Saturday, July 04, 2009

“We don’t need to have a million dollars to improve our environment”

The environment and environmental quality have always been relevant to people of color living in cities.

The environmental movement has not.

Early in its history the U.S. environmental movement was, for the most part, viewed as being the exclusive domain of affluent white suburbanites in search of "feel-good" cause. Environmentalists seemed more concerned with the plight of endangered snails and beetles than they were with fellow humans who were suffering under the weight of poverty and political injustice.

When I embraced the environmental movement back in the late 60's, I was roundly criticized by my African American classmates who by that time considered the movement to be not only irrelevant but counterproductive to the civil rights movement. Calls for "limits to growth" didn't appear to offer any options for poor folks here and around the world to achieve any measure of economic equality with the already rich and powerful.

The connections between environmental quality, personal health, quality of life, renewable energy and green jobs has begun to change that. (GW)

In Public Housing, Talking Up the Recycling Bin

Wearing a purple sweatsuit and leaning on a cane, Gloria Allen, 82, was hobbling down a hallway in a public housing project in Morningside Heights, knocking on doors and shouting, “Recycling education!”

There was no answer at the next apartment, but as soon as she detected movement inside, Ms. Allen, a retired printing-company worker, began her pitch.

“Please come out, baby,” she purred. “Please come out so we can educate you on how to recycle.”

The typical neighborhood environmentalist is often pictured as young and affluent, the kind of person who can afford a hybrid car and screen-printed hemp fabrics. But at General Grant Houses, a sprawling public housing development off West 125th Street in Manhattan, the eco-conscious are mainly people like Ms. Allen and Sarah Martin, who as leaders of the residents’ association fret as much about backed-up pipes as they do about recycling.

Proselytizing on the issue in housing projects is an enormous challenge but crucial, environmentalists say, given the incentive to cut back on energy and garbage disposal costs and a housing authority’s power to impose recycling rules building by building.

In New York, the incentive may be greatest of all. Only 17 percent of the city’s household waste makes it into recycling bins, and New York has the largest public housing system in the country, with 2,600 buildings, 174,000 apartments and more than 400,000 residents in five boroughs.

Yet the effort initiated by Ms. Allen and Ms. Martin originated as a grass-roots crusade of their own.

Margarita Lopez, the city housing agency’s environmental coordinator, said that residents who step up and organize the efforts defy cynical clichés about public housing. “There are people who think we’re not able to do this, who look at public housing as second-class citizens,” she said. “People would be surprised about how in tune the residents are.”

Polls show that concern about the environment is sometimes broadest in low-income communities because residents bear the brunt of problems like air pollution.

Ms. Allen and Ms. Martin say they see recycling as a way to address the health and quality-of-life issues associated with trash, including the emissions from abundant garbage-truck pickups.

“If we could reduce the amount of garbage in our community, it would reduce the diesel in the air,” said Ms. Martin, 72, a former medical assistant and school food preparation manager who wears hoop earrings under a baseball cap.

So she and Ms. Allen, who each live alone but have 6 children, 14 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren between them, have taken time from their full plate of tenant complaints to introduce, or reintroduce, the development’s 4,500 denizens to recycling, building by building.

While recycling is required by law, it had failed to take root at General Grant because the bins were not conveniently located and residents found it easy to ignore recycling signs, the women say.

Education is crucial, they insist, so they recruit volunteers and train them in which kinds of metal, glass and plastic items can be recycled. Then they guide them from door to door, distributing color-coded bags as they impart the fundamentals to neighbors who can be welcoming, indifferent or hostile.

“It’s not easy,” Ms. Martin said. “It’s not like you slap a flier on a door and say: ‘Recycle. It’s the law.’ It takes time, patience and energy.”

Some residents refuse to budge when Ms. Allen and Ms. Martin knock. And some object to their campaign. During one of their rounds, they were berated by a neighbor who insisted that recycling bins would attract vermin and should not be placed in front of the buildings.

“People are going to put garbage in there,” the neighbor warned.

But many readily embrace the effort. “This saves public housing work and money and it contributes to the general hygiene,” said Jose Morales, 51, an unemployed plumber and widower with two children who correctly chose a green recycling bag when Ms. Allen tested him with a flattened cereal box.

On other environmental fronts, efforts are under way by the city housing authority to make the apartment units more energy-efficient, using federal stimulus money to replace old boilers, water heaters and appliances. More than two dozen resident “green committees” have also been formed to help with projects like planting trees and recruiting workers for green jobs.

The recycling project at General Grant Houses got under way in 2007 under the auspices of the Morningside Heights/West Harlem Sanitation Coalition, a partnership that was founded in 1994 when residents of Grant and nearby co-ops realized they shared the same problems, from uneven trash collection to substandard grocery stores.

Ms. Martin and Joan Levine, an 80-year-old former teacher from Morningside Gardens, a six-building co-op just across the street on Amsterdam Avenue, are the coalition’s co-chairwomen.

Ms. Levine, who wears her gray hair in a Beatles bob and carries a handbag made of recycled juice box labels, said she was motivated partly by a resolve to confound stereotypes. “I’ve heard comfortable white middle-class people say, ‘Oh, public housing. They’ll never recycle. They don’t care,’ ” she said. “That really galled me because that wasn’t the case.”

Two years into the recycling program, General Grant Houses has five buildings down, one in training and three more to go. It has also evolved from a grass-roots effort into a pilot program with city and state financing that the city housing authority plans to expand to other residential projects.

Ms. Martin and Ms. Allen report promising results in the five buildings that are already recycling. Each now produces at least 10 fewer bags of trash a day, they said. Residents no longer leave mousetraps or car tires in recycling bins, as they did in the past when the city instituted recycling without an education program.

As president and vice president of the residents’ association, the two women also organize collections of electronic waste, from computers to TV sets, and lead workshops on topics like nontoxic cleaning products. Next on their agenda is finding a way to pay a stipend to resident monitors who will make sure that only recyclables go into the bins.

While they have to plead with the city to fix broken door locks and drafty windows, Ms. Martin said, “recycling we can control.”

“We don’t need to have a million dollars to do that and improve our environment,” she said.


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