Steve Nissen has cabin fever, like a lot of us do. He is dealing with it by tidying up alleys, unlike a lot of us do.
On Thursday, the 81-year-old, leaning against a trash can in an Alamo Placita alleyway with his Tweety Bird sweatshirt tucked into a back brace above his jeans, said he aims to clean all 25 alleys in his neighborhood.
“If I do, it will be an accomplishment. If I don’t, I won’t be broken,” he said.
At a pace of 2 blocks per day, he’s left 12 in immaculate condition.
Nissen is “addicted to volunteering” and civic engagement, he says. He’s been part of the Alamo Placita Neighbors Organization for more than 30 years. Cleaning alleys hasn’t always been on his resume — alleys that weren’t his, anyway. But COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, has fired him up to get down and dirty.
He doesn’t characterize his new pastime as an obsession, but the thoroughness of his work disagrees. The alley between Emerson and Ogden streets on 5th Avenue is squeaky clean, at least the part that Nissen has cleansed. There’s little to no trash. Recycling, compost and trash bins are all lined up at attention like soldiers.
Nissen maintains his deeds just make sense right now. He’s not one to be a cooped up like a bird in a cage. He needs exercise in the time of COVID-19, and alleys are simply a safe place to get it while staying away from other people.
Plus, they need a little tender loving care.
“If people are going to have trash out here, it invites more trash, because that’s human nature,” he says.
Denver’s code says the space behind your house is the property owner’s responsibility to keep clean. It’s public space, sure, but so are sidewalks. And city law says owners have to keep those clear, too.
People obviously don’t follow either of those rules to a T. In fact, one guy on Pearl Street went out of his way not to. Nissen’s neighbor took issue with his handiwork and dumped out all the trash in his bin to let him know.
“You can’t change everybody’s mind,” he said. “And not everybody can change my mind.”