Have you ever wanted to do something to improve your neighborhood, but didn’t quite know where to begin? Are you looking for ways to meet your neighbors and make new friends? These are things that Alex Bodnar, 31, thought about when he moved from Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan to Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He found answers via Clean Up Crown Heights, a community-based, volunteer-driven organization dedicated to keeping Crown Heights beautiful. Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado spoke with Bodnar about the group and how other New Yorkers can follow suit in their own neighborhoods.
The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Epicenter-NYC: How did Clean Up Crown Heights begin?
Bodnar: Clean Up Crown Heights was started in July 2020 by a member who is no longer with us because they moved to California. Clean Up Crown Heights was an effort to do something and have something to do. Seeing that sanitation bleeds into environmentalism, people who join the clean-up crew have some interest in creating a more sustainable planet. The founder doing this was her way to make a small direct action and change the streets of her neighborhood. She wanted to provide a completely volunteer-run and free sanitation service so that other people could see and be influenced to do the same in their own neighborhoods. The founder put the word out herself, met up with people she knew and got a pretty healthy start of about 10 people. It started with the idea of “whoever wants to help can help,” and it was in response to how the world was at the time and how she wanted to help the community. Now it’s grown to its own Instagram with over 2,000 followers.
Epicenter-NYC: How did you come across the group?
Bodnar: I moved to Crown Heights from Hell’s Kitchen and when I came here, I needed to do something to be active in the community. The idea of trying to get out there and socialize was hard. It was September 2020, I wanted to try something that was outdoors, safe, where you got to meet people and that was action-oriented. Clean Up Crown Heights felt right. My friend told me about the group, I showed up and everyone was very welcoming. I had great conversations with them and it was a great group of people.
Epicenter-NYC: Can you tell me how Clean Up Crown Heights works?
Bodnar: For each clean-up, which usually takes place on Wednesdays and Sundays, we coordinate which leader will pick up the cart with gloves, headlights, trash bags, brooms and trash pickers. That’s usually done via a text thread. Being a leader also means documenting everything going on: what we did and where we made the clean-ups. [Social media posts are made with the location and time of the meet-up and what people can expect from it. While the leaders provide volunteers with clean-up equipment, it’s encouraged that volunteers bring their own as well].
In the beginning, we did have to spend $10 of our own pockets at the convenience store down the street to purchase trash pickers. But over time, we set up a Linktree with donations, so if people want to donate money or supplies to use, they can. We usually give volunteers the materials and when we clean up, we try to keep it under two hours.
Epicenter-NYC: How do you decide what streets to clean and when to clean them?
Bodnar: We go by nominations mostly, on all our social media posts, we say at the bottom, “If you want to nominate a street that needs cleaning in Crown Heights, you can direct message us through Instagram.” But now we have also expanded to people commenting or calling our phone number. We put a map out with all the streets we’ve cleaned up over the past few years, streets that have been nominated and streets we have not given much attention to.
Epicenter: NYC: What kind of trash do you pick up? What does a typical clean-up look like?
Bodnar: Cigarette butts and litter are the most common thing. There are things that we don’t want people picking up, like syringes or broken glass. The volunteer may want to take care of the glass if it is not too dangerous but for the syringes, we call 311. We also call 311 when we see illegal dumping sites. Occasionally, we run into a site where we realize people are dumping a bunch of stuff and then leaving it.
Epicenter-NYC: How do you keep volunteers motivated to show up at every clean-up?
Bodnar: What it really comes down to is consistency, and the people who show up we trust that they will show up again. Some people come back every once in a while. We do this every week, we give clear and consistent language on where we are going to meet up and what we are going to do, generally speaking, people end up showing up consistently.
We’ve also made it into a sort of social group as well. You’ll have a conversation with someone you might not have been able to meet otherwise. Usually afterward maybe if it’s a Sunday we’ll grab lunch somewhere or if it’s a Wednesday night we will grab a drink somewhere and just hang out a bit after to catch up. I’ve made a few friends from the group. It’s a little bit of consistency and the social atmosphere we have for it.
Epicenter-NYC: How have neighbors responded to the clean-up crew?
Bodnar: People respond well to the impact the effort has had. When we are out on the street sometimes people come up to us and say “Thank you for doing that. I want to do something for another street too,” and then they come and help us. We’ve also had people on the street asking to help out. Others say things like “I had no idea you guys existed, I want to help out.” Presence also helps in establishing a consistent group of volunteers because if people show up a lot they will want to keep showing up.
Epicenter-NYC: Why is it important to clean up your community with your neighbors?
Bodnar: It’s important because of the idea of “direct action.” That may be a loaded word sometimes in the activism world. What does it mean to do a direct action? It means putting in the time to help the community and keep it clean. Even if it is just for one week, it’s enough to want to do it again and again. Doing something like picking up trash and litter, from an environmental perspective, has a positive impact on the world. I hope we are having a good impact. I can’t be certain, but there are enough positive comments and things from people that feel relieved that at least something is being done. I would always like to do more, but for now, this is good.
Epicenter-NYC: What have you learned at Clean Up Crown Heights?
Bodnar: When you do this kind of work, it’s important to recognize that once you do it you have to let it go, understand that you did what you could and now you can move on to the next place and hopefully make a positive impact there. It’s the same way you plant a tree, a bush or a garden in a public space and the next day, someone could rip it out and ruin it. You have to learn to let go and understand that caring for the community is about putting in effort and once you are done, you can move on and try something else next time.
Epicenter-NYC: What advice would you give to New Yorkers who may want to clean their communities up?
Bodnar: If you really want to specifically clean up, the Parks Department does a stewardship program where you can learn how to plant trees and care for the trees in your community. They give you free tools — it’s a great program. Another thing is Link NYC — those big digital signs that are out in the street — it’s a great way to get the message out. If you want to start a group, just get the message out there, use social media, find a couple of friends and pick a place to do it, most importantly, keep it consistent.
Epicenter-NYC also spoke to two Clean Up Crown Heights team volunteers to learn more about why they joined and their experience helping out the community. Here’s what they had to say about why they joined and what advice they have for others:
“I found Clean Up Crown Heights on Instagram. I moved to the neighborhood in January 2020 and when Covid hit I was looking for some things to do around the neighborhood when I searched Crown Heights this group came up. I remember looking to volunteer at NYC Cares. They had food pantry events, but their schedules didn’t really line up for me. However, Clean Up Crown Heights was on Sunday mornings and right down the street — it was much more accessible. My favorite part is definitely the people I meet. It’s great to have new people that come in. Sometimes we’ll have drinks after a clean up. It’s the best part. All it takes is a couple of people that are willing to participate consistently. This was started by someone who just wanted to clean up their own street and they invited their friends along and took pictures of it, then it grew into a regular thing.”
“Back in the fall of 2020, I was searching around Instagram to find things going on in the neighborhood and I came across Clean Up Crown Heights — they happened to be right near where I live. Especially in 2020, it was noticeable that sanitation services had decreased. The litter baskets in the streets were not being emptied and there was no street sweeping. There were masks and gloves all over the floor. It was a large issue — it still is, Crown Heights is an area that doesn’t have the same level of services that other areas have, so it’s necessary to clean up. My favorite thing is seeing all of our neighbors who see us doing this and are surprised the people care enough to come and help. Anyone can come and help, all of our supplies have been donated by neighbors seeing what we do and wanting to contribute. We’ve been doing this work long enough so that if people are interested in starting one in their own area they can reach out to us and we’ll send them a little tip sheet.”