The East River is not really a river. Technically, it is a tidal strait, connecting New York Harbor with Long Island Sound. At a bend in this non-river are a couple of Bronx neighborhoods that have been treated as non-entities, subjected to a century of industrialization and two generations of waterfront abuse and neglect -- Port Morris and Hunts Point. They have the distinction of being the waterfront neighborhoods with the least amount of waterfront access of any in New York City.
“With only a tiny sliver of waterfront land set aside for the public,” says Paul Lipson, executive director of The Point Community Development Corporation, “the 11,000 residents and 16,000 workers who share the peninsula have virtually no space at the water's edge for recreation, relaxation, or exercise.”
The waterfront of these communities stretches 3.5 miles between the Harlem River Rail Yards to the south and the Hunts Point Terminal Market to the east. To the north along the Bronx River sits the Sheridan Expressway, which blocks access to the Bronx River.
The whole area is probably one of the few in the city where there are more solid waste handling facilities than bodegas. It has the largest food distribution center in the nation, which brings in so many trucks that the communities suffer among the highest asthma rates in the city.
There are currently some $500 million worth of city projects slated for the area, though it is difficult to see how they would result in any meaningful gains for the residents â€“ the projects include improving the truck market , bringing in the Fulton Fish Market, and expanding the Hunts Point Sewage treatment plant.
A highly organized and energetic community as lives here, though, can not just throw off sparks but make potentially incredible things happen. Why expect anything less? This is the community that gave New York salsa music, and was home to one of the first amusement parks in the city.
THE FISH MARKET
The relocation of the Fulton Fish Market from Lower Manhattan to Hunts Point has raised the concerns of local residents, advocacy groups and elected officials alike. Congressman Jose Serrano, for instance, has drawn attention to the likely air quality impacts of moving the truck-based seafood market into a community that suffers from high volumes of truck traffic already. Nearly a half century ago, the city relocated the Washington Market (the major produce market) from Lower Manhattan to create the Hunts Point Cooperative Market. This facility now handles approximately one-half of the food consumed in the entire metropolitan region each day.
The city’s investment in Hunts Point also has the potential to build community amenities into this series of public works such as the “South Bronx Greenway” which will connect the Bronx River and Randall’s Island, which, just off the southern tip of the Bronx peninsula, is emerging as the Central Park of the East River. According to Omar Freilla of the Sustainable South Bronx, the city is on the right track.
“We now have official buy-in from the city,” said Freilla, “which is critical because they are the largest landowner on the peninsula. At the Fish Market site they have reserved 50 feet at the waterside as an esplanade.” How the water’s edge of this project is designed, noted Freilla, will impact the actual width of the eventual Greenway. A vertical bulkhead reconstruction, for instance, could accommodate the entire 50-foot width. But if there is a “rip-rap” edge (typically composed of large rocks or boulders in a gradual downward slope from land to the river bed, then the Greenway could be significantly smaller. Use of a rip-rap edge, in fact, would also interfere with the opportunity to use the waterfront to move freight in that a boat coming in for a pick-up or drop-off might essentially run aground on the rocky slope.
Is there a chance that the fish market might enhance the emissions reduction infrastructure already in the neighborhood? Maybe, but it is still too soon to know.
“It would be difficult,” said Gerry Bogacz of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, the regional coordinated transportation planning agency for downstate New York which is studying a possible freight ferry for Hunts Point. “The shippers involved are based all over the region and country. It is therefore hard (impossible?) to impose emissions reduction measures on their vehicles.”
But to clean up the air it is not as if the community is starting from zero, notes Bogacz. “There have been efforts, which we've been part of, to [provide incentives to] Bronx shippers to consider alternative fuels. The truck electrification pilot seems to be one of the most promising steps for the market.”
WHERE IS OLMSTED WHEN YOU NEED HIM?
Frederick Law Olmsted supposedly took the lessons he learned from creating Central Park and applied them in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and what he viewed as his greatest innovation had nothing to do with the park itself, but with the parkways leading to the park â€“ Eastern Parkway, and then Ocean Parkway, which connects to Coney Island.
In the 130 years since Prospect Park was created, we still have not demonstrated that we can create the connectivity to parks that we need to. The construction of Hudson River Park shows what happens when designers don’t deal with the access issues related to getting across highways, and the planned development of Brooklyn Bridge Park shows that access issues do not solve themselves. What the South Bronx may need most is a connection to Randall’s Island to help create the feeling that you are a part of something, rather than just stuck in the middle of a neighborhood characterized by dead-end streets.
This year, the reauthorization of the federal Transportation Bill known as TEA-21 creates a great opportunity for all of these transportation innovations and investments to get the funding they deserve: clean fuels, water transit, bikeways and greenways. There is perhaps no better way to honor the memory of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose landmark legislation 12 years ago woke us up from the “highway haze” that ruled transportation policy since the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.
Growing up on 42nd Street young Moynihan was 12 years old before he knew the Hudson River flowed just a few blocks west of his apartment. Let’s hope 60 years after Moynihan’s awakening to the Hudson that today’s generation of city leaders, civil servants and urban planners can make these connections through the great wall along the waterfront of the Bronx. Thousands of 12-year-olds must live along this stretch of waterfront suffering the same detachment. Whether aspiring salsa musician or eventual senator, or simply would-be recreational rower, the East River belongs to all of them.
To read more about the South Bronx - and to contribute your own news and views, as well as reports of potholes - go to the South Bronx Gazette, the second of our Community Gazettes.