Deflowering the Bronx

Parks Department Paves Green Spaces Saved by Volunteers

The small bulldozer rumbled into the People's Park Exchange in Mott Haven just after dawn. Police officers blocked the entrances as the machine tore up a casita and the labyrinth of tree trunks and wood chips built by local residents, who'd cleaned up what had been an open-air drug market known as the Devil's Playground.

To officials in the Parks Department, this was simply business. They had finally received funding from the nonprofit Trust for Public Land to turn the place into a playground, and they were starting their project. They hardly could have known that the destruction last fall would focus long-simmering local rage over how the South Bronx has been treated for years.

Long before last February, when a federal agency accused the Parks Department of discriminating against black and Latino employees, people in the South Bronx, which is 96 percent black and Latino, were saying that parks policy systematically neglected their neighborhoods for reasons of race and class. In a dozen interviews, mothers, naturalists, old men, politicians, radical activists, community board members, Little League coaches, and former Young Lords alike say parks in the area are rarely maintained, chronically understaffed, and never programmed, and that officials are deaf to local culture in a way unthinkable in the more affluent North Bronx or Manhattan.

"They're no good," says Alfredo Nazario, the 89-year-old retired watchmaker who runs the free Bronx Boricuas Little League at Bill Rainey Park. "I have to do all the work there to keep it clean. Our field keeps leveling between first and second. It's a big lake. You could swim in it. I told the guy, and they don't care. The guy says they can't get no damn clay."

Naturally, parks officials have a different view, citing management techniques they say have improved services since Commissioner Henry Stern took office in 1994, bringing Bronx commissioner William Castro with him. Everyone agrees the lack of money limits how much the department can do. "It's a budget matter," Stern says. "The parks get run down, we receive appropriations, and we do the work. No one in this system is getting money and sitting on it. Everyone likes to feel they are underserved. It's part of the nature of political discourse in this city."

But the South Bronx is clearly a rare case. The neighborhood has historically been the city's official dumping ground. In the 1950s, Faustian planner Robert Moses rammed highways through its thriving working-class blocks. In 2001, the city is unloading two new power plants there and bringing in the pungent Fulton Fish Market to clear space for Lower Manhattan real estate. Hunts Point alone is imprisoned by two dozen waste-transfer stations, a sewage treatment plant, a sewage sludge pelletizing plant, the largest scrap-metal yard in the city, and the massive Hunts Point Market, which draws 20,000 truck trips a week.

Subway maps showing green space in the South Bronx are painful. Only St. Mary's Park is noticeable, minute compared to the expansive green in the north, home to Van Cortlandt and Pelham Bay Park. The district covering Riverdale in the north has 243 acres of parkland. Another district in the north, 10, has 3524. But in the one including Mott Haven, there are only 64 acres; 28 in the one including Hunts Point. Although Castro says the acreage is misleading because much of the northern land is inaccessible forest, residents in the south take little solace from the fact, knowing that while they may have as many parks, most of theirs are concrete playgrounds.

But complaints about the basics also veil deeper struggles over what a park should be. The grassroots groups who reclaimed abandoned city properties from drugs and crime in the 1980s say they want to remain involved in decisions about the parks they saved.

In the past two decades, this landscape so harrowed by landlords, waste haulers, and other forces from above has grown into an oasis of people's counterplanning from below. Today, it harbors vital examples of the forms a radical green city could take, from the casitas that migrated here from rural Puerto Rico and serve as senior centers surrounded by homegrown pepper plants, to the end of Lafayette Avenue in Hunts Point, where residents created the first waterfront park in decades on the industrial peninsula, using concrete blocks painted cheerful colors for benches.

On Kelly Street, across from Middle School 52, locals painted an ailing park tropical blue. They surrounded gray handball courts with gardens overhung with grapevines, and started holding Latin music concerts that unite the community on summer evenings. On Hoe Avenue, co-op owners and other residents with no formal planning experience sketched alternative designs for an embattled park occupied by three tennis courts filled with pits as big as cars, and protested until the Parks Department adopted parts of their plan.

"We got big resistance from Parks and Recreation," says Lisa Ortega, an organizer with the grassroots group Mothers on the Move. Ortega noted that Castro would always at least meet with them, but added, "There was really some static. They said it would cost a lot to fix and, looking at the area, why fix it when it's in a drug spot and it'll just get destroyed again?"

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