By Albert Samaha
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"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."
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 lives 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 bidderthe city refuses to release the company's namefor used-car storage at a rent of just $2500 a month. "It shouldn't have gone to auction," saysTorres-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.
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 Foundation. 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."