Alternating Currents

In Torres-Fleming's vision, a disused spur of Edgewater Avenue that the city wants to turn into a truck route would become a footpath. A broken pier at the river's edge where her father once boarded fishing boats bound for Montauk would be rebuilt as a place to launch canoes. A slope where a colony of homeless people now live in shacks would be restored and replanted. The concrete aprons where some locals come to fight their pit bulls would be reclaimed. "I used to wander around down there when I was a kid," says Torres-Fleming, "pretending I was Becky Thatcher."

A move to prevent the Department of Citywide Administrative Services from auctioning the site was not successful. The factory was leased to the only bidder—the city refuses to release the company's name—for used-car storage at a rent of just $2500 a month. "It shouldn't have gone to auction," says Torres-Fleming. "It's a shame."

But that's not the end of the story. "We truly have a vision for the lower river," says Torres-Fleming, one that involves connecting fragments of existing parks with slivers of riverside land acquired from the city and from local industry. And while some of the sites are so badly polluted that even to fantasize their reuse requires environmental assessment studies, Torres-Fleming is spurred by a type of hardheaded optimism that critic Ellen Willis once called the engine of emancipation.

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

It'll take a lot to emancipate the Bronx River. But, says Torres-Fleming, "nothing we're doing now seems more outrageous to me than sitting in my attic dreaming up a place for youths in an area with 10,000 young people and no youth center." The activism Torres-Fleming and Carter are involved with is "as grassroots as it gets. I'm talking about home meetings where you have five people." The home meetings, it should be stated, are underwritten by grants from the Ford Foundations. And Torres-Fleming isn't joking when she says, "If not me, then my children or grandchildren will see the river restored.

"I grew up in a time," she continues, "when there was this social service mentality about community work. It said you'll be successful to the extent that you can help people leave the neighborhood." Torres-Fleming tried that. After getting degrees from Fordham and the New School, she married and moved to the suburbs. But something pulled her back to the Bronx, and it may have been the fact that she maintains "this antimissionary mentality." The paradigms of urban activism have shifted, she claims. "You don't think about fixing people in a neighborhood anymore, or imposing change from outside. You help create conditions to improve our common existence. Taking back our waterfront is a good example of how that gets done." *

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 migra-tory 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 BronxRiver, "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.

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.

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