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Special Section: Lantern Essay Competition Winners

June/July 2006
A Green Belt Movement of Its Own Flavor
By Elena Conte


It is early summer, in the late afternoon, and the air is stagnant and humid. Four older men are gathered around a cherry tree, with shiny bark, pointed lush green leaves and a few remaining pink flowers from spring’s rebirth. One man is holding the trunk, leaning in for support as he gestures to the others, who, sweating in the sweltering heat, are laughing and loudly encouraging his story in exuberant Puerto Rican Spanish. The men are dressed in the work clothes of building porters and contractors, and the scene takes place on a block in the Hunts Point neighborhood in the South Bronx of New York City. Taking place is friendship, camaraderie, and an expression of culture—the stuff of life.

In either direction of the small tree around which these neighbors have gathered, concrete extends, sometimes cracked, and often strewn with wrappers from potato chip bags, as there is no garbage can in sight. At a great distance, the sprawling concrete is briefly interrupted by a pit filled with a scrawny tree trying to survive. The dominant physical feature of this street is human-made: harsh, grey and unyielding, concrete reflects the heat of the sun onto brick buildings that project it back, in oven-like waves, an assault onto the street’s passers-by.

The pink-blossomed meeting point provides a bit of shade and a dose of beauty after a hard day’s work on a block situated in brutal conditions. In this neighborhood, noxious infrastructure and industry that serve the city and region are concentrated, to the detriment of the health of the poor, black and brown people that live there. African American, Latina/o, immigrant and working class, they are targeted to receive the deadly impacts of sewage sludge treatment facilities, power plants, waste transfer stations and diesel traffic. This concentration allows wealthier and whiter city residents not to think about how food gets to their table or where all the waste goes afterward. It also engenders a health crisis in the communities where these facilities are housed. In the South Bronx, one in four young people suffer from asthma. Cancer rates exceed the city’s average, and obesity and diabetes are full-fledged epidemics, at 27 percent and 13 percent respectively.

Here, the “environment” has nothing to do with spotted owls or Arctic drilling. Instead, it has to do with the most important thing in the world: the quality of daily life. It is about the conditions where people live, where people work, play and worship. It is also about the health crises that interfere with basic tasks of daily life and the struggle to access relief and how that alters the power structures that lead to these glaring inequities in the first place. The populace speaks of the legacy of environmental racism and movement for environmental justice.

The men gathering around the healthiest tree on the block are seeking relief. They know that it is cooler in its shade, that cool city air is more breathable and that leaves have the power to filter and purify air. The people who have formed a local association called Greening for Breathing have taken that same knowledge and, with it, they are taking control of their daily experience and serving a larger cause at the same time. When they counted their trees and found just one per acre in the community, they were called to action. Greening for Breathing’s mission is to realize the residents’ vision of a forested neighborhood that will combat the air pollution that chokes poorer and darker-complexioned areas by asserting that the life-supporting so-called “benefits” that wealthier, leafier neighborhoods receive, are in fact rights to which they will no longer be denied. Refuting the notion, “that’s just the way things are” in order to smash the often unspoken corollary “for some people,” the South Bronx embarked on a Green Belt movement of its own flavor.

In the service of their local goal, Greening for Breathing partnered with a city agency, the Department of Parks and Recreation, to create a planning document that is reflective of the community vision but that also speaks the language of urban forestry and government institutions. Through a multi-pronged approach, Greening for Breathing is implementing this plan, also known as “The Green Buffer,” with neighborhood-wide programming, tree planting, protection and community stewardship. Although most low-income communities of color shamefully share the proliferation of environmental burdens, lack of access to open space and natural relief systems, and have long fought for equity, Greening for Breathing and the Hunts Point community have made explicit the specificity of their mission to use forestry as one way to redress these toxic conditions and to address health issues. In doing so, they are pushing the public policy agenda in New York City to embrace an interdisciplinary approach to health and the environment. The example of their forestry plan has already spawned similar efforts within the Parks Department in communities with comparable health issues around the city, and has drawn national attention through the Forest Service.

And yet, while it is quite noteworthy that a community-based planning notion is approaching acceptance within a governmental structure, what is of even greater significance is that community-based planning itself has been able to take a stride forward. In a year when it has been asked, “Is Environmentalism Dead?” it is crucial to examine who is asking and which voices have thus far proclaimed to define what environmentalism is. Insomuch as the environmental movement within the United States has been dominated by white, upper-middle class people, and its power concentrated in male-dominated mainstream organizations that are national in scope, the grassroots voices of everyday people—who hold the power to highlight the relevance of environmentalism to everyday people—have been muffled if not entirely lost. Spotted owls and Arctic drilling are not unconnected to the issues being raised in these communities, but the way they are framed makes them irrelevant. The example of Greening for Breathing speaks to the knowledge and concern inherent in these communities. But, that knowledge cannot be accessed for the greater good without overhauling the notions of who gets to decide what’s important, who is “qualified” to do the planning, and—necessarily—creating and strengthening the mechanisms that make a broader notion possible.

As such, the failures of the environmental movement to penetrate both governmental policies and the minds of the average citizen are directly tied to the failures in democracy and public participation. So long as the decisions that will affect a community and the daily lives of its members are being made by those who lie outside of that community, environmental injustice and the attendant health, economic and social problems will continue. If “opportunities” for public participation are nothing more than charades to support the illusion of democracy, that is to say, if they provide opportunities for people to speak but not be heard in a way that alters the outcome, of course participation levels will be low. The knowledge held inside the community will not be unleashed to push government forward. If the environmental movement attempts to engage people without addressing their immediate conditions, without affirming the wisdom of local communities to assess their own needs, and without seeking to build the power of communities to determine their own futures, very few people will identify the environment as a concern worthy of their time.

Despite the largely continued disconnect between Environmentalism and the Environmental Justice movement, the work on the ground and in the grassroots pushes forward and is being led by those on the frontlines in low-income communities of color. So long as the South Bronx reeks of sewage sludge treatment facilities and massive tailpipes blow plumes of black exhaust past schoolyards, lone cherry trees have a lot of work to do. The people will work to protect that tree, to help it grow and maximize its potential. Greening for Breathing will work to multiply that tree into a bona fide urban forest. In the process, Greening for Breathing will support community members in maximizing their potential, because participation is as transformative on the personal level as it is on the political one. Environmental justice communities will work to insert their voices—carrying homegrown solutions steeped in the stuff of life—and democratize this country from the bottom up. The sooner the powers that be and allies in other national movements take their cue from the 2004 Nobel committee, and recognize that the environment and the people’s daily experience of it are central to peace, the better off we all will be.

Elena Conte is a native New Yorker who gets excited when trees and flowers bloom in springtime. She works with Greening for Breathing. For more about the organization or to donate, call (718) 617-4668 x 27 or search “Greening Hunts Point” on the web.


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