In a West Harlem apartment complex, trash heaps inspired a project aimed at environmental sustainability.
At Grant House, a nine-building New York City Housing Authority complex on Amsterdam Avenue from 123rd to 125th streets, several volunteers are currently working to make their homes green and to address longtime sanitation problems that have plagued public housing in Harlem for decades. The Morningside Heights/West Harlem Sanitation Coalition—a local group of volunteers that formed in 1994 in response to poor sanitation in the neighborhood—recently refocused its efforts on recycling. Last month, the organization pitched its plan to the local Community Board 7 in the hope of eventually establishing its fresh recycling program as a citywide model.
According to Sanitation Coalition co-chair Joan Levine, the organization was formed when Grant Houses, her home of 52 years, joined with Morningside Gardens Cooperative Community, a complex just across Amsterdam Avenue. The two buildings had a common enemy: trash.
Levine said there had been tension between the complexes in the past, with the Cooperative generally housing middle-income residents as opposed to the primarily lower-income tenants of Grant Houses. But when large amounts of garbage bags began to pile up on Amsterdam due to insufficient numbers of trash bins, common disgust regarding the stench brought everyone together.
“Our garbage was kept on the street, they [Morningside Gardens] already had a container for their garbage,” said Sarah Martin, who has been a resident of the Grant Houses for 52 years and is now the president of the Grant Houses Tenants Association. “We were dealing with rat infestation,” she said.
Levine added, “We were all stepping over garbage as we were going to the subway to go to work.”
So in 1994, Levine and Grant Houses tenant Keith Mitchell formed the Sanitation Coalition in response to residents’ complaints.
“We worked very hard getting the Department of Sanitation to diminish the amount of garbage that they brought through the neighborhood,” Levine said.
After successfully cleaning the streets a decade and a half later, Levine and Martin, Mitchell’s co-chair replacement, are now tackling the green revolution with a large recycling campaign.
“A few years ago, we decided that the one place that didn’t recycle was Grant Houses, not because they didn’t want to, but because there were no decent receptacles to do so,” Levine said.
The Sanitation Coalition first worked with the NYCHA administration to acquire quality recycling bins, and since then, its efforts have grown. The Sanitation Coalition currently recruits residents from
Grant Houses to take recycling training seminars and then teach other tenants floor-by-floor about the recycling program.
According to the Sanitation Coalition chairs, each building would produce approximately 25 trash bags per week prior to the start of the recycling program, but now the buildings put out around 15 bags each.
“They have been working for a long time, and it has been a lesson for all of us, on how to get a movement started,” said Elizabeth Starkey, the co-chair of CB7’s Green Committee, who sat in on the Sanitation Coalition’s recent presentation.
And for Martin, it is time to take another step forward. She said that public housing—which accounts for 174,000 apartments in all five boroughs—must play a crucial role in any broad environmental sustainability efforts.
“It has loads and loads of people—the more garbage. If we can get all of them to recycle, it that would be a huge success,” Martin said.
Faith Rivera, a 22-year-old tenant who has lived in the Grant Houses her entire life, said that she has noticed a lot of people recycling now. “She’s about her business, she’s very involved,” Rivera said of Martin.
Martin added that, although not everyone is recycling, her coalition is making a huge impact on the complex’s waste.
Plus, those who do participate care deeply about the message. “You have to want to do it—it comes from the heart,” martin said.