Meet the Silver Lake Trash Club
Updated: Jul 14, 2022
This past spring my professor assigned our class to write a feature on a community in LA. I discovered the Silver Lake Trash Club and I spent time getting to know the club and writing this story. Trash Club is now so special to me and I wanted to share the story I wrote:
Elaine's original hand-drawn flyer
It's Saturday morning on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake. As cars whiz by, Elaine Gale slowly makes her way along the sidewalk, grabbing old soda cans and shreds of cardboard with a long trash-grabber. About 20 others join her on foot, roller skates, and strollers.
They are the Silver Lake Trash Club. What started as a project to clean up the neighborhood has become a community where tree huggers and socially conscious neighbors can connect over giving back.
“People who pick up trash have a lot in common,” said Elaine Gale, a college professor and the spunky founder of the club, “we have a sense of social justice and community and beauty.”
The club meets bright and early at 9:00 a.m. one saturday a month at the historic Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake. Gale distributes trash grabbers, work gloves and bags before the team splits up to clean the streets.
In two hours of combing the streets for litter, the group usually collects upwards of 50 bags of trash. After the hard work, members stick around for a cold treat. Club members reconvene for an ice cream social at Pazzo gelato after every club meeting.
“I wanted to be a part of the community and help out,” said Maddy Boyd, founding member and club graphic designer, as she ate her passionfruit sorbet, “and make a difference just because it is really dirty over here.”
Members update each other on life happenings since the last meeting and discuss their strangest trash finds of the day over complimentary scoops of gelato and coffee. Anyone can join the trash club, so the group comprises an eclectic assortment of ages and backgrounds: lifelong Silverlake residents, babies learning to walk, and newcomers from the next town.
The community extends beyond just the meetings. Together club members host happy hours, picnics, and even dancing at El Cid’s flamenco club.
“We’ve made many good friends that we hang out with outside of trash club,” says Laura Schein, a Silver Lake-based actress in her 30s.
Climate anxiety is looming, and the pandemic fractured routine in-person interactions. For these residents, collecting trash makes their neighborhood cleaner, helps alleviate climate anxiety, and provides a forum for neighbors to get to know each other beyond just saying hello from the driveway.
“I think because it can be so overwhelming to think about all the problems in the world right now,” says club founder Gale, “and mental health issues are on the rise. And I think it's a small way to demonstrate care and love in the world and see how it changes us locally.”
Gale started the club to cope with her mental health after moving to Silver Lake from Santa Barbara during the pandemic in 2020. She had just gone through a divorce which she said, combined with the social distancing protocol, left her feeling very alone.
She enrolled in a positive psychology course with The Wellbeing Lab that focused on the science of human wellbeing, success and happiness.
“The second pandemic is mental health challenges we are up against,” said Louis Alloro, the teacher of the course and applied positive psychology expert.
The course culminated in a final assignment for each student to create a community impact project. That is when the Trash Club was born. She scheduled the first meeting for Saturday, Sept. 25, and got to work promoting. The startup cost was about $300 to buy supplies and promote the club.
“I wasn't sure what I was going to do,” said Gale, “But just walking around, picking up trash and seeing other people and we'd wave, and I thought like, wow, it would be amazing community impact if we all did it together.”
Gale made Instagram posts, callouts on neighborhood app Nextdoor, and even doodled some flyers with good old pen and paper. She hung them up in traffic areas of Silver Lake like the flea market, the reservoir, and telephone poles on Sunset. Every flier had a unicorn on it with its horn stabbed through the litter.
“The unicorn was always going to be the mascot because it has a built-in trash grabber,” said Gale, referring to the horn of the majestic animal, “and I think Silver Lake is truly a magical place.”
Here flyers and posts attracted a small crowd. Twenty-five people attended the first meeting and picked up 50 bags of trash.
“It came up on my Instagram, and I was just like, this looks cool,” said Clayton Farris, a mustachioed millennial who was one of the people who attended the initial meeting, “It was kind of in a time period when everyone was still, like, staying home and not going out. And I was like, this is a some this seems cool, it's doing good, and you can meet people.”
Gale knew the club should continue after the success and enthusiasm of the first meeting. Since its humble beginnings, the club has collected over 500 bags of trash to date, and some meetings attract upwards of 50 people.
“These are people we normally wouldn't meet in our day-to-day life,” said Farris. “It's just a unique little family we formed.”
Though Gale is the founder, many members work together to make the club move. She refers to a group as the “founding members” that divide up responsibilities.
“Paul and Matt donated a bunch of trash bags,” said Gale. “David, who is a founding member, he donates work gloves. And Maddy does graphic design.”
Several local businesses also cooperate to support the club. Michael Buch, the owner of Pazzo Gelato, donates ice cream every month. Black Cat Tavern lets the club meet on their outdoor tables. Several other Sunset Boulevard businesses donate dumpster space for the club to unload their hefty garbage collection.
While the club members pick up moldy papers and smashed bottles from the gutters, many passers-by cheer them on and thank them. This activity is not without naysayers, though. Some believe that it should not be the citizen's responsibility to pick up trash. Afterall, in a perfect world, the government may handle this. There would be no trash to pick up at all in an even more ideal world.
Many club members find solace in this activity. By giving back, these residents feel more like they have a stake in the community.
“This specifically for me changed my relationship to the neighborhood,” said 11-year Silver Lake resident Clayton Farris, “I feel like I'm a part of Silver Lake by doing something like this.”
From community building to neighborhood beautifying the streets, the club helps both its members and all of the residents of Silver Lake.
“We might not be responsible for every single piece of trash out there,” says Gale, “We might even not be responsible for any of it. But we're all responsible for picking it up.”
P.S. Here is a photo of me at the latest Trash Club meeting! Since writing this story, I have enjoyed the club's vibrant community.