Improving Building Efficiency One Day...Tearing Buildings Down the Next


It’s windy and the weather is colder than the forecast predicted, but it’s easy to stay warm when you’re bundled in a head-to-toe Tyvek suit. Along with respirators, gloves and safety goggles, the suits are part of the uniform worn by the Green City Force Corpsmembers tasked with salvaging homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

It’s been almost six months since Sandy struck, but for some New Yorkers the storm might as well have just hit yesterday. Down in Sheepshead Bay, a neighborhood of Southern Brooklyn located along the Rockaway Inlet, many homes were completely inundated by storm surges. Even now, home interiors are still filled with mud-coated furniture. The walls are still covered in moldy sheetrock and wet insulation. Most families are simply not capable of addressing the storm damage on their own. This is where Green City Force comes in.

The goal of Green City Force, a Brooklyn-based Service Corps that enrolls residents of New York City Housing Authority buildings, is to end the cycle of poverty and protect the environment by training low-income young adults for “green collar” careers. The Corpsmembers, who range in age from 18 to 24, spend six months getting hands on training and learning about fields related to the clean energy economy, including energy efficiency, weatherization, urban agriculture, and improving community environmental health. Corpsmembers also participate in community service projects; but lately many of their additional service projects have focused on Sandy recovery.  

Today, a cloudy Thursday in mid-April, marks the third time that this team of Green City Force Corpsmembers has helped with the Sheepshead Bay cleanup efforts, building on the work of last Fall’s Corpsmembers. Using prepaid MetroCards issued by Green City Force, many Corpsmembers have traveled well over an hour to get here. Their first stop is a trailer run by Occupy Sandy; a coalition of Occupy Wall Street members working to distribute volunteers and resources in storm-damaged neighborhoods. Green City Force and Occupy Sandy are not officially affiliated, but the Corps has arranged to spend the day volunteering in whatever homes Occupy Sandy has scheduled for cleanup.


At the trailer, about 10 Corpsmembers from the Green City Force EmPower Team and their Crew Leader, Kenta Darley-Usmar, gather protective gear, trash bags and crowbars. Their first job today will involve taking down the sheetrock and fiberglass insulation from the interior of a damaged storage room. The walls and insulation - wet, muddy, and covered in mold - crumble easily, necessitating the use of respirators. Corpsmembers use hammers and crowbars to break holes in the walls, then use their hands to pull down the sheetrock. Other Corpsmembers collect the debris in trash bags and take it to the curb.

After a pizza lunch provided by the grateful owners of the storage room, the EmPower team heads off to another house. This second home has already had the sheetrock and insulation removed, so Corpsmembers get to work pulling out moldy kitchen cabinets, doors and door frames. Some Corpsmembers wait outside and use hammers to remove nails and staples from the wood. Though they admit there’s something therapeutic about being able to tear things down, the Corpsmembers are solemn and very respectful of the property.


“It feels good to help families. This is a lot of work so you know there’s no way they could’ve done it on their own. But we get it done,” said Angie Lacy, a Corpsmember with the EmPower team.

Angie and a fellow Corpsmember, Angela Almonte, commented on how helping muck out damaged homes is in many ways easier than the outreach work they do as members of the EmPower team. Except for on service days like this one, the EmPower team normally spends four days a week doing environmental education in low-income neighborhoods. Their main job is to inform eligible residents about a state program through which they can receive energy efficient appliances for free. Corpsmembers then help with the application process and follow-up work. The team also distributes CFL light bulbs and information about ways people can reduce their utility bills. Eventually the Corpsmembers will become certified to actually do energy efficiency audits and install aerators and eco-friendly appliances. As Angela points out, helping muck out damaged homes is actually very applicable to the program’s main goal because it allows Corpsmembers the opportunity to learn about building safety and see the skeletal structure of buildings.

Angela discusses how the EmPower team’s outreach work can often be challenging because it involves having to get the attention of sometimes reluctant residents and then gain their trust. Whereas tearing down a wall is pretty straightforward, outreach work can be unpredictable. When they can, the team tries to set up their table in front of an apartment building that has a looped driveway so that residents can see there are multiple Corpsmembers all working together.

“Sometimes people kind of don’t feel like they’re being helped,” said Angela. “But it’s a really good feeling when you see that they know they’re being helped and they really appreciate it.”

Angela and Angie are both very dedicated to completing the six months of GCF and continuing on to college. Angela hopes to study architecture, while Angie wants to pursue a degree in biology. Both young women have an interest in science that brought them to Green City Force in the first place -- Angela attended the Gateway Academy for Environmental Research and Technology; a public high school where she had the chance to take classes in biotechnology and robotics. Angie took botany in school and excelled in environmental science. When Angela heard about GCF from her mother, and Angie saw a flyer for the program in her apartment building, they were both intrigued by the prospect of gaining green industry job experience.

“I’ve learned a lot while I’ve been here. It’s opened my eyes to a lot of things, like how the earth really is warming up, and how we’re running out of resources,” said Angie. “We’ve been to a lot of places and we’ve experienced a lot of things – things I definitely wouldn’t have experienced on my own. Our resumes are going to look great by the end of this.”