 7. There are at least two supermarkets, a couple of grocery shops, and a dozen eateries on the short 750-feet stretch.
“Flushing soup” is what some residents call this yellowish, gooey accumulation in potholes, resembling bowls of broth on the streets. Pedestrians avoid them like the plague. But when the streets get crowded, as they always do, there’s no hiding.
Residents blame the supermarket and restaurant owners for disposing their garbage improperly and possibly breaking the law.
All liquid should be filtered through a “grease interceptor,” where wastewater flows down the sewers, while oil and grease are separated, collected and recycled by a private contractor that comes once a week, said Fon Mooi Chin, owner of Malay restaurant.
The eatery changes its $1,100 interceptor every five years, and its filter every two years, according to Chin.
To avoid having to service the interceptors, some restaurants simply stop using them. But discharging grease directly into city sewers violates Sewer Use Regulations, which carries a fine of up to $10,000.
Department of Environmental Protection figures show that from 2008 to 2011, approximately 400 notices of violation for the maintenance of grease interceptors were issued every year citywide.
Restaurant owners have found a workaround: just pour everything into a refuse bag and leave it on the street with the rest of the trash.
“While the garbage bags sit on the sidewalks waiting for collection, the greasy liquid seeps out onto the streets,” said Weiguo Xu, 60. “Now, even if the rubbish is cleared away, there are still stains and foul-smelling slush accumulated in the potholes.”
Many garbage bags are also not tied properly, or are broken, and their contents spill.
“The Department of Sanitation can only issue a summons if the restaurant helpers are caught red-handed throwing out garbage with oil and grease,” said Dian Yu, executive director of Flushing Business Improvement District.
But restaurant workers deny responsibility, instead implicating everyone else.
“It’s the problem with the city’s design. We don’t have a back alley or a proper rubbish disposal point to throw our garbage, so we can only dump them out at the front, onto the main street,” said a kitchen helper who declined to be named without her employer’s permission. “Also, sometimes the bags burst open when the garbage trucks compress them, and the liquid leaks out.”
Even those who steer clear cannot avoid the powerful sour stench that penetrates the air, especially during summer because the heat speeds up the rotting of food.
The problem is so dreadful that some, like Simon Zhuang, have escaped to neighboring communities like Bayside. “The living conditions in Flushing are worse than in mainland China,” he said.
In addition to the odor, there’s also a safety hazard: the greasy sidewalks are slippery and hard to walk on, said Eugene Kelty, chairperson of Queens Community Board 7.
Bitterman said the situation has improved since the Flushing Business Improvement District, a nonprofit, was put in charge of “power-washing” the streets with strong jets of water. Since June, the organization has spent two to three hours every Wednesday and Saturday morning cleaning one or two streets each time, said Yu. The project costs $7,000 to $10,000 per year, and is borne by the organization.
Some frustrated residents call this a “Chinese phenomenon.” The latest 2010 Census shows that almost half of Flushing’s population is Chinese.
“Some of my Chinese friends ask me why America is so dirty. I told them, it’s the Chinese who dirtied the place,” said Xu, who hails from Jiangsu, China, herself.
But Yale University’s Professor Deborah Davis, who studies contemporary Chinese society, disagrees.
“Singapore is a (ethnically) Chinese city too, but it’s very clean,” she said.
Yu said his organization is doing its best cleaning the streets, but can only do so much. “The onus is ultimately on the merchants to participate in keeping Flushing clean,” he said.