Greening up the city
For more than 20 years, city helped citizens clean up for Earth Day
04/18/2012 10:00 PM
It’s been 42 years since the world began celebrating Earth Day, and for the last 22, Chicagoans have been joining in for the city’s annual Clean and Green.
This Saturday, residents across the city will join in again, spreading out across neighborhoods like mini armies equipped with rakes, brooms, shovels and trash bags.
Together, they’ll take on parks and blocks, vacant lots and alleys, making efforts to clean up their front yard.
As first deputy commissioner of the department of streets and sanitation, Randy Conner has overseen the logistics behind the event for the past three years.
It’s a massive undertaking for his department. Each year, they take requests from community groups, aldermen and residents who want to clean up their neighborhoods, and then supply them with the materials to get the job done. Afterwards, they go back and collect trash bags of debris and branches.
While it’s a lot of work to prepare for, Conner said deputizing thousands of people around the city helps the department.
“It actually makes our jobs a little bit easier,” he said. “Now we can concentrate on the bigger things. It helps us save money every time our laborers can be more efficient.”
This year, Conner said, the city will lend Clean and Green participants 1,600 total brooms, rakes and shovels, and hand out 1,800 trash bags. To make sure they have enough materials, they ask community groups to reach out to them a week in advance.
Then, they go about the massive task of rounding up and distributing the cleaning goods. Much of it is already around the department, but they have to buy some new equipment each year.
“It’s almost like Santa Claus in checking his list and checking it twice,” Conner said. “We’re making sure the tools are packaged and bundled, making sure volunteers are in place to run things.”
Patrick Haynes, the 42nd Ward’s Streets and Sanitation superintendent, said downtown’s Clean and Green helps them focus on areas that they can’t get to with their high demand.
As he waited in his Goose Island office Tuesday morning for his ward’s equipment to be delivered, Haynes waxed on how much the event helps keep downtown clean.
“Things are different now. We have to do more with less — everyone’s down to bare bones,” Haynes said. “The Clean and Green is great, because you can send them to areas you have trouble with and get them to clean them up.”
Earth Day isn’t the only day the city will hand out equipment for citizens to clean up their neighborhood, though. Chicagoans can call their alderman or Streets and Sanitation any day of the year to do work, and the city will gladly give them the goods.
Ald. Bob Fioretti’s 2nd Ward is one of the most active in the city in Clean and Greens, Conner said. Fioretti, who organizes several Clean and Greens each year, said the secret to his ward’s success is simple: Just ask people to help out.
“All we do is ask people. People want to be involved in the community, and the Clean and Green is an easy way,” he said. “People get pride when they see clean streets and clean sidewalks — cleaning up the park that you’re going to use for the rest of the summer.”
Fioretti’s second major Clean and Green takes place every fall, when they “put the parks to sleep,” as he puts it. He’s thinking about doing even more, he said.
“A lot of community groups come to us in the spring and the fall. We’re looking at doing them every weekend on a smaller scale,” he said. “If you want a clean community, people have got to clean up.”
As the civilian chief for the city’s biggest park, Grant Park Conservancy head Bob O’Neill said he gets people out multiple times a year to clean the city’s front yard, not just on the Clean and Green. He gets help from big corporations, too — Exelon brings a group of its employees out to clean the park three times a year, including this Friday, when they’ll tackle the area around Buckingham Fountain.
He takes pride in having his park set an example for the rest of the city.
“One thing we do with Grant Park is we set a landscape and green standard for the rest of the city,” he said. “We hope people can take it back to their neighborhood.”
Most importantly, the Clean and Green simply helps people realize that they can take control of their neighborhood, O’Neill said.
“There’s a mentality out there that it’s not their property. They can’t work on it because it’s not theirs,” he said. “The Clean and Green, it formally sanctions it. People feel it’s something that the city is welcoming them to do.”
This article has been corrected to reflect that Earth Day was first celebrated 42 years ago, not 22 years ago.