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Green Means Go (Toward a Cleaner Community)

From left: Anthony Gordon, Albert Reece, Cheryl Brown, and Hubert Newkirk.

 They’re impossible to miss. Anyone who lives, works or shops on 79th has seen them. This hard-working troupe of garbage pickers, lawn carers, and object movers does more than pick up trash. Clad in the neon vests that, along with their recycling focus, give them their name, the Urban Green Team, according to Crew Chief Cheryl Brown, does “litter abatement, gardening, landscapes, home improvement, painting, gutting, special events, and whatever the community needs…manpower, we have it.” They work with the GAGDC, local alderman offices, (21st and 17th ward) and Neighborhood Housing Services. 

Ms. Brown talks in a singsong way that can’t help but make everyone she encounters feel at ease. Quick to encourage and even quicker to laugh, her natural smile hides a fierce determination and steadfast love of cooperation that comes out in the way she explains the Team: “our motto is: we all we got. So, we try to be a team, and work together as a team cause if we can’t depend on us, who can we depend on? We come in uniform, fully loaded, and the community always thanks us because we do such a great job.”

She described to me several episodes where people in the community stopped just to thank the team for their work: “It’s a blessing to have people always want you—just a few days ago, a woman stopped at a green light just to shout out: ‘I just want to slow down and say thank you.’” The community is noticing how clean the Urban Green Team’s targeted streets are kept. Their target area is focused around the Greater Auburn Gresham Community Development Corporation’s facilitated Special Service Areas—#32 (roughly 79th from the Dan Ryan to Marshfield) and #69 (roughly Ashland from 80th to 95th).

The coordinator for the Team’s activities since its inception, Mr. Hubert Newkirk explains that this focus on litter pickup has been central to the Urban Green Team’s goals from the beginning: “the biggest thing is keeping the neighborhood clean.” It’s a neighborhood Mr. Newkirk knows well. A stalwart of the GAGDC team who has been living or working in Auburn Gresham for more than 40 years, he tends to speak quietly, his deep voice calmly demanding full attention from his employees. He has a full career of experience in management, first for Dominick’s and Jewel and later as the Ward Superintendent for the 17th ward, and throughout has carried a reputation for being “hard but fair.”

 When I asked why he came out of retirement to run this program, he explained: “As you’re moving south (in Chicago) you can tell when you move into an African American neighborhood by watching the trash. The further south, the more trash you see. And I don’t like trash.” Fighting stereotypes and is something the Urban Green Team does in several ways.

The current team is comprised of mostly hard-to-employ individuals, many of whom are returning citizens. For some, this is their last chance of employment, for others, they’re building their resumes to go on to find even better work. As Ms. Brown put so well: “Some of us have gotten into trouble, but GAGDC has been there for us, to let us prove ourselves within the community. Instead of the usual ‘I’ll call you, I’ll get back to you,’ they (GAGDC) say ‘let me see what it is you can do out here, and I’ll give you that chance’…they instill in us that we have to be honest within ourselves as well as honest with the company and the community…they trust us.”

Mr. Newkirk likes “to see people grow because you know you’ve been able to help and to help them stay employed.” He has one-on-one sessions with the team members, advising them on employment, finances and other issues. Thanks to his career in management, he says, “they have very few problems that I haven’t heard before. There’s no surprises.”

Several members of the Team and 21st Ward Alderman Howard Brookins.

 This professional attitude has serious effects on the way the neighborhood looks, and how citizens interact with their blocks. Ms. Brown explained how the Team cleaning up the streets raises the expectations of the residents for cleanliness: 
“People end up keeping the area clean.” She noticed changes in the behavior of residents now that the blocks are so much cleaner—they’re less likely to litter and more likely to pick up other people’s trash. Now more than ten years after the Team started, resident’s pride in their neighborhood has grown so much that the streets get cleaned and stay clean longer.

The Urban Green Team is so much more than just a trash pickup group, however. It’s their other, less visible, duties that make the Urban Green Team so special. In a sentence, they keep the community moving. Whether that’s various handyman style jobs for one of the alderman’s office, basic construction for NHS or all of the work they do for GAGDC, Auburn Gresham behind the scenes stays on track thanks to busy people clad in neon green. It’s at GAGDC events, such as the AG Gold Summer Camp’s final ceremony, Playstreets events, or the 79th St. Renaissance Festival where the Team really makes their mark. 

They set up, they clean up, and they move tents and grills and equipment, from speaker systems to bouncy houses. They work the grill, they move basketball hoops, they gather supplies from the GAGDC main office on 79th and Racine and satellite offices at the AG Gold Schools and bring them to where they need to go and then back again. If you need a popcorn machine, a boom box or a hula-hoop, they’re the ones you talk to. Several times a month, every month, they help out at a GAGDC event. In fact, according to Mr. Newkirk: “Not a lot of events happen without the Urban Green Team.” For a community-based organization that is as focused on community outreach through events as the GAGDC is, the Urban Green Team is literally indispensable.

For the Urban Green Team, it is as simple as just getting done what needs to be done. They don’t complain, they don’t ask for appreciation. Mr. Newkirk himself said that he doesn’t mind that people sometimes don’t notice the ways that the Team keeps everything running smoothly. It’s just the fact that things do run smoothly that matters. These garbage pickers, lawn carers, and object movers make Auburn Gresham a cleaner neighborhood, a safer neighborhood, and a better neighborhood. And they’re not stopping anytime soon. As Ms. Brown so proudly said: “we are out there every day Monday through Friday, whenever we are called upon, we are out there."

Posted in Local Businesses, Business, Housing, Economic Development, Community Highlights


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