Carlos Rowland can tell you exactly how many trash cans there are in Rittenhouse Square: 89.
He knows this because he empties each of them — twice a day.
As for the benches: There are 139 in the park that Rowland keeps clean of debris and free of damage.
As the only dedicated caretaker of what is perhaps the most famous of Philadelphia’s five public squares, Rowland, 66, is well-known to those who live near and frequent Rittenhouse Square. Several residents, like Nancy Swartz, have written in to nominate Rowland for this feature about the people who make Philadelphia extraordinary.
“While dealing with garbage is not pleasant — Carlos always is!” Swartz said. “Not that he goes around humming the ‘I love trash’ song, like Oscar from Sesame Street, but he always greets people with a wave and a smile.”
For Rowland, a widowed father of three and grandfather of four, interacting with park visitors is what makes his job fulfilling.
“The kids and residents know my name and that makes me feel good, even when I don’t feel good,” he said. “That’s what I get out of working here.”
Rowland was born and raised in Nicetown and attended Olney High School. When he was 17, Rowland got his mother’s permission to join the Army. While he spent most of his 20 years of service stationed in Germany, Rowland also traveled to Norway, Turkey, Greece, and other places.
“I learned a lot in the military: Discipline, doing what you’re told, following the leader and then eventually becoming a leader,” he said.
Rowland left the military in 1989 with the rank of staff sergeant. He came home to Nicetown, where he still lives. Upon his return, Rowland went to work at Philadelphia’s Navy Yard as a foundryman.
When the Navy closed most of its operations at the yard in the 1990s, Rowland became a seasonal worker for the city. He was hired permanently five years ago.
“I got my foot in the door and I haven’t taken it out yet — and I’m not!” Rowland laughed. “This is not a job to me here. I’m not jumping out of planes no more. I’m not running around doing all this crazy stuff. This is not hard work.”
Rowland’s shift starts at 7 a.m., but he usually arrives an hour early to assess the square and determine his approach for the day. He always begins by cleaning the small bronze sculpture of a goat named Billy that’s been in the park for 98 years.
“I concentrate on that area every morning first because that’s where all the kids come,” he said. “I try to get all the debris that’s there up so nothing happens to them.”
Dressed in his bright yellow coat, Army cap, and headphones — which are usually pumping jazz greats like Les McCann into his brain — Rowland then moves on to the trash cans, which he says are often filled with household garbage people dump at the park.
“I used to get upset about it, but I don’t get mad no more,” he said. “I can’t, because it will still be there.”
Rowland works year-round, clearing away snow from the square in the winter and blowing leaves in the fall. He has a small “office ” — a shed at the southwest corner of the square that’s covered with ivy on two sides. He calls it “the cottage,” where he can go to keep warm.
Inside, he’s hung his certificates of completion for courses like “bloodborne pathogen training” and notes of thanks he’s received. But he’s most proud of his “tags” — the laminated badges on lanyards he’s been issued to do sanitation work during major events like the Mummers Parade, the Fourth of July, and the Super Bowl parade.
As much as he loves working those big events, Rowland said there’s nothing in Philly quite like his “other home” — Rittenhouse Square.
“It’s one of the prettiest spots in the city,” he said. “I work here and I clean it, so I know.”
“Because it’s the most beautiful city in the United States.”
What’s been a classic Philly moment for you?
“The Philadelphia Eagles parade at the Art Museum.”
If you had a wish for the city, what would it be?
“For the Sixers and the Flyers championship. Another parade!”
Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story deserves to be told — or someone whose story you’d like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.
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