Alternating Currents

When the wind clocks south from the waste recovery facility, it carries a stink that, as a friend once put it, could gag a maggot. Compacted sludge from a nearby city sewage treatment plant is fired here at high temperature to form fertilizer pellets. Compared to the smell this process generates, the adjacent sewage plant seems almost perfumed. 'It's something you just can't imagine,' says local resident Majora Carter. Prevailing breezes waft the reek over a stretch of open scrubland called Barretto Point, a 13-acre peninsular heel that juts out where the Bronx and East rivers join, along the perimeter of the immense Hunts Point market.

It doesn't take much to dismiss this desolate place out of hand. Yet Barretto Point is abundant with the tougher forms of both local and migratory wildlife and with Native American and Revolutionary history. The Weckquaeskgeek Indians had a village here called Quinnahung; Washington's troops rested here once in retreat. It also commands what has to be one of the broader views in New York: the confluence of two rivers, the little hump of North Brother Island, the looming hulk of Rikers, and, beyond that, Flushing Bay. Nonetheless, it takes an act of will to imagine this funky plot as parkland. Majora Carter goes the vision one better. The "Director of Re-envisioning" at the Point, a nonprofit community development corporation in Hunts Point, Carter has a plan to make Barretto Point the anchor for a greenbelt that would entirely transform a substantial segment of the lower Bronx River.

To sense how radical a notion this is, you'd first want a picture of the river as is. You'd need, in particular, to envision the segment of it that flows south from the Bronx Botanical Garden, where a meandering waterway cutting through shady woodlands abruptly degenerates into a grim, wet, and much polluted ditch. In the words of a report by the Bronx Partnership for Parks, the Bronx River, "like many urban rivers and streams, is associated with pollution and danger" and "continues to suffer from illegal dumping, erosion, storm water runoff, and a range of other insults." That's putting it mildly.

A pastoral stretch of the Bronx River
photo: Sylvia Plachy
A pastoral stretch of the Bronx River

Isolated from surrounding communities by five highways, by railroad tracks, by industrial parks, by auto parts dumps, by scrap-metal yards and by decades of neglect, the Bronx River doesn't just suffer from insults, it has become one. It's an eyesore and an affront to the neighborhood where Majora Carter grew up. "Eighty percent of the New York region's produce and 40 percent of its meat is moved through the Hunts Point market," at the mouth of the river, explains the activist, "along with 40 percent of its waste." In this one area alone, there are 24 waste-transfer stations, handling about 12,000 tons daily. Not long ago the city quietly introduced a plan to add yet another plant to the waste stream, this one capable of processing a further 5000 tons a day. "I'd venture to say that this would not have been done in another neighborhood," Carter says. And it's a sure bet the plant would never have been sited in the more affluent northern stretches of the Bronx.

"It's strange," continues Carter, who owns a house in Hunts Point, across the street from her parents', "to hear people in this neighborhood saying, 'How come, when I take my kids out of this area, suddenly they don't have asthma attacks anymore and they can breathe?' "

No one knows for certain if the asthma rate in Hunts Point is linked to the prevalence of sewage treatment facilities. But breathing isn't something you can take for granted in the miasma of urban politics. Most people would concede that a good way to offset pollution is access to sea air. Yet, as things now stand, the sole place in Barretto Point where anyone can approach the river is the Tiffany Street pier, which is fenced off and under construction, having burnt down twice after being struck by lightning.

For miles upriver the story is essentially the same. Which is why some people might see in Carter's "re-envisioning" a level of optimism worthy of Candide. Carter and a colleague, Alexie Torres-Fleming, form the nucleus of the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance, a grandiose name for a two-person coalition with plans no less ambitious than the decommissioning of the Sheridan Expressway, the reclamation of disused cement factories, the opening of the Bronx River waterfront to uses common enough in upriver communities but unheard-of in Soundview and Hunts Point. "So far the Watershed Alliance is just Majora and me," explains Torres-Fleming, executive director of the nonprofit Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice. "But y'aint gonna get much better than that."

Y'aint. A 35-year-old native of an area that went national only after Amadou Diallo was shot and killed there by city cops, Torres-Fleming runs the only local youth outreach program. Lately, she and her group have focused their efforts on battling the city for control of a 10-acre factory site bordering the river in Soundview. Together with Carter, various parks groups, and Councilmember Pedro G. Espada, Torres-Fleming recently lobbied to remove the cement factory from public auction and study it for potential reuse as an element in a proposed greenbelt puzzle. "There's a historical rail station at the perimeter of the lot that was designed by Cass Gilbert," she explains. "We can see it becoming an arts center. The cement factory would have to be razed and the land studied as a 'brownfield,' because it's probably contaminated."

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