Deflowering the Bronx

Parks Department Paves Green Spaces Saved by Volunteers

"Look at this park," he says. "There are no trees. It's a total institutional gray. It's almost like a deliberate plan to deprive the children of the Millbrook projects of any imagination at all. Some people say it is deliberate." He calls over the girls and asks them what they'd like to see in the park.

"Nice flowers," says Jennifer, 13. "A little garden."

"I'd like to see some more colors," says Jessica, 13.

The third, Jenny, 11, pauses and glances up at him.

"What's the stick for?" she asks.

"There's so much concrete," he says. "This is how I stay connected to nature." She considers this, and then says, "There's an empty spot over there. Maybe they could plant some flowers there."

"Why not tear some of this concrete up?" Bubbins asks her. "Do you think it was always here?"

"No," she says.

"Think it will always be here?" he says.

"No," she says.

"Think about it like that," he says.

As he walks, he passes conscious murals that put the equation simply—"More Gardens = Less Asthma"—and folks call out to him, "He looks like Johnny Appleseed!" At the United We Stand garden, on 137th Street and Cypress, he finds José Rodriguez, 67. "We've been here 14 years. We built all of this up," Rodriguez says, waving his arm across the peppers and flower beds. "This, for us, is a park. We cook here, walk, talk. There's no charge for food. Whatever we cook, everybody eats.

"There was a little house over there, and they broke it," he says. "We got all the neighborhood together to build that fence. See that fence? The government didn't do that. We did it. If they would give us any freedom, we would build it up, but they want to keep it like you're living in somebody else's house."

Castro says the department moved on the garden because one of the casitas there with water and electrical hookups from a nearby building was too much like a house and posed a safety risk, and because gardeners had planted on parks land they had no right to.


The saddest thing about the conflicts is that all these groups say they could be the Parks Department's greatest boosters, a volunteer army of equals crafting a revolutionary model of a new green city. "I wish they'd jump on us and use us as an example," Quiñones says.

Perhaps the best place to see a vision of what's possible is at the end of Lafayette Avenue, across a busy highway, past an industrial lot creeping with barbed wire.

Down a slope in the asphalt, a sign is painted on the ground in white: Waterfront Park. Little pink and turquoise flowers appear on the street in paint, as if placeholders for real flowers coming someday. Past a chain, the scattered objects look less accidental; painted flowers, sunbursts, peace signs, and Puerto Rican flags appear. So do river birches, crab apples, willows, and cottonwoods.

Down farther, Nino DeSimone, coordinator of Greening for Breathing at the Point, which developed the site, unlocks a trailer, and a couple of boys haul out fishing poles. The Parks Department helped fund work there with a $10,000 grant, as part of the popular Waterways and Trailways Program, an initiative to develop a greenway stretching from Westchester all the way down to the South Bronx. The place is still spare, barely a park, but it holds the seed of what activists could do for the borough with the right support.

The community's hopes are expressed in a mural on the side of the equipment shed. It's a remix of Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, painted by the Tats Cru. In the scene, the ramshackle street scattered with woodchips is covered in lush green grass and shrubs. Full, tall trees with sunlight pouring through them turn the ground a liquid gold, as a multiracial crowd walks and lounges in the park. The dark gray-brown river is rendered so turquoise it is almost phosphorescent. Even the apartment towers in Soundview across the way look radiant again.

In reality, the mural stands in front of a gate, shutting off the park from the industry that consumes the rest of the waterfront here. "They want to make it so they don't have problems with the neighborhood? They should go to that school," DeSimone says, gesturing to Middle School 201 nearby. "This is a tremendous opportunity for those kids to build a park. If they want a park that lasts, that's the place to begin, rather than not allowing the community in the space till they finish it in four years, and then in five years pouring in concrete and a jungle gym.

"But they do not regularly extend that level of confidence so people know what's going on," he says. "That's a trust issue ultimately. I don't think people trust the Parks Department now."

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