Thar She Blows!

Some homeowners in Miami are getting the shocks of their lives: toilets that erupt with sewage shooting two feet in the air--with all the unpleasantness you might imagine.
November 2003
By Otis White  |  Contributor
President of Civic Strategies Inc.

Some homeowners in Miami are getting the shocks of their lives: toilets that erupt with sewage shooting two feet in the air--with all the unpleasantness you might imagine. "The sewage wet everything, and it stunk to high heaven," said one woman, who was awakened by a geyser in her bathroom. She looked outside and spotted the culprit: a county crew cleaning out a sewer line with high-pressure hoses. This isn't a one-time problem. "It's like Russian roulette," said a water and sewer department official. "We don't know when, where or why. It just happens." As crews clean the pipes so they can run a camera along them checking for leaks, the high-pressure spray clears out rocks and other sediment. But if there's a blockage in a nearby residential pipe, it can deliver a most unwelcome surprise to homeowners. "The sewage drains by gravity, because the pipes are at an angle," says the manufacturer of the high-pressure equipment. "If sewage is settled, when the water hose comes by it, it'll force the stuff back up in the house." The county doesn't know how often this happens because most homeowners assume the problem is with their plumbing and end up replacing perfectly good pipes, rather than complaining to the government. Even so, the county paid $7,500 last year in clean-up costs to residents who figured out the real source of their problems and raised a stink about it.


Exploding toilets aren't disrupting people's dreams in San Francisco. Unfortunately, in fact, some citizens are even getting a good night's sleep on the regional transit system, BART. Although it's not illegal to sleep on a train, it becomes a problem after midnight, when the system shuts down. Nearly every evening, dozens of passengers sleep past their stations and end up at the last stop on the system, in distant places such as Bay Point, Dublin, Fremont and Millbrae, with no way to get home. When the train reaches the last station, a BART transit officer walks through the cars, waking up people. At Bay Point, riders can call a friend, catch a cab (fare to Oakland: $60) or huddle outside the station and wait until 6 a.m., when the system starts up again. There are no late-night buses, or even a convenience store, at cold and windy Bay Point. Most who wake up there are a little tipsy, embarrassed and confused. "The best ones," said a transit officer, "are the guys who fall asleep and then tell us, 'The train never went to my station.' Well, it didn't go around it."


Here's an easy question: Who owns the sidewalk in front of your house? If you say the city owns it, it's clear you don't live in Cleveland. There, property owners are responsible for the sidewalks, and when the city repairs them, it sends the owners a bill. Not surprisingly, many residents are not pleased about this arrangement. Nick Biel, who recently got a bill for $960 for repairs, says, "Everybody thought the sidewalks and curbs were the city's [responsibility], because that's what we pay taxes for," he said. That attitude is so widespread that the city is, by stages, doing just what Biel wants: taking responsibility for the sidewalks. Since the 1970s, the city has set aside money to pay for some of the repairs. Today, the government pays roughly half the cost. This is so important to city council members, who get an earful from constituents when sidewalk bills are sent out, that they threatened recently to vote down Mayor Jane Campbell's proposed $27.4 million bond issue because it didn't have any money for sidewalk repairs. The mayor got the message: There's now $2.1 million for sidewalks in the bond issue.


Beverly Hills, the chic suburb of Los Angeles, has hired a marketing director to help revive its sputtering tourism and retail industry. But some of Michael Kent's radical ideas have business owners there in a tizzy: He wants to offer (gasp!) discount coupons that visitors can use in stores, restaurants and hotels. Kent sees it as a way of introducing tourists to the swanky little city. "Like any good brand," he says, "[Beverly Hills] needs to stay current, adapt and be reinforced among new people." One member of the business group that hired Kent pointed to West Hollywood's success in positioning itself as a nightclub district. "With great marketing, West Hollywood became the Left Bank of L.A.--very hip, very fun," he said. But others are appalled by the idea of discounts. "It's making it like a mall, all these marketing projects," said the manager of a tony clothing store. "It's tacky. It's like getting a free Coke with your fries." Why does Beverly Hills suddenly feel the need to market itself? Because until recently, it got a free ride on the image train, thanks to Hollywood. Starting in the 1960s ("The Beverly Hillbillies)," continuing through the 1980s ("Beverly Hills Cop") and 1990s ("Beverly Hills 90210)," the city has been portrayed as ground zero of the rich, the beautiful and the tanned. Alas, the ride is over. "Beverly Hills 90210" was cancelled in 2000, and the city has been suffering in the economic downturn.