Gregory Baggett never thought he’d be on trash duty. But lately, in the COVID-19 era, he’s found himself among New Yorkers rolling up their sleeves — and rolling out the trash bins.
A Harlemite since 1980, he knows his block and his neighbors well. So when litter started piling up this summer, he took note, and took matters into his own hands.
“I used to be a kid who didn’t even like to get dirty,” said Baggett, an academic, writer and consultant. “I never would have thought that I would be out there, moving around the community with a garbage can. But, you know, there’s a lot of people cheering you on. They figure out what you’re up to and they pitch in.”
Now, he’s out on his block at least once a week, helping to clean A. Philip Randolph Square at West 117th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. He started the clean-up effort in mid-August with a handful of neighbors, but it’s grown from there, and he’s even seen a few passersby join in.
Recently, a pair of friends doing a “meditation walk” near the park joined the cleaning crew, he said, and a woman who Baggett says appears unhoused often grabs a bag and helps. Another woman nearby the square told him, “ring my bell for hot water if you need it,” he said.
“To be quite honest with you, the clean-up has been a mechanism that has kind of returned the community to the space,” he said.
On a recent Tuesday morning, he was joined by a half dozen other volunteers who clipped overgrown tree beds, swept leaves and plucked litter out of bushes.
“It’s like hunting for Easter eggs,” said Charline Shaw, one of Baggett’s neighbors, as she cheerfully put a large, empty liquor bottle into an oversized garbage bag.
Volunteer clean-up events in New York are nothing new. But with budget cuts to both the Parks and Sanitation departments and growing complaints of a drop in trash pick-ups across the city, a spate of citizen cleaning crews have popped up all over.
‘Part of Something Bigger’
In Washington Heights and Inwood, local officials teamed up with neighborhood nonprofits for a series of Saturday clean-ups.
In The Bronx, Pelham Parkway residents got out their trash grabbers. And on the Upper West Side, local Jake Russell asked his neighbors to adopt a single block to keep clean, and the “OneBlock UWS” initiative began.
In Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, Katie Kerr saw a post about Russell’s group on the Facebook page “Staying Put in NYC,” which was formed in response to those who fled the city since the beginning of the pandemic.
She liked the idea so much, she decided to give it a try in her borough, creating a Google form for volunteers, a Facebook group and dubbing the effort “OneBlock Brooklyn.”
“I could have just picked up my own block, which — that’s helpful, too. But I kind of wanted to be part of something bigger,” she said.
Since Kerr began organizing the effort, more than 170 people have adopted blocks in Brooklyn, she said, which you can see on a map she updates periodically.
Most of the blocks covered so far are in areas she has lived over the years — a decade in Carroll Gardens, now in Prospects Heights — but she hopes the effort will spread to all corners of the borough.
About two miles south of Kerr’s neighborhood, Shelley Worrell is pitching in, as well. The founder of the neighborhood cultural groups Little Caribbean and Caribbeing organized a clean-up day on Monday in Prospect Park’s southeast side — what she calls “our corner,” adjacent to Flatbush’s Caribbean heart.
“When you walk into that particular entrance, you’re welcomed by not only drumming, but by reggae music, by soca music, by rara music,” she said. But it’s also an entrance that “needs a facelift,” and has seen more trash lately, she said.
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Her organization got their litter-grabbers out, provided by the Prospect Park Alliance, which is looking for volunteers to help keep the green space clean.
The group provides kits with a trash grabber, garbage bags and gloves to those who register. Partnership for Parks makes similar tool kits available to volunteers, and coordinates park clean-ups citywide.
Volunteerism the New Normal
Mayor Bill de Blasio urged New Yorkers to volunteer to help clean the city earlier this month, and a City Hall spokesperson directed New Yorkers interested in getting involved to do so through the Department of Sanitation website or by calling 311.
For street clean-ups, the Sanitation Department runs a number of volunteer efforts, including the Community Cleanup Tool Loan Program, which provides brooms, dustpans and trash bags to any organization that volunteers.
The department says that, as of September, 74 clean-ups took place through that program — up from the 43 that took place all of last year.
“We appreciate that New Yorkers are stepping up to do their part to keep their neighborhoods clean,” said Joshua Goodman, a spokesperson for the Department of Sanitation. He added that besides volunteering, “the next best thing everyone can do is use litter baskets properly.
“It’s important to remember that they are for small trash while walking, like a candy wrapper or a coffee cup, and that throwing household or business trash in them is illegal,” he said.
De Blasio promised in mid-September to restore some sanitation services, including funding for litter basket trucks in 65 neighborhoods.
Clean-up volunteer Maria Lizardo, executive director of the nonprofit NMIC (formerly the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation) has done her part in upper Manhattan, cleaning up her neighborhood as part of an effort organized by Congressman Adriano Espaillat.
But she is careful to note that volunteering means giving City Hall a pass.
“We’re going to keep the pressure on and do advocacy to make sure that budgets are restored, particularly in low-income communities,” she said.
“It’s not letting them off the hook. But it’s really about building that sentiment in the community — you know, this is our home, we have to protect it, and we have to take care of it,” she said.
In Brooklyn, Kerr sees action as an antidote for her own griping.
“I can walk outside and pick up trash, and not complain about all the trash on my street,” she said. “And just, you know, in 30 to 40 minutes, take care of it.”
In Harlem, Baggett is hoping to find more volunteers, expand the cleaning effort to other small parks along St. Nicholas Avenue — and, perhaps, make it a regular thing, post-pandemic.
“This is a quiet project … but it’s very rewarding and fulfilling, “ he said. “I think we should try and keep going, even after whatever semblance of normalcy returns.”