Meet the volunteer cleanup crew making a ‘transformative impact’ on Crown Heights streets

crown heights cleanup crew
Clean Up Crown Heights, a volunteer cleanup crew, picks up trash on the streets of the nabe every weekend.
Photo by Lauren Rapp

On a recent spring Sunday morning, a volunteer group met up at Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway at 11 a.m., assembling to form the Clean Up Crown Heights crew. Their goal is to make their neighborhood streets a little cleaner. 

Each Sunday, they bring together regular members and a host of new faces to comb through the streets, happily stuffing litter into their trash bags. The group find everything from cigarette butts to plastic bottle tops and bike parts and, on this particular morning, a leather corset fished out of a storm drain. 

clean up crew crown heights
Volunteers bag up food waste, bottle caps, and whatever else accumulates on the streets. Photo by Lauren Rapp

Shannon Mitch, a Crown Heights resident for three years, said she looks forward to the meet-ups every week. After a few months of volunteering, Mitch has started to see a pattern in the litter. 

“I will never buy a little floss pick again. They are everywhere,” she said.  

What gets her coming back each week is the sense of community she is proud to be a part of.

“I think it’s really inspiring what people can achieve working together,” Mitch said. “What we can do for ourselves and our own community. And it is really satisfying at the end of the day to see a transformative impact on the street even through, you know, it’s just a couple of blocks.” 

The group started back in the fall of 2020 as a small DIY-style meet-up. Four years later, the group has hosted over 138 clean-ups, and they estimate they have removed as much as 10 tons of trash from the streets of Crown Heights. 

volunteers with crown heights clean up crew
Volunteer estimate they have picked up as much as 10 tons of trash. Photo by Lauren Rapp

All materials — like bags, gloves, and trash picks – are provided by the leaders of the group, making it easy for anyone to come out and get involved. Despite growing a larger volunteer base they have kept their DIY energy. The group is made up exclusively of volunteers and runs on donations from an Amazon Wish List for clean-up items. 

As Iz Lucente, a Crown Heights resident for almost two years, grabbed some bottle caps, she shared her reasons for joining the crew.

“Granted picking up the trash really isn’t a solution but it feels like I am doing something at least,” she said. 

The group picks their route based on nominations from community members and block associations reach out through email asking to be the next area covered. Kristen Caccavale nominated her block for this day’s route. 

Caccavale has been a volunteer since 2021, and said she chose this route because sees small liquor bottles, a lot of chicken bones, and Gatorade bottles stuck in sewer grates on her way to the subway every day. 

There seems to be a particular satisfaction that comes with cleaning up a sewer grate. Different pieces of trash come together to create impressive layers of emulsified grime, almost completely blocking the drain. The group finds the fun in it; oohing, awing, and giggling about the gross and rewarding act. 

sewer grate in crown heights
The group get particular satisfaction from picking trash out of storm drains. Photo by Lauren Rapp

Andrew Yen, a clean-up leader for the route, said people who are joining for the first time should be ready “to have a great time basically.” 

“We provide everything you need. We provide the gloves, the pickers. So, you just have to show up and just have fun, I suppose.” 

Clean Up Crown Heights holds meetings every Sunday. The locations for upcoming routes can be found on their website and Instagram (@cleanupcrownheights).