Bronx activists trying to turn park projects, stimulus cash into economic engines

Second in an occasional series about the greening of New York City. Click here to view the series.

NEW YORK -- Juan Ruiz, a community activist in the South Bronx, points to the new Concrete Plant Park in his home borough as a symbol of what's right -- and wrong -- with the nascent "green jobs" movement.

The park -- a 7-acre sliver of green along the Bronx River -- is named for the concrete batch mix plant that operated on the property for 40 years before it was abandoned to illegal dumping in the late 1980s. But a fierce community campaign forced a cleanup, with federal aid helping remove some 10,000 waste tires and the city turning the tract into a park.

It's no Yellowstone. The park's neighbors are rusting steel warehouses, the Number 6 subway line and the Bruckner Expressway. But more troubling than the scenery to Ruiz is that the property's cleanup, development and maintenance has all been done by outsiders.

"Unfortunately, the people that come to remediate the land or do these projects, they are experts," lamented Ruiz, deputy director at Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice. "We don't have the skills."


But there is a push here to change that.

Last week, 100 or so community organizers, union leaders and out-of-work laborers gathered at Bronx Community College to brainstorm ways at using the "green jobs" initiative to tackle unemployment in the South Bronx. A larger conference is in the works for this fall, aimed at rekindling interest in greening the Bronx and the rest of the city.

"We're not just going to meet Mayor Bloomberg's [environmental] goals for 2030, we're going to do it better," said Taleigh Smith, a community-outreach coordinator for the federal Weatherization Assistance Program. "He wants to get cars out of Manhattan. We want to get trucks out of the Bronx."

Smith's clarion call for creating millions of jobs planting trees and installing green roofs drew thunderous applause. Then attendees spent a day engrossed in working groups and tossing suggestions back and forth. But they failed to leave with a solid plan for bringing more green jobs to the Bronx and keep them there.

The Bronx is famous as the city's transshipment point and for its pollution, poverty and blight.

Much of the city's food moves through Hunt's Point, but so does much of its garbage. The tailpipe pollution from thousands of daily truck trips are blamed for causing asthma rates more than three times the citywide average there. Activists are pushing to divert the 1,600 garbage trucks that rumble through neighborhoods each day to marine transshipment points.

The South Bronx was also once home to large concentrations of violence-plagued housing projects. Those have since been demolished, but their impact lingers, scaring away investment and skilled labor.

The Bronx suffers New York's highest unemployment rates -- 14.1 percent as of April 1, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics -- and is the nation's poorest congressional district, the 16th, represented by Democrat José Serrano. But the borough has had some good news lately: Crime rates have been falling, and some brownfield sites have been cleaned up.

The Bronx borough president, Ruben Diaz Jr., delivered a pep talk to the green-job summit participants. He checked off the accomplishments of political activism: keeping new power plants out and defeating a proposed waste transport hub backed by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Diaz said 31 percent of the city's solar installations are going up in the Bronx and that the borough boasts more green roofs than any other part of the city; there is a green roof atop Borough Hall, the only one on municipal property.

"If we do this collectively the right way ... maybe we will change the way that business is done here in the Bronx," Diaz said.

Struggling to tap programs

The federal Weatherization Assistance Program, or WAP, offers the best hope, said Mijin Cha, director of campaign research at Urban Agenda.

WAP pays for upgrades to low-income housing, plugging air leaks and repairing faulting heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to bring down energy costs. The program saw its budget explode with federal stimulus spending, growing from around $300 million to $5 billion.

But getting the Bronx to take advantage has been a challenge, Cha admitted.

"The stimulus money has helped somewhat, but because it all went through existing channels, there weren't a lot of opportunities for new development and new ideas to be implemented," Cha said. "Plus you have to be WAP-approved and a WAP-approved contractor. And because the program was so small they didn't have many."

Temporary wavers for contractors helped fill the gap some, but the city is still struggling to take full advantage of WAP, Cha said.

Local nonprofits, almost all represented at the community college gathering, have stepped in to get things started while companies take tentative steps.

Sustainable South Bronx, which launched in 2001, has established the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST) Academy to train workers for environmental cleanups, landscaping and weatherization. The program is known for taking in job seekers who have a particularly difficult time landing employment, including those who have spent recent time in jail.

The "BEST for Buildings" project issues certifications in energy-efficiency retrofitting, asbestos abatement and even hazardous-waste handling. The organization already enjoys strong ties with government agencies and other nonprofits but is actively courting private investment to the borough -- a challenge, admitted Miquela Craytor, Sustainable South Bronx's executive director.

"These sort of developers and businesses have to have a newer consciousness to think more broadly about their hiring," Craytor said. "They're typically on the bottom line, just looking at a very thin way of approaching their work. They're not necessarily in the business to transform the world."

Craytor agrees that tapping into more WAP financing and federal job training funds will get the Bronx on the path toward greater employment growth, but not necessarily the only way. Weatherization enjoys the most financial resources, but there are many other brownfields and abandoned industrial sites in the Bronx, thus greater opportunities for green jobs beyond HVAC systems repair experts or insulation technicians, she says.

"We've gotten people employed in our other programs, so it's not as if there are no opportunities there," Craytor said.

Other efforts are under way as well. Bronx Community College hosts its Center for Sustainable Energy, which coordinates with other parts of the City University of New York (CUNY) system to promote clean energy development. Education and employment development is its mission.

'The Bronx is a good investment'

Still, the combined government and nonprofit efforts have hardly put a dent in the Bronx's unemployment problem.

So community leaders say they are fighting for more visible changes that will improve neighborhoods and attract investment as they work out what they see as a green-jobs dilemma.

First up is creating a larger "greenway" all along the Bronx River, which runs through the famous Bronx Zoo and Botanical Gardens but is treated as an open sewer in its southern reaches. The goal is to transform the green sliver of Concrete Plant Park into something more substantial, thus returning the river to communities in the South Bronx and beyond.

The next project will be Starlight Park, which is slated to open within days. The park's million dollar face-lift is almost complete as an electric utility was forced to remove leaking underground oil tanks and polluted soil. Starlight Park once held a popular amusement park that rivaled Coney Island but today is more famous as the home of the Sheridan Expressway.

Advocates for the Bronx hope that relaunching Starlight Park will be one of a number of big and small steps that will encourage New York companies with money to invest to look north, past the history and negative image.

Said Ruiz, "The key has to be that the Bronx is a good investment, to change that image, because the Bronx has traditionally been seen as the dumping grounds for New York City."

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