Keeping It Clean: Mike Sandoval, Community Services Administrator, Chelsea DPW

By Scott Ruescher Storytelling Associate, TND

In the course of an ordinary weekday, Mike Sandoval, Community Services Administrator in the Department of Public Works in Chelsea, might do any number of things. His mobile office, a sparkling white pick-up truck bearing the city seal on the driver’s-side door, allows for lots of multi-tasking.

Mike Sandoval of the Chelsea DPW.

Driving from DPW headquarters on the other side of the Tobin underpasses from downtown Chelsea, Mike might deliver two-wheeled recycling and solid-waste barrels, stacked three barrels high in the bed of the truck, to houses (and apartment buildings with eight units or fewer) that terrace the slopes of Mount Bellingham, with views across nearby Logan International and the harbor to downtown Boston. Then, on the way back to the DPW to pick up more barrels for, say, homes on tonier Admirals Hill, on the bank of the Mystic River where the naval hospital used to stand, he might stop on the busy commercial stretch of Broadway and pull over to the curb to check on things.

Wherever he goes in this geographically enclosed barrio—bordered by the Mystic River, the Tobin Bridge, Mill River, and Chelsea Creek—he goes with the intent of keeping the common spaces of Chelsea as clean and presentable as can be, and with the knowledge that an individual sense of responsibility for that is at least as essential to the creation of a healthy community as any legislated rule might be. “I am blessed to meet a lot of people on this job,” he says, “and to spend a lot of my time encouraging people to help us meet our community standards.” It’s public education work at the grassroots—or maybe the sidewalk—level.

Stepping from the truck to walk his beat, he might call a colleague at headquarters to report a particularly deep pothole he came across back on Washington Avenue, a street that winds among the hills of Chelsea in the path of the pre-Columbian trails of the Winnisimmet tribe of Abenakis. While doing so—still talking on his cell phone—he might spot a tree branch fallen across the sidewalk and be in the process of kneeling to retrieve it when, lo and behold, an old acquaintance, a fellow native of Honduras—a beaming older compatriota from the Mosquito Coast on the Caribbean—breaks into a big smile, in his bright blue running suit, and waves hello from across the street. “¡Buen día, Miguel!”

On the way back to the truck, Mike might reflect on the educational role he plays in his daily rounds. “I spend a fair amount reminding people that we all have to pitch in and be proud of our city if we are going to keep Chelsea a clean community. They should be responsible for shoveling the snow from their walks and maintaining neat trash and recycling barrels—and not leave it to their neighbors to call us with complaints.”

In spite or because of the challenges of the job, Mike Sandoval is clearly proud of how far Chelsea has come in recent years, since the city administrators figured out how best to use the federal aid for infrastructure that was coming its way. “Chelsea is not a wealthy community”—it’s not Manchester-by-the-Sea or Marblehead, upper-middle-class towns farther up the North Shore of Boston—”but it’s all we’ve got, for so many people like myself who have stories about moving here to make a new life for themselves. We are all trying to make the best of it.”

His own story—“You’ve heard a million just like it,” he says—involves his departure from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, as a young man, a year-and-a-half stopover in New Orleans (complete with asbestos-removal and hotel dishwashing jobs), an invitation from a friend named Emilio to move to Boston, and a job loading airline food at Logan while crashing on the carpet of Emilio’s apartment above a storefront on Broadway. After that, he advanced to a traveling-troubleshooter job for IBM—until he was laid off in 2009 and landed this job with the Chelsea DPW. “Now I’ve got a mortgage and two grown children,” he says with a big grin. “And I have wonderful friends all over town. I am proud to be part of the movement—if you want to call it that.”

Still, he is a realist. He’s going to tell it like it is, the truth about a problem if he sees it, and not obscure or obfuscate. Like his grandfather back in Honduras used to say: No quiero tapar el sol con un dedo. I don’t want to block out the sun with my finger.

As he said to a lady who was shaking her head at the irresponsibility of careless litter bugs on Broadway one day, “No, mi amor, es la culpa del viento.” No, my dear, he was joking—it’s not any one person’s fault. It’s the wind’s fault that trash is here on the sidewalk.

“The sun is shining equally on all of us,” continues Mike, evoking the happiest of his community-loving spirits. No quiero tapar el sol con el dedo.

According to a 2021 survey of residents conducted by The Neighborhood Developers, Inc., the nonprofit Community Development Corporation that has been building affordable housing, as well as a sense of community, in Chelsea and the nearby towns of Everett and Revere for many years, litter and overflowing trash barrels in Chelsea, like public crime of more nefarious varieties, is less of a problem than it once was in Chelsea. The public education efforts of the Chelsea DPW, in cahoots with the public programming of another nonprofit, GreenRoots, Inc., have begun to pay off. The city seems to be getting cleaner and safer.

It can take longer than you’d think for Mike to get back to the truck. He might run across a bountiful crop of colillas—cigarette butts—on the sidewalk out front of a bar before he can get back there.

Several of the antique iron light poles on Broadway are equipped with Sidewalk Buttlers—blue metal boxes, attached at shoulder height, where a smoker can snuff out a smoke without creating a public nuisance—but some negligent souls, taking the easy route, have tossed their still-burning Newports and Marlboros to the ground. Without a second’s hesitation, Mike heads into the bar to chat up the barista and ask, in his mellifluous Spanish, for the name and number of the proprietor. Then, back on the sidewalk, he calls the owner of the bar on his cell phone to advise him to discourage that litter of colillas.

In addition to the Sidewalk Buttlers, there are two or three trash receptacles per block on each side of the street, each featuring a plastic insert inside a handsome cast-iron housing that itself costs the city a good $1000. This is where a smoker theoretically could toss the cigarette, after it’s been thoroughly doused in the dregs of a drink or a puddle in the gutter. But the smoker—a patron of the bar taking a break during halftime of a televised soccer match, or a bartender on a smoke break—in the time-honored tradition has flicked the butt onto the sidewalk while pivoting back toward the door and calling out to a friend driving by in the street. “¡Qué tal, Paco!”

“It’s a challenge to get people to change their habits,” says Mike in response to that automatic behavior.

Then he turns to his left and raises his eyebrows at the sight of a piece of office furniture, a care-worn Formica tabletop on a tall iron stem, left on the sidewalk right here on Broadway, Chelsea’s showcase street, with a handwritten FREE! sign on a piece of notebook paper. Holding the sign up with his left hand, and a crushed cookie box and discarded lottery ticket in his right, he smiles for the camera, then stoops to retrieve an avocado pit from the sidewalk, while launching a discourse on that plastic barrel insert and lamenting that it doesn’t fit the iron housing more snugly. “See what falls between the lip of the plastic barrel and the rim of the housing?” Indeed, a candy wrapper, a well-chewed wad of bubblegum, and the avocado skin separated from its pit in the making of guacamole have fallen through the gap between the lid of the barrel and the rim of the housing.

He lifts the barrel from its handsome but pricey housing and cleans up the mess at the base of the receptacle, all while enumerating the ways in which the bar’s proprietor might offer patrons a cleaner way of discarding their butts. Maybe he should put one of those freestanding outdoor ashtrays with the long necks out there, next to the huge flowerpot that must have cost the city a chunk of change as well.

And sometime in the midst of this he puts in a call to DPW headquarters to ask a couple guys from the crew to swing by and pick up the bar table.

The job can be messy, yes—but the rewards in social capital, for Mike and the people who know him, are worth the trouble.

Crossing the street from the bar to check on things over there, he stops to say hello to Elaine Mendez, a pastor who directs the Revival Chelsea Pantry food pantry on Broadway. Then he pivots to his right and greets the owner of BD’s Discount, one of many Arabic-speaking people on “The Near North Shore,” who’s in the process of supervising the delivery of some large pieces of furniture at the open back of a delivery truck. Back on this side of the street, he pops in to joke around with his sister Maricarmen, at the Zen Wireless cell phone repair store that’s owned by a Chinese immigrant family and staffed by women from Guatemala, Venezuela, and Colombia, as well as her own Honduras.

On the way out, he runs into a man who came to Chelsea from Colombia as a young man 15 years ago. The man says he used to shovel road salt for a living at Eastern Minerals down on Marginal Street, on the bank of Chelsea Creek, but had to quit because of skin rash he got from the chemicals in the salt, and then was laid off from his next job at a produce market in neighboring Everett when the owners realized the sight of his rash might drive customers away. Seeing how downhearted he is about his situation, Mike asks if he’s getting treatment for the rash—yes, he is—and wishes him the best.

And then, as if on cue, here comes another white DPW truck, pulling to a stop near the abandoned Formica tabletop. Out pop two friendly black-haired fellows in orange DPW safety vests to toss it—or gently place it, rather—into the bed of the truck. “He’s a good guy,” says the younger one of Mike, to the grinning affirmation of the older one.

Leaning against his own truck at last, in his DPW jacket, ballcap, chinos, and sneakers, near the El Dorado Café where he likes to have a cup of coffee and schmooze with the Colombian owners and their staff, Mike says, with the help of his expressive hands, “To change a community, you have to invest—money, yes, but love and care for your community too, and the willingness to make a personal contribution to it. Don’t throw your cigarette in the street if you want a cleaner city.” Invest in social capital, that is.

 “I was hired for this job because I can talk to people all day long without getting tired,” he continues. “And I can do it in English or in Spanish—in a city that is more than 75 percent Latino.” “It can be a challenge, but I love it.”

Now, in view of Katz Bagel Bakery—the last remaining bakery of its kind, in a city that attracted European Jews and many other international immigrants in the early 20th century— he turns the corner to pose for a picture against a mural and some sidewalk art that The Neighborhood Developers sponsored in an alley known as Division Street, only to run into Omar, a strapping and relaxed-looking man in his 30s or 40s, newly promoted to lieutenant in the Chelsea Fire Department, whose family came to Chelsea from Cuba in the 1960s.

Then he’s off to the DPW to pick up another load of two-wheeled barrels to deliver to some houses on Powder Horn Hill, up by the very old but still functioning Soldiers Home, the highest point in Chelsea, where you can see the islands of Boston Harbor in one direction and the hills of Revere and the North Shore coastline in the other. There’s a lady up there, probably from one of the old Italian American families who still comprise a significant portion of the population, who could use an extra recycling barrel and a solid-waste receptacle as well. She lives in the house she grew up in during the time of the first Latin-American immigration to Chelsea, just a few doors downhill from the ridgetop Soldiers Home grounds. She recycles everything, says Mike, and she has a tenant downstairs. 

There she is now—straightening things up in the tidy little herb-and-flower garden in front of her house, on a tolerably warm early spring day.

After two or three hours of this multi-tasking activity, what’s Mike Sandoval going to do for the rest of the day?

For starts, he needs to stop by Eden Street Park, a sweet little public oasis that connects Addison Street at one entrance to Blossom Street at another, to answer a complaint about vandalism. There he runs into two friendly fellows from Central American origins, including the husband of the woman who filed the complaint. They want to help him think about ways to keep the rowdy teens from tearing the place up.

“The city spent thousands of dollars to improve this park,” says Mike. The hub of the park is a small playground with a spongy rubber surface and a cluster of swing sets and slides. From both entrances meander elevated gardens on both sides of the walkway, with flower beds and ornamental fruit trees, bordered by stone ledges. Some broken glass from discarded soda bottles on the flagstones sparkles among the windblown litter, dangerously close to the slide in the playground, and most of the corner stones of the ledges have been yanked away and cast aside, some even thrown across fences into neighboring yards. “See what I mean?” says Mike. “We’ve got to do some education here.” The two neighbors, home from work at their own landscaping jobs, agree that a neighborhood watch group might be a good idea, although for now fixing the broken security cameras would help too.

After twenty minutes of chatting with the guys, Mike says it’s time to hop back in the sparkling white truck. “I have a meeting about recycling programs with the Chelsea school principals at 3pm.,” he says. But school has just let out, and kids are passing through park, taking a shortcut from Addison to Blossom Street. Knowing a teaching moment when he sees one, Mike takes the opportunity to encourage each group of kids passing through the park on the way home to close the gates firmly as they enter and depart—and to make sure not to litter those candy wrappers of theirs! “It’s a full-time job,” he says. “Pero no nos queda más.” There’s nothing else we can do but try to make things better.

Scott Ruescher is a Storytelling Associate with The Neighborhood Developers

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