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Green is the New Black

Majora Carter is the founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx. She takes the stage, wearing a “Green the Ghetto” t-shirt and tells us that sustainability and environmental justice are achievable goals in urban areas.

She comes from a part of New York City – Hunt’s Point, South Bronx – that houses 40% of city’s commercial waste dumps, four power plants, a food distribution center that brings thousands of trucks in and a sludge plant. When the Parks department gave a 10,000 “seed grant initiative” to develop waterfront parks, she thought it was well-meaning, but naive, as no one could actually get to the river.

But out on a jog with her dog, which pulled her into an illegal dump, she found an empty lot that went down to the waterfront. Leveraging that seed money, she raised over $3 million to build the Hunt’s Point Riverside Park.

She explains that race and class are extremely reliable indicators for finding “good and bad stuff” – Black people are 5 times more likely to be within walking distance of a power plant or chemical facility. “Why would you go for a walk in a toxic neighborhood?” This leads to asthma, obesity, diabetes and other critical problems for the South Bronx.

We get a rapid-fire history of the South Bronx – an interracial community of people who walked to work, ripped apart by “white flight” and by the Robert Moses highway system which bypassed the South Bronx to make it easier for wealthy communities in Westchester to commute to Manhattan. These projects displaced 600,000 people, destroyed the economy of the South Bronx and led to a community where it was a better economic bet to burn down buildings, rather than to maintain them. Redlining by community banks meant that new development couldn’t occur. And what this led to was a neighborhood known for “pimps, pushers and prostitutes”, where her Vietnam Vet brother was gunned down on the streets.

This neighborhood is now leading a transformation of the city, building a greenway that will connect the South Bronx to Randall Island park. She’s building an organization called the Bronx Ecological Stewardship Training – it’s designed to create “green-collar jobs” in the community. The project is so ambitious that they’re now talking about taking down the Sharon Expressway, a Robert Moses highway that’s unused even during rush-hour. It could become 28 new acres of urban green space.

She draws some parallels between the South Bronx and New Orleans – they’re both waterfront communities, where housing and commercial space are close together. They’re both hotbeds of creativity – think jazz and hiphop. “Neither the destruction of the South Bronx or the Ninth Ward is inevitable.” How do we ensure that these communities are more than empty campaign promises?

She suggests that her vision for the future – “Green – it’s the New Black” – relies on a triple bottom line. That triple bottom line means the developer, the community and the government all win. This is pretty far from the future the South Bronx may be facing, with big box stores and new stadium development.

We can do this differently. Enrique Peñalosa, the mayor of Bogota, realized that most Bogataños have no cars, though the city was designed for cars. He narrowed roads from five to three lanes, banned parking in many places, and built an amazingly efficient mass transit system. For these efforts, he was nearly impeached. But the result is a beautiful city with more greenspace. If he can do this on a third world budget, we have no excuse.

At the end of her talk, she calls out Al Gore. Talking to him briefly about her work, he suggested a grants program. Her response – “don’t waste my time”. This is another top down effort – development of the South Bronx and communities like it need to be bottom up and have to come from the community. They need not to waste one of the most valuable resources of all – the energy and creativity of people in communities like the South Bronx.