Cities overrun with garbage and pollution are not only found in the far-off third world countries we see on television and in movies. The dirty, sad-looking places we like to think are on the other side of the planet and are therefore irrelevant in our day-to-day lives are actually not too far from home. There are plenty of American cities that are surprisingly disgusting, and I am not just talking about one or two of them. There are enough to fill this list of 15, and I did not even have to look that hard.
Just beyond your own doorstep is a world of people in need, often living in squalor and struggling to get by every day. There are people whose laziness grossly contributes to the appalling, trash-filled streets, parking lots, and neighborhoods, people who treat our planet as if it is replaceable, which is altogether untrue. Another way man destroys cities is by air and water pollution.
Why people allow their cities to sink to the level of outrageous uncleanliness that is required for this list will never be understood to me. I did not realize how gross some American cities truly are until one day in a new city for the first time, I found myself looking around and having the honest-to-God thought that this place, just two hours from my own city, was more repugnant to me than some of the dirtiest cities on the planet, many of which I have visited or even lived in. At that moment, had I not been aware of my location, I would not have been able to distinguish my surroundings from one of the poorer, dirtier cities on the other side of the world, the so-called “third world”.
Following are 15 American cities that are every bit as gross as those of the third world countries that many Americans think they have nothing in common with.
15. Camden, New Jersey
There are a lot of great things about the city of Camden, New Jersey. It sits on the Delaware River just across the water from Philadelphia, one of our country’s founding cities. It has a huge aquarium and lots of activities and events that take place on the waterfront. But Camden also has a darker side. It was ranked the most dangerous city in America in 2012, and the previous year the murder rate was 10 times that of New York City, which is morbidly impressive. Camden is made up at least in part of crumbling residential buildings inhabited by drug dealers and pimps. More and more crack houses have sprung up in the area, which is also dotted with boarded-up factories and empty houses. It has been said by one resident in an interview that “there is no real policing in Camden; they’re just there to pick up the bodies.” A testament to all of this is that the city’s population has decreased by 40 percent in recent years. This is definitely worse than economically-deprived and dirty third world countries, because at least there, the violent crime is nowhere near as high.
14. Cleveland, Ohio
On the shores of Lake Erie lies Cleveland, Ohio, the state’s biggest city in terms of population. And naturally, when there are more people, there is more pollution and litter. Cleveland is a great example of a gross city; just look at this photo, one of the many that illustrate its sad state. If you are a sports enthusiast, it would be a great place to visit or live, but otherwise the few perks Cleveland has to offer do not make the toxic emissions, poor air and water quality, and the garbage of two million people worth it. East Cleveland is especially known for being litter-ridden, and quite unsafe. Plus, there is the air and water pollution as a result of Cleveland’s rather large manufacturing industry. According to the EPA, the city’s biggest culprit of this is the ArcelorMittal plant.
13. Detroit, Michigan
This one should really come as no surprise. The city of Detroit, Michigan is so awful that it even has a Wikipedia page dedicated to its demise, called the “Decline of Detroit”. It is in a total state of urban decay from a massive economic decline, which led many people to move elsewhere. Poverty and crime are rampant in the city. Basically, it is not a great place to be. Described as a ghost town by many, Detroit is full of abandoned properties and lots. In fact, there are at least 70,000 abandoned buildings, 31,000 abandoned houses, and 90,000 empty lots. With that much of the city not being taken care of, it is no wonder that it looks the way it does. It has consistently ranked high on lists of arson and murder capitals of America, and is the first place that comes to mind for most Americans when they think of the last place they would ever want to live in their country- a third world country would likely be better.
12. Bakersfield, California
Bakersfield, California lies in the Central Valley, which is known for its oil, oil, oil. There are oil fields galore, and even oil museums. And as we know, there are few things dirtier than the thick, black, slimy oil that is responsible for so much pollution around the globe. So it makes sense, then, that oil emissions and gas processing contribute greatly to Bakersfield’s pollution problem. But even without oil and gas, the city is in trouble based on its geography alone; since it is in a low-lying valley, pollution from some of the nation’s biggest cities on the coast are blown in and trapped there, making Bakersfield’s air pollution the worst based on particle pollution in the U.S. In fact, this photo may as well have been taken in Beijing, which is infamous for its poor air quality.
11. Baltimore, Maryland
It was while driving through Baltimore, Maryland one day last fall that I realized just how gross America can be. While there are, of course, aesthetically pleasing places in most cities, Baltimore included, the outskirts of downtown were just trashed beyond belief. Piles of garbage lined the streets, were stuck in the sidewalk cracks, and bordered the buildings. Many of the row house neighborhoods were full of abandoned and repossessed homes, and there were several areas that looked like a war zone with windows blown out of buildings. Some were halfway demolished. It truly reminded me of the year I lived in a small city in China, when I constantly likened my surroundings to a “bombed-out warzone”, which is how I would describe it to family and friends. Consistently ranked among the dirtiest cities in the country, Baltimore suffers from the issues of smog, litter, and apparently, rats.
10. Birmingham, Alabama
In some areas of Birmingham, Alabama, especially neighborhoods in the north of the city, there are deadly levels of industrial pollution, similar to what is reported in some Asian cities. The neighborhoods of Collegeville, Fairmont, and Harriman Park are surrounded by industry, and thus they are the unwilling recipients of raining chemicals and soot. Because these are some of the lowest-income residents of the city, many people have been unable to leave despite wanting to and trying to for decades. An award-winning documentary called Toxic City: Birmingham’s Dirty Secret was produced in 2014 by a non-profit organization called Gasp. Alabama has the fifth worst air quality in the nation, and the documentary aimed to shed light on the area’s air pollution problems.
9. Flint, Michigan
Not too far from Detroit is another terrible city in Michigan. Flint is northwest of Detroit, and was largely put on the map, so to speak, in recent years because of their water crisis. One needs only to look at the above photo to know how bad it was. Water contamination due to insufficient water treatment exposed 100,000 residents to high levels of lead. It was even declared a federal state of emergency, and now even though the lead levels are acceptable, the people of Flint have been encouraged to drink bottled or filtered water until all of the lead pipes have been replaced, which will be 2019 at the very earliest. I can think of some other places where people can only drink water that is bottled, filtered, or boiled and then cooled, and they are all third world countries. I never would have thought it would be necessary to do so in America, the “greatest” nation on earth.
8. Fresno, California
This guy’s obvious distress should be how we all feel about living in Fresno, California; just look at it. Given, not all parts are as trashy, but this is still pretty bad no matter how you cut it. The amount of trash is astounding, and can be found throughout the city in varying amounts. The Fresno-Madera metro area has ranked the number one dirtiest city in America for the litter and the polluted air and ground water. In fact, the water was once so bad that pregnant women were warned not to drink it. Surrounded on three sides by mountains, the pollution gets trapped there. Additionally, there is also the Fresno Municipal Landfill, which leaks chemicals into the groundwater. There is a pesticide factory, oil fields, and a homeless population that only 25 percent of are sheltered. This, of course, contributes to the city’s overall grossness.
7. Gary, Indiana
Gary, Indiana is not a place that has a reputation for being pretty, or clean, or anything positive, really. When people hear Gary, Indiana, they usually have quite the opposite reaction, actually. This is because of many things, one of which is that there are 10,000 abandoned houses there, in a city with a population of just 78,000 (according to the most recent 2013 census). And again, when properties are abandoned, they are not taken care of and the result of that is, for lack of a better term, gross. Gary is just 25 miles southeast of Chicago, Illinois, and contrary to the booming population there, Gary has lost 55 percent of its population since 1960 when the steel industry collapsed. As you can see, it is still quite an industrial-looking place, which is not something that helps its gross-factor. Factories and the pollution they create only make things worse. Between all of the above, the boarded-up buildings, vacant storefronts, and the fact that it has been called a serial killer’s playground where women go missing and no one notices, Gary, Indiana is pretty damn gross.
6. Memphis, Tennessee
Don’t let the cool history of blues, soul, and rock ‘n roll music that Memphis, Tennessee is known for fool you. It may have a charming history, including that Elvis Presley, B.B. King, and Johnny Cash all recorded albums there, but in 2011, voters ranked Memphis one of the dirtiest cities in America. In a poll by Travel and Leisure Magazine, the people who are most qualified to rank cities (those who travel between them often) made their voices heard. It was also ranked last for environmental friendliness, which- let’s be honest- is no shock when you see pictures like this one. Their reputation for a dirty city goes way back to the earliest days of our country, in fact. It was known as a sickly, filthy city due to two yellow fever epidemics, cholera, and malaria, as well as the fact that the city had abysmal health and sanitary conditions. The times have definitely changed, but perhaps not as much as they should have by now.
5. Modesto, California
The state of California which is known for so many great things like sunshine, beaches, and Hollywood, is also home to 11 of the 15 most polluted cities in America. Modesto is one of those cities. It is in the Central Valley 90 miles east of San Francisco. Since it is also not too far from the beautiful Yosemite National Park and has been honored several times for being a “Tree City USA”, one would not imagine that it belongs on a list such as this. Sadly, however, it does. High crime, high industry, impaired groundwater, and a low EPA rating make Modesto a consistently-ranked most polluted city. Additionally, its nickname is “Methdesto”, and the people there call it the capital of “meth, death, and car theft.” Perhaps that has something to do with all the littering, vandalism, and homeless people (who pee outdoors and sleep in the parks that were made for families to enjoy). Some dude’s piss where my kids should be playing definitely constitutes gross in my book.
4. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
It pains me to do this because I love Philadelphia so much, but I cannot ignore its presence on so many lists ranking the dirtiest of America’s cities. Even in the pretty downtown area, I must admit, there are tons of beggars, trash, and of course, pollution. Nicknamed “Filthadelphia” for the mounds of garbage known to pile up on residential streets all year round, the City of Brotherly Love once took the top spot for the dirtiest city in the country in Travel and Leisure Magazine. On a list of things residents disliked most about Philly, the filth was outranked only by the prevalence of violent crime. That means they hated the grossness of their city more than taxes, bad schools, or anything else, at all. It is probably best summed up in the words of phillymag.com: “It’s hard to ascertain exactly how much filth we’re talking about. Outside of litter citations (30,171 last year), there aren’t a lot of refuse metrics out there — mostly just anecdotes. So many anecdotes. There’s the friend in Fairmount who rolls her baby stroller over used condoms plastered to the sidewalk in front of half-million-dollar houses. A colleague in South Philly who required cortisone shots in her wrist from sweeping up the garbage strewn all over her block. An out-of-town guest who comments on the detritus that jumps out at him as a primary feature of the city.”
3. San Jose, California
Yet another terrible city in California is San Jose. There, they once had something called “the jungle”. It was in Silicon Valley, one of the wealthiest areas of the entire country, yet The Jungle in East San Jose was one of the nation’s largest homeless encampments until it was shut down in 2014. It was a place of tents, tarps, couches, motor homes, and the like, basically one big jumble of misery. It was 300 people spread along the polluted Coyote Creek, and it led to an “unacceptable discharge of human waste” that the city could no longer tolerate. But even though it is gone now, there are still many people living along the creeks, a stark contrast to their neighbors, some of the richest people in the country. It makes the squalor they live in more obvious, and even worse. That squalor resembled an environmental disaster, and when the encampment closed, literal tons of garbage were removed from the area. Even years later, trash can still be found on the trail.
2. St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis, Missouri is just another tale of a city in decline in America, and judging by many of the photos taken there over the years, it is no better than a third world country. The Missouri River runs close to the city, and is littered with dirt, trash, pollution, and plenty of other gross things that do not belong in water. It is the runoff from a city that has suffered the effects of a poor economy, a strong inland port, major chemical manufacturing, and a landfill filled with radioactive uranium waste. The city’s other major river, the Mississippi River, is also heavily polluted with toxic waste and your everyday trash. It reminds me of one of those pictures you see of some southeastern Asian country and the people living along the rivers amongst piles of garbage. Also, there is the poor air quality that takes its toll on St. Louis, just one more thing bringing the place down.
1. Miami, Florida
Miami, Florida is a pretty dirty place to begin with, according to many lists published that rank it high among America’s dirtiest cities. But that is even before taking into account the mess that is left by spring break revelers each year, which takes the dirtiness to a new level. Even though there is nothing “disgusting” (in the traditional sense) about this photo, the sheer mass of humanity so squished together, knowing the garbage they are going to leave behind, is far beyond gross. It’s just wrong. Not only are these people polluting the sand, but they are polluting the ocean, as well, with things like beer cans, food wrappers, and whatever else gets left behind- so literally anything. When the tide comes in, everything else goes out. It is sad that it has to be this way, but despite multiple efforts through various campaigns, it remains a big problem in this popular city, which is not exactly fair to the people that live there and are left with the mess when all the tourists go home.