For 40 years, these two men have been keeping New Haven’s waterways clean

NEW HAVEN – Their relationship has lasted 40 years.

It is the one based on a common mission: to keep the city’s waterways and their banks clean, to remove tires, shopping carts and rubbish every day.

Peter Davis, who was appointed as the town’s river guardian 30 years ago, met David Burgess, who has autism, when Davis was working in Benhaven as a teaching assistant in the early 80s. picking up trash in city parks and have worked almost every day since.

Over the decades, their bond grew stronger.

“He’s the backbone. I could never have done this without him,” Davis said of his friend, who only speaks in short sentences. “He makes me very happy, a great friendship, like a family, because it’s been almost 40 years.” They even went to Mexico on vacation a few years ago.

Work never fails for the couple, who clean up along the city’s three rivers – the West, Quinnipiac and Mill – along New Haven Harbor, Beaver Pond and Pond Lily. “I love New Haven,” Davis said. “I want to keep it in good condition for the wildlife, for the people. …Besides, I just care about people.

Burgess said her goal was “to help birds and swans”.

They also make plantations that attract birds, butterflies and bees. Burgess made it clear that he loved birds and butterflies, but wanted nothing to do with bees.

“I’m doing it too because it’s a great job for David,” Davis said. “It’s meaningful work. He is able to go out and eat.

Harry Klarman, Burgess’ solicitor in Benhaven, said of Burgess: ‘He earns money, which he gladly spends on soaps and shampoos, food and coffee. … It’s also good because David likes to go out and he likes to feel nature.

Burgess also became well known in the city. “It broadened his social life,” Davis said. “He met a lot of good people.

“Everyone seems to know him,” Klarman said.

On Tuesday, the couple and Klarman were in West River, north of Boston Post Road. “It’s worse than I thought,” Davis said. “That’s four bags of construction debris. They will have to be taken out. »

Although there is still litter along the waterways, whether dumped or washed up on shore, Davis said the situation has improved. “There is less, I think,” he said. “Things are improving, but there is still a lot to do.”

Tires top the list, as do shopping carts, car parts, and trash such as bottles, cups, and straws. Klarman pointed out that there aren’t many plastic bags left since the state banned them. One of the strangest things Davis found was a full dumpster.

Another threat to wildlife, especially birds, is fishing line, which they find when going out in canoes. Davis had to save an egret once. Now there are white tubes near the rivers where anglers can drop their tangled line.

Davis is 66, Burgess is 54. “I’ve known him since he was a teenager,” Davis said. “I worked with him a lot, looked after him, took him to concerts and taught him how to cook dinners and that kind of stuff. Then we moved to New Haven and I got him a job delivering the New Haven Register and we had over 100 customers.

Curt Johnson, now president of Save the Sound, was the ranger at East Rock Park in 1982. He did such a good job he got a job as a part-time employee” with the parks department of the city.

“Then we started working on the West River because it was full of trash,” Davis said. Next, they cleaned up the basketball courts at Edgewood Park.

“He and David are almost unbelievable,” Johnson said of the couple. “David has been doing this job for 40 years with Peter and they’ve been out, I guess, about three to four days a week. … I couldn’t do what these guys do.

Johnson called Davis and Burgess’ relationship “incredibly special.” I think a lot of their relationship is non-verbal and just focused on enjoying being around the environment.

Johnson said that once “I calculated something like 150,000 tons of debris. It’s just unbelievable.

“Rivers are where all of our societal debris still ends up,” Johnson said. “It’s the things that people throw out on the streets, but it’s also how we have perverse incentives for people to get rid of the debris.”

Much of it is thrown away by construction crews rather than paying to have it taken from the transfer station, he said.

“I think we should all reflect on how much we love being around water as a calming, grounding place,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a combination of their relationship together and their relationship with water that is incredibly invigorating for both of them.”

He said the two men realized “what we all aspire to do is to do work where the environment we are in is where we want to be, and we know that the work we do is meaningful and they both have that opportunity every day. It has a consistency that most of us can’t enjoy.

Recently, Davis helped a group of Fair Haven Heights residents clean up Hemingway Creek. “They all pulled out 15 tires,” said Sylvia Dorsey, who organized the Earth Day cleanup. “We had a huge pile of scrap metal. They cut the knotweed in front so you can now see the creek. We couldn’t even see the tires. They were buried in the mud and there are still more.

Davis said Burgess encourages people to participate. “Thanks to David, we were able to recruit more volunteers,” Davis said. “They admire what he does. If David is ready to do it, why not me? I think he inspires them. His work inspires others to help and they work harder.

Davis isn’t shy about using his political connections to get the job done. In 2001, “there was a bridge over West River Boulevard and it was broken and I had someone help pull it out,” Davis said. “It was Joel Schiavone who did it and it was during an election year and Joel was running for mayor.”

Then there was the time Davis was cleaning up East Rock Park near State Street. “We saw all these bags and thought they were construction debris,” Davis said. When he brought them to the transfer station, he was told, “Peter, this is asbestos.

“The state had to fall,” Davis said. “They put a tent on my truck. They searched each bag and found documentation that said where it came from. They found the owner of the business, arrested him, and there was a federal trial.

Davis was the first person to testify at the trial, which resulted in a conviction.

Davis said he was undeterred by the continued dumping of trash. “I think if we take it out right after it happens, we’re in good shape,” he said. “Like today, for example. Today was great.

“Trash attracts more trash, and if it’s clean, people are less likely to throw things away,” Klarman said.

Davis and Burgess have no intention of slowing down. “It’s my life. It’s my cause. I really believe in it,” Davis said. exercise and see wildlife.

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