A Bronx Tale

Majora Carter wants to keep a jail out of a poor neighborhood—and build a recycling plant instead. By Kevin Friedl

Located amid the power plants and sewage treatment facilities that blight the Hunts Point neighborhood of the Bronx, the 28-acre waterfront strip known as Oak Point doesn’t seem like prime real estate. For decades the site was used as a dumping ground for construction rubble, now layered up to 15 feet thick across the area, and it has lain abandoned since its owners came under investigation for possible mob ties in the early ‘90s (John Gotti was frequently spotted there).

But if city officials thought everyone had given up on the polluted, desolate scrap of land, they weren’t listening to the environmentalists in the neighborhood.

A coalition of green groups, led by an environmental justice organization called Sustainable South Bronx (SSB), have been working to set up a recycling industrial park in Oak Point that would attract small, eco-friendly manufacturing businesses. As well as helping to reprocess the city’s solid waste—a quarter of which passes through the neighborhood—the facility could potentially bring hundreds of new jobs to Hunts Point, part of the poorest Congressional district in the country.

Now it looks like residents will get a jail instead. Last May, the city’s Economic Development Corporation announced that it was planning to build a $375 million, 2,000-bed jail complex in Oak Point, a proposal that met with criticism from local politicians, community groups, and environmentalists.

Among the groups working to clean up the area, Sustainable South Bronx has been the most successful and the most visible, thanks in large part to its founder and driving force, Majora Carter. Although the environmental movement is slowly becoming more diverse, Carter’s race, gender, and background still make her stand out; she is a black woman who grew up in Hunts Point, was accepted to the Bronx High School of Science, and eventually left the neighborhood for college and an MFA in creative writing.

When she returned to her old stomping grounds, she began working for a local children’s nonprofit, but soon found herself leading protests against a new waste transfer station on the Bronx River. Frustrated by the injustice of environmental burdens being shunted onto poorer neighborhoods, Carter flirted with a run for city council before founding SSB in 2001.

Since then, against very long odds, the organization has undertaken ambitious projects from building parks to advocating for the South Bronx Greenway, an extensive series of bike and pedestrian paths along the water. Besides greening a very grey neighborhood, the organization trains local residents for jobs in ecological restoration, so that the funds used to clean up the neighborhood and maintain green spaces benefit the neighborhood economically. SSB’s pragmatic approach, working to reconcile business and environmental interests, stems from Carter herself.

Having witnessed for years the city’s neglect of her neighborhood, Carter knows that changing the South Bronx is a near Sisyphean task, but even she seems surprised by the plans for such a large jail in Oak Point.

“It’s incredibly short-sighted, from our perspective,” says Carter. “Especially when there’s an opportunity to do something with that land that could create jobs, which as far as we’re concerned is the best way to discourage incarceration. If you’ve got a decent job, chances are you’re not going to do stuff that’s going to get you in jail.”

The jail is not yet a foregone conclusion: The first public hearings on the proposal have not yet begun, and local Congressman José Serrano has already moved to block the jail by proposing that the National Park Service designate Oak Point a National Historical Site (a move that could also block the recycling plant). Despite the challenges, Carter is optimistic that SSB can find a way to bring the recycling park to Hunts Point.

“The city has gotten more helpful in a lot of ways,” she says. “They’ve worked with us on developing greenways and parks, but sometimes they’re a little short-sighted. And it’s our job to help them understand.”