(This piece was originally written in the summer of 2007.)
Awareness of how our environment shapes our neurological, chemical, socio-economic state may seem like cutting edge social science to some, but this practice has been around for many years under different names. A current title for such awareness is Environmental Justice. As a combination of social justice and new environmentalism, Environmental Justice synthesizes some very important elements the old and the new, intellect and intuition, contemplation and action. A separation has always existed in this country between the haves and the have-nots. Environmental Justice, like Hip-Hop, is here to help bridge this divide.
In exploring this idea, it is necessary to ask ourselves a question: Are communities that have been traditionally marginalized both economically and socially subjected to more environmental hazards than those communities nestled within enclaves of green grass and local chapters of the Rotary Club
The term has been circulating more and more since its emergence in1982 surrounding an event in Warren County, North Carolina when a group of citizens stood up against the government’s decision to dump over 60,000 tons of PCB-contaminated soil in the local landfill. Recent years has seen a groundswell in EJ activism. Many key players have stepped to the forefront as leaders in this grassroots form of social justice. In New York City, the most prominent figure in Environmental Justice is Majora Carter.
When some hear the name South Bronx their mind may reel off visions of the New York Yankees, or conjure images of the spate of fires that decimated countless buildings in the area in 1977. Others might recall that the South Bronx is the birthplace of Hip-Hop. All are common associations made with this small region of New York City’s northernmost borough. And now, it seems to me, there’s another distinct happening occurring there, with big implications for the world at large. At the center of this is the organization that Majora Carter and her friends founded in the late 90's Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx).
I sat down with Majora to discuss the current projects of Sustainable South Bronx, and to get her opinion on most things New York. I also found out a little about her favorite Hip-Hop artists.
Prop: I’d like to briefly go over some of the projects SSBx is currently working on. Firstly, there’s a program for “green collar” job placement called B.E.S.T the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training. You are also working on something called “Green-Roofs,” which is an initiative to conserve energy and reduce sewage runoff by covering urban rooftops with plots of grass. Finally, you are involved in something with the Sheridan Expressway is this the Greenway Project?
MC: No, there’s the Greenway Project that grew out of a$1.25 million federal transportation grant that I wrote 8 years ago now. This was a design for an 11-mile network of waterfront path for bicycles and pedestrians. Right now that plan is done, and it’s fantastic. At the moment, we have about $20 million to begin construction for the first stage of this project. And that’s what’s happening, starting next year.
The Sheridan is a completely different project, involving the work of a bunch of local community groups and technical supporters. SSBx got involved because we discovered that the state was planning to “fix” the Sheridan Expressway, which was one of Robert Moses, Master Builder projects.
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(At this point in the interview, I’d like to give some background on the personage known as Robert Moses. The man’s legacy in New York is monumental. As an urban planner from the 1930s to the 1950s, Moses managed to drastically alter the landscape of New York, for better and for worse.
Robert Caro, in the book, The Power Broker, depicts a man driven by the desire to attain as much power as possible. He was an urban planning genius, the “go-to” guy when it came to getting things done, and also an outspoken racist whose prejudices found their way into many of his mega-projects.
Moses codified and cemented such prejudices into how he designed his expressway and housing projects. Today this can be described as “Institutional Racism.” As opposed to one-on-one racist behavior, institutional racism reverberates through the generations and stacks the deck in an uneven fashion, leaving the “haves” with considerably more comfort, and the “have-nots” with a lot more chaos.
As a kid growing up in Long Island, spending time at Jones Beach during the summers, I remember hearing stories about how Moses designed the parkway overpasses to be too low for city busses to clear. This was done with the aim of preventing people who were dependent on public transport from getting to the beach. It just so happened that a lot of these people were also Black and Latino. This is but one of many instances of racism that can be linked to Moses’ projects. Along with the members of the New York State city planning commission, Moses vocally opposed African-Americans taking residence in Stuyvesant Town, a Manhattan housing development created for WWII veterans.
When it came to the building of the thirteen roadways in New York that he developed, Moses made sure that he steered clear of building these paths near the wealthy landowners, while he sanctioned the total transformation of whole working class neighborhoods, like in the South Bronx, through the building of giant roadways that barreled straight through the community. For example, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway violently tore through poverty-stricken neighborhoods so the city could build high-volume transport readily accessible for other New Yorkers. The results were devastating to many communities situated alongside the highways. For one, the increased traffic sharply increased the air pollution, and other industrial contaminants helped create a generally toxic environment. This toxicity, recent research suggests, actually causes neurological damage and increases the rate of crime.
Towards the end of his career, Moses even attempted to build a roadway through the site where the Bronx Zoo is located. This was in the 1960s, however, and as his political clout was waning, the plan was rejected as absurd.
Moses demonstrated an allegiance towards attaining power and money by cozying up to the rich owner-class of a society that was outright racist, and most definitely elitist. And these prejudicial personal perspectives fed directly into the institutions that were created from them, marking the career of Robert Moses perhaps as the finest example of Institutional Racism.
Reflecting on Moses’ legacy, I return to SSBx’s humble office over looking the South Bronx horizon, where, in the distance New York State has plans to build a prison in Hunts Point. This is slated for construction right here in the community Majora comes from, and it is also something that she and SSB are aggressively fighting. Their alternative is to build a recycling plant instead.
Majora told me about when the “Car became King,” and how the US economy started to be built around the automobile. Highways were being built at any cost and sometimes the human cost was the greatest of all. There were huge displacements and uprooted communities in the wake of car culture’s takeover.
“One of the shadier things I’ve ever heard was that even if they weren’t planning on doing highway construction when they said that they were going to, they would just bring a crane in and pull the top of the building off, even though they knew people were living on the lower floors. Because what happens when there is no roof? The elements come in and completely destroy your building. It was just such a shameful period in New York City’s history.
SSBx realized that what the State wanted to do was to “fix” the Sheridan Expressway, which would have jeopardized all of the Bronx river park projects we were working on. We then came up with an alternative plan that removed the highway so that you could use that land, all 28 acres of it something along the lines of community economic development, or housing, or open space. And we put together a plan that showed that there could be 650 permanent jobs created as a result of it, another $30 million in projected wages, as well as an increase in property values. We just discovered this summer that the state has to look at our plan the same way it looks at others, so we are really excited about that.
Has it been received well?
Yes, but it was a fight, though. First, we had to make sure the state would even review it as a viable option. It took us from the late 90s up until earlier this summer just to get them to say that they would review it. Because once it goes through that process, then you can make a determination about it. But if it didn’t make it that far, then we would have had no chance.
So that’s the Sheridan
I found this quote of yours, in which you said, “Understand that this is an ownership society, and if you don’t own, you don’t have rights.” You also say that you want people to attain more land rights.
One question I always get is how do you use that to stop gentrification. And you do this by working with people who either own the land, or by owning a piece of it yourself. So part of this is to work with developers who have an understanding that you can do decent affordable housing. To understand that there is a viable economical supportive way to do things the right way, even as a developer, and to make sure that they have permanently affordable housing within the mix of their developments. The other piece is community land trusts.
Is that related to the website Policy Link?
Yes, that’s right.
So, you also are working on the Solid Waste and Energy Project. Explain what this is about.
We have been a part of campaigns since I started SSBx. The goal is to create a more effective and more equitable solid waste management for the city of New York.
The role that we play is in making sure that we do a bunch of the research that makes it move to the point that folks in the neighborhood know what’s going on. That’ s why we’re connecting with other community groups, and it’s actually a really fascinating process. To date, we have done pretty well. The mayor adopted our plan that every borough should handle it’s own waste, which is the crux of it.
Oh yeah. Guess what? Manhattan is really resistant, particularly the Upper East Side and the area in Tribeca. It’s what they are not saying, actually, that I find most repellent: “Real Estate Values are really high; there is already a park there; all the sites down there were used as waste facilities before real estate values across the street got really high.”
What they want to build now in Tribeca is this amazing state of the art recycling facility if we had those things [in the South Bronx] we never would have started speaking here about how miserable the system works. We would like one of these facilities in our neighborhood. I’d be very honored. It’d be so cool that you can actually take school kids through it to show then how we recycle our waste. We don’t do that here.
Manhattan needs to recognize that they produce more waste than any other borough. It’s a fight, but we’ll get it.
Does SSBx have a plan to ensure more up-to-date waste transfer stations?
Yeah, that’s what our plan calls for. We already recognize that the mistakes of the past don’t need to be revisited on wealthy people, anymore than we want them revisited on poor people. The point is that the situation has to change for everybody.
If you continually have places like the South Bronx where you put the bad things that nobody else wants to deal with, then you’re adding to the collective failures that we all make. For instance, if you continuously create repositories for waste then there will be public health impacts. To have to deal with not just the public health impacts, but also the knowledge of knowing that your community is used as a garbage dump, does add a psychic weight to what the people here already deal with everyday.
So when you talk about building a 2,000-bed jail here, what are you trying to say to folks in our community? Consider that, along with all we now know about how pollution affects communities. There is a direct relationship between various types of pollution, from fossil fuel emissions and brain damage in kids along with the activation of a gene that produces obesity. That’s the stuff coming out.
I don’t expect the powers that be to give a crap about communities like ours. Which is why we spend a lot of time talking about money. If you really look at the value of what it’s going to cost to care for such an environmentally-ravaged community, and all the public health costs associated, along with the social costs associated with it, and add that up, it’s going to cost you a lot more than trying to clean up the mess that we have collectively made.
And that’s the triple-bottom line that you speak of.
Yes, exactly. That’s why working on the B.E.S.T. program is so cool. Especially when you’re talking about folks who are really poor. They’ve been marginalized from the more traditional ways of making a living.
With unemployed or underemployed people, you want to make sure that they understand the causality between their actions and the environment, and I think the best way to that is helping them understand the links between their personal and financial well-being. Clean up your environment, and you are getting paid for it. That’s why B.E.S.T. is our single biggest program.
What has been the response to the BEST program? Are kids in the community taking to it?
Yes, especially since we’ve been able to hire some folks to go out there and teach people. We hired them to be “Green Way stewards” so they are heralding the coming of the Greenway. There are just two of them right now, but they’ve taken on various projects in the neighborhood. They do particular street planning projects or care projects. And they did this project called “The Green Line Project,” where they painted this green line that leads pedestrians down to The Hunts Point Riverside Park, which SSBx was integral in building.
So they do projects like that to connect people to the fact that they are doing some things to take care of the environment. And that’s been an incredible success. People ask what we are doing, and we tell them.
How can people start a Green Roof installation company?
It’s hard. We have been working on it for four years. At this point there is no market for it, because it is more expensive than a more traditional roof. People see the value in it, but because it’s still considered a niche market, the prices are that much more expensive.
I’m actually putting a Green Roof on my house, because I realize that what I’ll spend on the green roof will end up being more affordable.
Are there any other communities that have contacted about starting their own versions of SSBx?
Yes, a lot. In Philadelphia there is a group called The American Cities Foundation that works with a bunch of different groups around Philly. I think they are amazing, and I totally bonded with them. I’m probably going to be on a task force in Newark to help Cory Booker, because he’s just trying to green up the town there.
We also work with folks in Oakland, people like Van Jones he’s my West Coast partner in a lot of ways. I call him my little brother. He’s just amazing. And we’ve done some work in Biloxi, after the flood.
What we are trying to do is actually create our own case studies, so folks can take them and replicate them. We get so many requests, and I’m so honored, but we’re not set up enough yet to help them. So we are thinking of setting up a consulting arm, for people who can afford to pay, and there are plenty of people who can. Also, we want to make sure that we have some sort of step-by-step guidelines for people who are in the same situation we are in right now. Some people just need to know about good management practices that they can incorporate in their own communities.
The South Bronx is the birthplace of Hip-Hop, and it was born here nearly 35 years ago. I’m curious what Hip-Hop artists are you into right now?
I like Common. Mos Def is cool, I like him. When I was a kid I went to the jams. They were in everybody’s backyard. Sugar Hill was going on then, RUN-DMC, Grandmaster Flash. All those guys.
Thank You Majora
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After the interview, I went outside to check out the Green Line. It’s not hard to miss! It’s a thick Kelly green line about two feet wide, painted onto the pavement. I had no pressing engagements so I decided to follow the green line to the end.
The Green Line led me through the South Bronx. I walked past a baseball field and some basketball courts outside of what looked like a new recreation center, where mothers walked with children and some people chilled on the fence drinking beer from their brown paper bags and smoking cigarettes.
I walked through some zones of residential houses, where the block was quiet, yet in full swing of life. Some bachata music blasted out of radio speakers propped up against open windows above. Kids were riding their bikes, some other guys were talking to each other around a parked car. My mind oscillated between thoughts about SSBx’s mission here in the Bronx, Environmental Justice in general, and the snippets of passing conversations I was hearing as I continued walking the Green Line.
I also thought about Hip-Hop and its roots here in the South Bronx. This is where it all started. I contemplated the idea of SSBx as an extension of Hip-Hop culture.
Hip-Hop has circled the world like nothing ever before it and it all started right here!
If Majora and the rest of SSBx are able to accomplish only half of what they are setting out to do, their impact could be substantial. We all have the opportunity to help set the template for how ecological standards will be set, so everyone can lead a more healthy life.
The Green Line led me to this nice spread of green grass where a soccer team was practicing their drills, and a few people walked lackadaisically along the perimeter of the field.
The sun was slowly setting behind some clouds to the west, yet the sky had not yet shifted to twilight. The evening chill had not really set in. I had just spent forty minutes walking through an industrial area. I walked past a huge, smelly sanitation lot, where garbage trucks spit and sputtered their noxious fumes. I walked past numerous car repair shops and some apartment houses, to finally find myself here at this park on the water in the South Bronx. I stopped and took a deep breathe, looking at the Manhattan skyline over the water. I also spotted Riker’s Island, the infamous NYC prison. It stood like a solitary island to my west. And I spotted the cars speeding along the Cross-Bronx Expressway to my east. I had to take a moment and thank SSBx to myself for creating this park.
After the sun set, I left the quiet park. I hopped into my car I had to deal with the rush hour traffic on the highway and I have Robert Moses to thank for that!