By Lisa Kava
ONE BLOCK, a nonprofit organization founded during the pandemic summer of 2020 to help clean Upper West Side streets, has since filled more than 150,000 bags of garbage. Now, as the organization celebrates its third anniversary, help from the community is desperately needed to keep it alive.
According to co-founder Ann Cutbill Lenane, ONE BLOCK is short on donations, which are crucial to the nonprofit’s survival. “Without donations and sponsors, we will not be able to continue,” Lenane told West Side Rag in a phone interview.
ONE BLOCK was born in August 2020 when Jake Russell, a Texas native turned Upper West Sider, noticed he was constantly stepping over garbage when walking in the neighborhood. He formed a Facebook group asking Upper West Siders to “adopt” an Upper West Side block to regularly clean. Lenane, a real estate broker/dynamo (whose tag line is “Annie Gets It Done“) loved Russell’s idea and joined forces with him. “Tempers and anxiety were high on the UWS and I wanted to help,” she told the Rag. Together they turned the Facebook group into ONE BLOCK.
In the early days ONE BLOCK grew quickly as many Upper West Siders shared Lenane’s sentiments. By October 2020, the organization had 1,600 volunteers. In addition to cleaning their adopted blocks, volunteers met for group clean-ups on select Saturdays and Sundays, led by Russell and Lenane who provided bright green garbage bags, T-shirts, and hats. Regular donations to ONE BLOCK rolled in as neighborhood residents were excited about the mission.
In October 2020, ONE BLOCK partnered with the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless (ACE), another nonprofit, which provides support and job training to men and women experiencing homelessness. Through that partnership, ONE BLOCK hired three full-time workers to clean up sections of Columbus, Amsterdam, and Broadway.
But in early 2021, Lenane noticed a change. “People started going back to work after the initial halt of the pandemic and we had far fewer volunteers,” she told the Rag. “There were times when I would be the only one to show up for a group cleanup.” She reached out to local schools, churches, and synagogues to get involved. “Columbus Preschool hosted and sponsored Fun Runs to raise money and awareness for us for three years in a row.”
Three years after its founding, ONE BLOCK is facing new challenges. Russell has returned to his home state of Texas, and Lenane is running ONE BLOCK on her own. As donations have significantly decreased, she was forced to scale down the coverage area (workers originally cleaned Broadway, Columbus and Amsterdam, but Columbus has been eliminated.) Lenane also had to cut the workers’ hours from seven to four days a week. And, sadly, ONE BLOCK no longer has the funds to pay three ACE workers, so Lenane needed to let one go. The remaining two workers, Jackie and Ramon have been with ONE BLOCK since the beginning.
In February 2023, ONE BLOCK received some relief in the form of funding from the Department of Youth and Community Development. But Lenane says she is only allowed to use 30% of those funds to pay the workers who are considered subcontractors. The remaining funds are used for expenses such as bags, insurance, and lunch cards for the workers. “It’s a help, but not enough,” she said.
“I believe people now take for granted that our neighborhood will stay clean without supplemental cleanup. Once the pandemic lifted and the streets were cleaner, the donations slowed down. Over the last three years, we have gone from a large scattering of donations of all sizes, to small repeat monthly donations. That can’t sustain us.”
Lenane is passionate about ONE BLOCK and believes that supplemental garbage pick-up is crucial. “Without it the streets would be a mess.” She also feels dedicated to keeping her workers employed. “We have given people jobs who were unemployed and who now feel appreciated and are deeply grateful. We need to keep going.” To support ONE BLOCK click here.
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