NEW YORK – Squatting on the roof of a row house with a panoramic view of the sewage plants and warehouses that surround the South Bronx, James Wells sounds like a tree-hugger.
He photographs the progress of seedlings he planted on the roof, one of his first “green roof” installations, and explains how roofs covered by soil and plants, more trees on the ground and cleaner parks are key to fighting the pollution that overwhelms the neighborhood. As he speaks, a pungent rotting smell emanates from a sewage plant.
“Imagine living under these types of conditions,” says Wells, 29. “It’s one of the reasons asthma rates are so high in the Bronx.”
Two years ago, Wells made an improbable conversion from convict to environmentalist. He was just out of prison after serving 10 years for armed robbery and couldn’t find a job that would pay enough to make the rent.
Then he found Sustainable South Bronx, and he found a calling.
Since 2003, the environmental group has trained 70 former drug addicts, welfare recipients and convicts for jobs in landscaping, ecological restoration, green roof installation and hazardous waste cleanup.
Training for ‘green collar’ jobs
The Bronx group is at the forefront of a movement to put low-income and low-skilled workers in “green collar” jobs: manual work in fields that help the environment.
Cities trying to strengthen the local economy and go green see the solution in green-collar jobs. Jobs in the $341-billion-a-year green industry have the potential to move people out of poverty, says Trenton, N.J., Mayor Douglas Palmer.
“This is a frontier that’s going to open for the whole country, but especially for us in the Midwest and Northeast, where we need to grow our economy,” says Palmer, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. A conference report out next month will advise mayors on how to set up green job programs.