A Bronx Tale

A Bronx Tale

From Providence to Los Angeles and even the Bronx, urban rivers that were polluted and even paved over are being restored.


On a warm afternoon in late May, a group of teenagers launch a flotilla of five wooden rowboats onto the Bronx River, then take the oars and begin pulling swiftly upstream–past a scrap-metal yard, a furniture warehouse and a defunct cement plant. On the bank, yellow irises grow amid poison ivy; three cormorants sun themselves on a half-submerged log. A subway train rattles past on an elevated track, then the only sounds are the trill of a red-winged blackbird and the rhythmic splash of the oars.

When they reach a cluster of buoys, the crew begins hauling up mesh traps, checking the day’s catch against an illustrated chart. The students are participants in an environmental education program run by the youth development group Rocking the Boat; today they are conducting a creel survey, an informal fish census. A small ripple of excitement spreads among the boats when someone identifies a tiny silvery tomcod. Its presence upriver, explains Joseph Rachlin, an aquatic ecologist at Lehman College who advises the program, shows that the Bronx River estuary is becoming “an important nursery ground” for marine fish.

Across the country, from Providence to Los Angeles, urban rivers that were polluted and even paved over are being restored. But the revival of the Bronx River is unusual. Traditionally advocates for the environment and for low-income communities have had little to say to each other; but because the Bronx River traverses some of the country’s poorest neighborhoods, a few of its advocates are navigating new territory by connecting environmental issues like water quality and habitat restoration to economic issues like job creation and training. As Majora Carter, founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, has said, “Economic degradation begets environmental degradation”; if the problems are linked, the solutions must be linked too.

The Bronx River begins as a stream in Westchester County and then flows down through the Bronx before spilling into the East River at Hunts Point. Once a habitat for muskrats, snowy egrets and beaver, by the late nineteenth century it was a dumping ground for the towns and industries alongside it–an “open sewer,” in the words of an 1896 state commission. By the 1970s the river had become an urban wasteland lined with polluting industries, hemmed in by expressways, its banks strewn with refuse.

Congressman José Serrano, who represents the Bronx and has steered more than $15 million to Bronx River restoration projects, remembers volunteering with a river cleanup fifteen years ago: “The things that were being pulled out of there…parts of jeeps and trucks and tires, things you can’t tell a lady. It was bad.”

Since then, local ecology groups have continued to clear debris and advocated for cleaner water and riverside parks. Wildlife decimated by overharvesting and habitat destruction are now flourishing in and along the river. Oysters, once abundant in New York’s waters, are spatting on manmade clamshell reefs. Hundreds of herring were released in the past two springs; when their fry return to spawn, volunteers will scoop them over the dams that have blocked their migration since the 1600s. And last winter, a beaver built his dam on the bank–the first of his species to make a home in New York City in 200 years.

Establishing a herring run may not seem like a high priority for the people of the Bronx, which contains the poorest Congressional district in the nation. But restoring the river has been a hard-fought goal for community groups, and especially for Hunts Point. Some 12,000 trucks trawl the neighborhood every day, carrying goods to its wholesale produce and fish markets; the area is also home to thirty scrap-metal yards and garbage-transfer stations, four power plants, a sewage-treatment plant and a factory that makes fertilizer from baked sewage sludge.

“This neighborhood is targeted over and over again for just the most obscene projects,” says Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, executive managing director of The Point, a community and youth development agency, “with no regard for the health conditions that we are already dealing with here.”

Hunts Point also has the lowest parks-to-people ratio in the city. For decades there was no place residents could walk along the river–or even see it. “I used to ask the kids, ‘How many of you live in a waterfront community?'” Terry-Sepulveda exclaims, “and no one would raise their hand. No one!” One Rocking the Boat student, twelfth grader Stephanie Cabral, says, “I didn’t even know we had a Bronx River.” (This fall she will begin studying environmental science at the State University of New York.)

In recent months, the river has become more accessible. After years of community planning and pressure, two new riverside parks have blossomed on the Hunts Point peninsula, where residents can row a boat, cast a fishing line or watch herons preening along the shore. Sustainable South Bronx has designed a greenway–a landscaped biking and walking trail that will wind along the Hunts Point waterfront and through the South Bronx. Someday, says Terry-Sepulveda, the greenway will create “a network of opportunities for the community to reclaim the waterfront. It’s been monopolized by industry for far too long.”

The water is still not as clean as Bronx ecologists would like. One of the river’s main pollutants, now as in 1896, is sewage. The waste problem lies deep in New York City’s antiquated infrastructure, where storm-water and sewage pipes are joined. In a heavy rainfall, the system is quickly overwhelmed: Each year 27 billion gallons of human excreta pour into the city’s rivers and bays; 558 million gallons are dumped into the Bronx River alone. According to Majora Carter, there’s a low-tech solution to the overflows–a solution that would promote both ecology and economic development. More than 60 percent of the Bronx River watershed is paved; replacing all that concrete with greenery would keep rainwater from the sewers. Her organization trains Bronx residents, many of whom have never held a job before, for “green-collar” jobs (installing green roofs, landscaping) that could help reduce “toxic days on the Bronx River.”

Penny Matta, a graduate of the training program, is now a supervisor on the Bronx River Alliance’s conservation crew, which restores native habitat along the river. “It’s not the kind of work you hear of people doing in the Bronx. Usually it’s in the suburbs or the countryside,” she says as she leans against her truck. She adds: “I don’t think I would be here if it weren’t for this work.”

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