Who Benefits from Public Land in the Bronx?

Members of South Bronx Unite, a local environmental justice coalition, welcomed four newborn babies into the world last year. One of the four has already had to be hospitalized for not getting enough oxygen, according to Mychal Johnson, a founding member of South Bronx Unite. “Breathing is a real problem in our community,” Johnson told me. His newborn son, who is sixteen months old, already uses a nebulizer.

The statistics speak for themselves. A 2007 study found that asthma rates for children living in the South Bronx were eight times higher than the national average. There are more than 35,000 cases of child asthma and 100,000 cases of adult asthma in the borough. Within New York City, the South Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood, where Johnson lives, ranks first for child asthma hospitalizations and third for avoidable adult asthma hospitalizations.

“You go to any large gathering and you ask people in our community, ‘Does anyone here know anyone who has asthma?’ and . . . higher than 90 percent of the people raise their hand,” says Johnson. “It’s an epidemic.”

The Bronx is home to over a million people. Bordered on all sides by major highways and home to the country’s largest food distribution center, the South Bronx already attracts constant truck traffic. Over the last fifteen years, residents of the South Bronx have watched as more and more highly polluting facilities have moved into the area, including two waste transfer sites, four power plants, a FedEx trucking station, and two newspaper printing operations (the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal). Each of these sites emit fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which can be lodged deep into a person’s lungs and affect their breathing. PM2.5 is closely associated with asthma, lung disease (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, in full), and heart disease. (Cardiovascular disease affects more than 20 percent of the Bronx population—about 300,000 people.) For the power plants, that particulate matter is in the smog coming out of their smokestacks; for the FedEx Station, waste transfer sites, and printing stations, it’s in the exhaust spewing from their relentless convoy of diesel trucks.

For many residents, the last straw came when the high-end grocery-delivery company FreshDirect announced in 2012 that it was relocating its trucking facility from Queens to Mott Haven. The FreshDirect relocation would bring an estimated 1,000 truck trips a day to a neighborhood already clogged with air pollution. In response, a coalition of Bronx organizations, residents, and environmentalists formed South Bronx Unite, whose grassroots struggle for environmental as well as housing justice in the neighborhood they call home could serve as a model for marginalized communities nationwide.

In their four years campaigning against FreshDirect, South Bronx Unite has put public education and outreach at the core of their efforts. Their street protests and online advocacy have already attracted significant public support. A South Bronx Unite petition calling for a boycott of FreshDirect has garnered over 1,400 signatures to date. They’ve also kept pressure on the company through regular rallies, forums, and other events in the neighborhood and beyond. In one of their most recent, on April 16, South Bronx Unite conducted a “toxic” bike tour around the area. The tour, a public education effort, brought together thirty cyclists, who visited multiple sites of pollution and discussed the environmental justice history of the South Bronx, learning why the sites moved there and how the community is fighting back.

What has made the FreshDirect relocation particularly frustrating for residents is the direct involvement of the state and city government in facilitating it. Together, New York city and state have pledged some $120 million in subsidies and grants to FreshDirect. What’s more, the facility is being erected on a portion of the Harlem River Yard, a stretch of industrial waterfront owned by the New York State Department of Transportation. The arrangement raises the question: Who benefits from public land in a borough that is at once an industrial sacrifice zone and the target of aggressive gentrification? And how does it affect the residents who call the South Bronx home? In a neighborhood where residents have long complained about the lack of green, public space and where private developers are buying up entire blocks of land as affordable housing continues to disappear, the question is especially pressing.

In 1991, the city leased the waterfront land to Harlem River Yard Ventures, Inc., a private developer, for ninety-nine years with the intent to develop an intermodal rail system—something New York badly needs. In fact, the lack of rail infrastructure is one reason the city is so dependent on heavily polluting diesel trucks. The proposed intermodal rail terminal would have eliminated some 30,000 truck roundtrips into and out of the city each year, according to its 1993 Environmental Impact Statement.

But the rail station was never built; what appeared at the waterfront instead, year after year, were sites that contributed to the air pollution in the South Bronx, and the Mott Haven neighborhood in particular. Today, the Mott Haven waterfront is home to the FedEx hub, printing stations, and two of the South Bronx’s four power plants—all of which rent their properties from Harlem River Yard Ventures, Inc. The FreshDirect facility is slated for the last remaining available acres of the Harlem River Yard. George L. Stern, an expert in railroad operations and construction, noted in an affidavit to the Bronx Supreme Court that with the FreshDirect facility in place, building an intermodal rail terminal on the Harlem River Yard would be impossible. FreshDirect would not only block this solution to diesel dependence but, with its 1,000 trucks, also exacerbate the problem.

FreshDirect did not respond to multiple requests for comment; however, the company has expressed previously that its move will benefit the Bronx by creating jobs. On FreshDirectFacts.com, the website FreshDirect created to deflect the spiraling public relations fiasco around the relocation, it says it plans to add 1,000 jobs. However, many of FreshDirect’s foes have noted that there is no guarantee or legal provision that they must hire Bronx residents. FreshDirect also mentioned buying ten new electric trucks to offset pollution—but, as urban planning scholar Tom Angotti points out, that represents just 4 percent of their entire fleet, and Bronx residents have reported apparent purchases of additional diesel trucks as well.

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