Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cleaning Up Crown Heights

The lady and I spent two hours on Monday taking part in the Clean Up Crown Heights MLK Day service event that was organized via Brooklynian (there's been some lively chatter about the merits of such a clean-up, which is worth a read). Many thanks to all who participated--the Avenue has looked noticeably cleaner this week.

I took a lot away from these two hours. The historian in me found the task appropriate, given that King was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers' strike when he was assassinated. The process of walking a few streets (in my case, Eastern Parkway, Lincoln, St. John's, and Sterling between Franklin and Bedford, with St. Francis and St. Charles thrown in for good measure) picking up garbage was also a humbling one, particularly since it was just the two of us, dressed in street clothes, and not an army of neon-vested schoolchildren. We got stares, glares, befuddled looks, and a pair of thank yous, but for the most part we were ignored as we stooped to gather up bits and pieces. The two folks who did take a moment to talk to us were collecting thrown-away items themselves, in this case bottles for exchange. They were both remarkably friendly: the woman we met offered a blessing, and the gentleman smiled and said "you're doing what I do!" I haven't been able to neatly synthesize the experience, but suffice to say that from now on when I walk down Franklin it will be much harder for me to ignore both garbage and those who rummage through it out of necessity.

And then there was the garbage itself. Mountains of it. We filled four 30-gallon trash bags in four long blocks (three, really, since we did only one side of Eastern and Sterling), which must have totaled nearly 100 pounds of trash. The sheer volume demanded a reflection on consumption, packaging, and waste. Individual items caught our eyes, too, turning the walk into an exercise in detective work or recent archaeology: along with the endless 25-cent bags of chips and rotting coupon circulars, we found receipts and holiday lists, thousands of wayward packing peanuts, a bag containing diapers, condoms, and pregnancy tests (my rendition of "The Circle of Life" was quickly hushed), and even some lost bits of clothing, some of which was certainly not outerwear. There was humor to be found in it, but also some idea of the lives that go on around us.

Finally, there were some noteworthy contrasts in terms of street-by-street cleanliness: Eastern was patchy (certain landlords clearly care more than others), Lincoln was covered in litter, and the three saints (John, Frank, and Chuck) were as clean as their names suggest. I don't know enough about the specifics of the streets to explain this. Things also got messier near the avenues, but that's to be expected: the get a lot more traffic and are a lot more anonymous than residential streets.

At any rate, I'm glad we went--it gave me a sense of participation in, and ownership of, the shared spaces I spend my days in. Thanks to the organizers and everyone who participated.


  1. Picking up trash in a your own neighborhood and traveling to another state to support a sanitation workers strike are not exactly the same thing.

    I'm not saying that picking up trash is a bad thing, or that you're a bad person for making the connection, or that you're saying they're the same thing.

    But... it might be more appropriate in memory of MLK to examine how the rapid change in prospect heights has effected our Black / African American neighbors, and to find a way to serve their struggle with racial and economic justice. For example:

    White people picking cleaning up litter on the streets a few days before the police bash down doors to haul away your neighbors is perhaps more symbolically poignant.

    You've mentioned a few times that it was very likely a drug raid. It must have been, right? Why else would the police use sledge hammers and riot gear before hauling away black people?

    It's not like they have used sledge hammers and riot gear against peace protesters before, or to evict people from their homes, or to arrest people suspected of doing something simply because they are poor and they are black.

    Be careful with quick conclusions. Police aggression is common when you aren't white, and you should not take it as evidence that someone has done something wrong.

  2. p.s. maybe you got "stares, glares, befuddled looks" because people could tell you think that picking up litter gives you a "sense of ownership of" the public space that has been their home for decades.

  3. Only two comments; yet so much garbage.

  4. Thank you for this nice recap of the clean up. And wow, I haven't looked at any responses to blog posts since organizing this clean up.

    There is absolutely no way that showing respect for your neighborhood by cleaning up the streets should turn into a dialogue about race, police brutality, or gentrification. What the clean up DOES say is too much about disposable culture, but that was not my goal.

    I organized this clean up because:
    1) The streets are gross. Although people do litter, also just as common is garbage bags breaking apart on the stret while waiting for pick up.

    2) I had the day off from work to honor a man who honored others. I am not black nor did I live through the civil rights movement, but I know what MLK Day is about.

    3) I love my neighborhood and I know there are others who love it as well.

    Whatever the "holiday", occasion or day... this clean up was to show some respect for our home, our neighborhood, and you, our neighbors.

  5. I think this could have been better executed. Instead of a couple of individuals cleaning up trash, why didn't you guys ask the local schools to assist, the precinct(they're always doing something) or even better, the local residents? MLK was really about togetherness and something along those lines would've really displayed that. In the future feel free to contact me I'm always down. roni@brooklynposh.com

  6. I am always thinking of spending a day or two this way, but never do. If there's an organized effort to just pick up some in the neighborhood someday, I'd be happy to help. Please keep me in mind.