Jackson Heights Beautification Group gathers volunteers for a “Fall Cleaning” in the “Green Zone”

Under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway near 35th Avenue in Jackson Heights lay a homeless man on the sidewalk on an old, tattered, queen-sized mattress surrounded by cardboard, empty beer cans, and random trash. In fact, both sides of 35th Ave. was full of trash.

Children, teenagers, middle-aged and elderly individuals gathered together early Saturday morning to volunteer on the corner of 35th Ave. and 69th St. in Jackson Heights. The volunteers stood right next to the BQE under its constant drone of loud traffic noise that could be seen as the biggest problem for those residing next to the freeway. However, for the volunteers more problematic than the noise, is the trash between Northern Blvd. and 37th Ave.

The area is otherwise known by the Jackson Heights Beautification Group as the “Green Zone,” due to the fenced vacant lots which are filled with trees, brush and grass.

The Jackson Heights Beautification Group (JHBG), a non-profit organization in Jackson Heights founded in 1988, organized an annual “Fall Cleaning,” which occurs every Saturday at 10 a.m. from early Sept. until Thanksgiving, and asked the community through Facebook and Twitter to volunteer in cleaning the area by picking up trash, raking leaves, and “beautifying” the area.

“When we started this about 10 years ago it was a real dumping ground,” said Nuala O’Doherty, president of JHBG. “You used to find things such as dishwashers, engine blocks, radiators, and things I couldn’t even pick up myself. Initially I would go and try to clean it up myself, but I would come back and it would be dirty again, then I would clean, come back, dirty again, etc. and eventually I got tired.”

At the time O’Doherty contacted a group of volunteers that were from a local karate center that went to the area every Sat. morning to clean up, but the problem persisted. She decided to make the area nicer by gardening or “beautifying” the areas where trash was problematic and called it the “Green Zone”.

Since then, people from the community volunteer every year to help keep the area clean.

Before volunteers arrived, Rafael Rodriguez, a 69 year-old Jackson Heights resident, was walking around with a green translucent garbage bag and filling it with the trash he’d pick up from the ground and plants near the sidewalk.

“I’ve been picking up trash for a few years now,” said Rodriguez. “I like to get up early in the morning about 3 or 4 times a week and go out and clean my neighborhood. Only recently have I started volunteering with JHBG.”

Rodriguez points out the dozens of whiskey bottles filled with urine along a mural painted by children from a local school and the loads of trash and old clothes right next to the BQE on 65th St.

“All that is from the homeless people that come here at night and relieve themselves,” said Rodriguez. “They also leave all their trash and old clothes, but that’s why we’re here today, to clean it up and keep it looking beautiful.”

New York City released the Mayor’s Management Report last week, which is an annual report by the government of New York City on government performance at the end of the fiscal year, which is June 30.

According to the report, 95.1 percent of streets were rated as “acceptably clean,” and had a goal of 92 percent. Only 0.2 percent was rated as “filthy.”

The same goes for sidewalks, which had a rating of 97.1 percent of cleanliness.

Yet somehow, volunteers are needed every Saturday for three hours to help maintain Jackson Heights a clean community.

Arnaldo Rosario, a Jackson Heights local and first time volunteer, says that he has been picking up trash on his own for the last two to three years.

“I was just tired of seeing all the trash in my neighborhood, so I just took it upon myself to go out and clean this area,” said Rosario. “If you let it build up, it just gets worse and worse you know?”

Rosario said he heard about JHBG because Catalina Cruz, Democratic candidate for New York State Assembly in District 39, mentioned the organization during the primary race.

“I also went to her office and there was a big JHBG poster there, so I decided to come,” said Rosario.

Besides the trash, Rosario said that he would also like to see less graffiti tagging in Jackson Heights.

“That mural on 69th street that kids painted is something I’d like to see more of in the neighborhood. It gives a positive vibe,” said Rosario.

Catalina Cruz is also a volunteer and supporter of Jackson Heights Beautification Group. Cruz showed up in a t-shirt and jeans, ready to help clean and garden her community.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to this neighborhood and [JHBG] don’t just stick to the idea of gardening; the idea of gardening is just the starting point,” said Cruz. “The goal is that we need to make our community more beautiful.”

About Roberto Herrera

My name is Roberto Carlos Herrera and I’m from Los Angeles, Ca. I’m a first generation Mexican-American. My parents are immigrants from Mexico City. I graduated with a Bachelors in Journalism from California State University, Long Beach. I currently reside in Brooklyn and attend graduate school at the News and Documentary program at NYU.