Jaime Medina couldn’t stand to look at the piles of trash anymore.
After weeks of watching mounds of garbage grow around the railroad tracks near West 11th Street, he had to act.
“I thought to myself, what the heck is going on?” he said. “You’re seeing more and more of this around Tracy all the time and it was brewing in me, but I thought, somebody will do something, right? Well, I’m going to do something.”
He was one of several volunteers who spent much of the weekend removing what amounted to four tons of rubbish from the Union Pacific right of way south of West 11th Street between Lincoln Boulevard and Alden Glen Drive.
Spoiled food, boxes and crates, clothes, furniture, home electronics and other items were scattered around the railroad property near the Coldwell Banker building, and it was becoming an eyesore for drivers heading east on 11th Street.
The catalyst for Medina, a retired Air Force technical sergeant and co-founder of the Fix’d Inc. veterans service organization, was a Facebook post he saw Friday asking what was going on with all the trash on 11th Street.
“I was like, that’s it!” he said. “I went down to Home Depot, bought a bunch of garbage bags. I had the afternoon off.”
Medina said he knew he was technically trespassing on railroad property. Friends and passersby warned him he could get in trouble for it. But he wasn’t deterred.
“Bring it,” he said. “I’m volunteering.”
He invited Brian Pekari, a Tracy Unified School District trustee, to help. They spent Friday afternoon gathering things into piles until it grew dark and then went back Saturday.
“I retired from the military, came back home and take a lot of pride in the town. My transition was to kind of throw myself into the community — How can I help? — and this is just unacceptable,” Medina said. “It was just very prevalent. It’s been here for months. One month goes by and another month goes by — I was going to take it upon myself.”
The accumulation hadn’t escaped the city’s notice.
City spokeswoman Carissa Higginbotham said the code enforcement division had opened a case on the area Oct. 23.
City employees did an inspection and started the process to get Union Pacific to clean up the property. On Dec. 10, the city sent the railroad a notice to abate or show cause — saying it needed to deal with the mess — no later than Dec. 23.
The city received no response and moved forward with a plan to clear the property and charge the railroad for the work.
But the volunteers got there first.
After word of his impromptu cleanup spread on social media, Medina learned of another group that had been making plans to go out and try to clean up the area along the tracks. They decided to combine forces.
As he hauled bags of muddy clothes and rotting food off the railroad property to the sidewalk Saturday, Medina said part of the problem was that most people had just let it happen.
“We have tolerated enough. When people are utilizing the latrine in front of you on the street or right in front of restaurants, that’s intolerable,” Medina said. “For me personally and people I know, the tolerance meter is broken, and we need to reset some things.”
Raquel Rangel, a Fix’d board member, said living in San Francisco had made her aware of the conditions for homeless people on the streets, but she hadn’t noticed the stuff piling up on the railroad right of way in Tracy until Medina pointed it out to her.
“I had driven by it blindly. It’s kind of hidden,” she said. “Obviously this accumulated over a period of time.”
She was surprised to see how many people offered to help once the cleanup got started.
“Obviously people don’t like it, and if people are willing to do it when it’s in their community, it takes one person to step up and do it, to make the time to do it,” Rangel said.
One of the people who had been planning to clean the area over the weekend was Dotty Nygard, a resident of Tracy for 25 years.
Donning gloves and a mask over her mouth and nose, she collected broken bottles and other trash along a sound wall separating the railroad tracks from homes on Sequoia Boulevard.
“I care because I really believe in this community and we can do better,” she said.
She described “driving by and seeing the litter and thinking, you know what, I can go out and pick up some of that. I know I can give an hour and help clean up.”
Her experience as an emergency room nurse at Sutter Tracy Community Hospital made her wary of the health risks of having garbage out in the open.
“This is a harbor for all sorts of diseases and pests and knows what all,” Nygard said. “If you think of all these neighborhoods that connect to each other, and people do use the train way as an access to get from point A to point B, you don’t want to expose them to something that could be totally prevented by just going out and cleaning up the area. Knowing that there are plenty of kids that like to explore this is truly a hazard.”
Another volunteer, Nick Langarica, has lived in Tracy for more than five years and wanted to help clean up the mess he’d noticed.
“It’s really difficult for a lot of people to do this, but I don’t mind doing it because it helps the community out,” he said, though he also said he understood why it was there. “I’m not trying to protect the homeless in this matter, but where do they live? Where do they put their stuff?”
The volunteer crew left trash bags and crates along the sidewalks on West 11th Street and Sequoia Boulevard for public works employees to pick up. Photos on Monday showed the area empty of trash.
“It doesn’t take rocket science to say, hey, we have a little issue here, we have a problem,” Nygard said. “A community is a reflection of the people that live in it, and if we all stepped up to the plate and did our part, this would be an amazing city.”