Earth Day unites groups aiming to green the planet, and the economy
By Sandra Santana Mariaca
Learning how to grow fruits and vegetables in a limited space, saving money on energy bills, and capturing rainwater for gardens are some of the innovative ways Bronx nonprofit organizations are trying to improve the local environment.
Several of these groups were part of the first New York Green Festival, held on Earth Day Weekend in April at the Javits Center in Manhattan, including some from around Hunts Point.
In neighborhoods more often associated with polluted air and water, green entrepreneurs are addressing urban environmental challenges in ways that aim to create lasting employment while tackling health problems like asthma and obesity.
But every day is Earth Day at these Bronx firms. Omar Freilla, coordinator of Greenworker Cooperatives, which trains and prepares South Bronxites for green jobs and worker-ownership, sees environmental and economic rebirth closely linked.
“What would the Bronx look like if businesses were owned only by people in the community?” he asked.
Greenworker Cooperatives, through its Coop Academy, gives entrepreneurs initial support to help turn their ideas into functioning businesses. The group ran Rebuilders Source, a worker-owned warehouse on Timpson Ave., that supplied contractors and homeowners with deeply discounted building materials and supplies until it closed in 2010.
This spring, business representatives from worker coops coached four hopeful new green businesses for 16 weeks on economic survival. They offered legal advice on creating an organization, taught them to develop business plans and market their goods, and provided lessons on handling finances and making decisions democratically.
One of the new hopefuls is Concrete Green, a partnership that aims to build rainwater-harvesting systems on rooftops. Capturing rainwater and directing it to gardens below prevents flooding in the Bronx River, diverts water from overwhelming the sewer system, and creates jobs.
“It will save the river as well as use water that fell,” said Elizabeth Ortega, one of the new entrepreneurs, who grew up in Hunts Point.
Others said being so close to Manhattan’s wealth should help the Bronx go from also-ran to innovator.
“The Bronx has long been known as a dumping ground for the city, replete with contamination and environmentally-triggered diseases, such as asthma,” said Taleigh Smith, another of Concrete Green’s cooperators, explaining the power of green industries to reverse the borough’s image and reality.
“Our concentrated urban environment and proximity to Manhattan, the economic capital of the world, means solutions developed here can have global repercussions,” she said. “Green infrastructure is key to addressing our energy crisis, food desert, cleaning the Bronx river, and cleaning the air for our children.”
Among other companies in the Coop Academy are Caracol Interpreters Center, a translation firm dedicated to providing interpretation services to social justice movements; Nourishing Cities, which promotes urban agriculture and food justice in Woodhaven, Queens; and New Leaf Workers’ Cooperative, a housekeeping and landscaping company that emphasizes environmental awareness as well as worker-ownership.
Other ideas are blossoming in the South Bronx to protect the whole planet. Originally sited in California, Vertical Home Gardens moved to Morrisania because it was attracted to the buzz of green innovation coming out of a borough long subjected to polluting industries.
“The Bronx chose us,” said Eluem Blyden, one of the firm’s founders. Vertical Home Gardens developed the Phytopod, a plant bed designed for gardens with limited space, which can help gardens needing little or no soil to grow on balconies, rooftops and patios. In a partnership with the Osborne Association, the company employs the formerly incarcerated to produce the Phytopods on Westchester Ave., Blyden said, adding the model “connects people to the earth.”
Blyden’s partner, Julie Jackson, explained gardening helps people improve their eating habits, since they have fresh food available and can plan when food will be ready.
Another local innovation is Pyropeg’s thermal solar model, a super-efficient component for solar panels that generates electricity without coal or oil, and whose factory is on St. Ann’s Avenue. Fernando Peguero, its inventor, says the model is different from others because it converts solar energy into electricity faster than other similar devices.
“The solar energy heats the water that assists the boiler to produce more hot water,” Peguero said. One of his models is already installed at Bronx Community College. He is waiting for approval of his patent and is seeking distributors to sell the thermal solar cells.
Greenworker Cooperatives is looking for the next set of green innovators, people with big ideas that can help the planet and employ Bronxites, and is enrolling entrepreneurs for the fall semester at the Coop Academy. Go to http://www.greenworker.coop or call Omar Freilla at 718-617-7807.