About Cara Eisenpress

Cara is a food writer and blogger. She is currently a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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Industrial Past to Greener Future

Industrial Past to Greener Future

A plainclothes man shows the force required to move the railroad switches in a photo taken sometime between 1939 and 1940. High Bridge can be seen in the far distance on the left. Photo courtesy of The War of Yesterday

The Mott Haven section of the Harlem River waterfront is at a turning point where long-cherished visions of green space and public access could become a reality at last.

Indignation over pollution, abysmal air quality and inattention to the needs of a poor neighborhood have brought the area to the brink of reinvention. A host of independent organizations, state associations, and activists are pushing for the area to be revitalized.

But even though heavy industry disappeared almost a century ago, yielding to light industry that could be compatible with the greening of the waterfront, the commercial development of recent years poses a new obstacle and raises the question why Mott Haven, a predominantly minority and very poor neighborhood, has fallen behind as the city moves to transform waterfronts in neighborhoods across New York.

“The South Bronx has always been one of the more poorly represented areas in the city,” said Chauncy Young, a member of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. “There is a lot less money, and a lot less influence.”

“There’s no reason why industry can’t be compatible with green space. There’s absolutely no reason.” — Neil Pariser

The neighborhood, long hemmed in by highways and railroad tracks, has been through several industrial incarnations. “Now we’re at the end of that cycle,” said Neil Pariser, until recently the vice president of the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation. “There’s no reason why industry can’t be compatible with green space. There’s absolutely no reason.”

The industrial cycle began two centuries ago, when Jordan Mott established an iron foundry on what became the Mott Haven Canal at 134th Street and ushered an era of industry into a region of farmland.

The industry Mott brought to Mott Haven yielded wealth for the neighborhood and the borough. Mott’s foundry made most of Manhattan’s manhole covers, as well as part of the dome for the U.S. Capitol. It brought other manufacturers in.

“In 1900, you had industry all over the place,” said Lloyd Ultan, the Bronx’s official historian. “You had a terminal for the Erie railroad. Where the original Yankee Stadium is was a lumber yard. Just south of Fordham Road, there was a facility that built boats.”

Because so many products at that time came to Manhattan by water, waterfront development was synonymous with industry: It just made sense to have centers of commerce stationed where ships and barges could reach them. Those factories and production facilities spat industrial byproducts like lead and asbestos into the river and into the nearby soil.

During the middle part of the 20th century, city planner Robert Moses built major highways, including the Major Deegan and Bruckner expressways, to accommodate growing automobile traffic. Recreational activities such as boat races and rowing existed until the last boathouse at Sherman Creek burned down in 1978.

Heavy industry moved out and made way for lighter facilities, part of a citywide trend away from manufacturing in the five boroughs. The Harlem River Rail Yard, at the southern tip of the Bronx,  had been around since the mid- to late 1800s, but the property fell into disrepair as trucks slowly supplanted freight trains as a common use of transport. The decline continued until plans for renewal emerged in the late 1970s. Fifteen years later, the state leased the property as a rail yard to a developer, the Galesi Group, for 99 years.

“Since the lease was signed in 1993, nobody has included any waterfront plan because of the 99-year lease,” said John DeSio, chief spokesman for Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

At the same time, the state decided to build a rail shortcut into the yard – cutting off most of Mott Haven from the river itself. Called the Oak Point Link, the 1.9-mile project aimed to make way for trains too long to navigate the original zig-zag route south through the Bronx and into Manhattan, and proponents suggested that low emissions from trains would reduce air pollution. After 20 years of negotiation and construction, the Oak Point Link opened in 1998 at a cost of nearly $200 million.

But critics say that the underused rail now serves only as an eyesore and as a physical obstacle preventing change and access to the waterfront.

The state Department of Transportation says at least one train runs on the track each day; according to a 2005 report from the City University of New York, there are no more than three per day. The traffic includes one train that carries garbage from a mammoth waste-transfer station to an out-of-state landfill.

Activists like Young say the link failed to divert truck traffic and is instead using up valuable waterfront. According to a study last June, the vision of a thriving freight-rail link through the Bronx to Long Island has become a pipe dream.

Bronx Terminal, Central Railroad of New Jersey, 1938. Photo courtesy of Tim Warris

“The fact that the Harlem River Yard, which was designed and built to accommodate container traffic, and which opened in 1998, has never had a container lifted there supports this assertion,” said the study, by the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems, funded in part by the state and federal governments.

Beside the rail, the Mott Haven section of the Harlem River waterfront contains a mix of light and commercial industry. The rail yard is becoming more of a distribution center for companies that rely on the road. FedEx processes packages.

The New York Post has a full-color printing and distribution facility, and its parent company, News Corporation plans to begin printing The Wall Street Journal there as well. FreshDirect, the on-line food distributor, is slated to build its new headquarters here; it will include a grocery facility, a satellite truck facility, and a 10,000-square-foot parking lot to house the company’s vehicles. Though none of these sites processes iron, developments in the Harlem River Yards “place disproportionate impact of diesel truck traffic running in and through the South Bronx,” New York City council members Maria del Carmen Arroyo and Melissa Mark-Viverito recently wrote in a letter to the state Department of Transportation calling for a state audit of the 99-year lease with the city.

Despite the ongoing issue of truck emissions, in 2011, the operator of the Harlem River Yard won an Economic Development Award from the Big Apple Brownfield Awards that recognized its efforts to clean up some of the contaminants that polluted the area. Not only did removing the pollutants make the land more useful, the process helped companies like FedEx and the New York Post set up or expand facilities that would create more jobs and boost the economy. The FreshDirect proposal estimates that construction and operation of the new facility will create 620 jobs.

But the continuing presence of any kind of industry, even relatively pollutant-free industry, not only takes up a lot of the space that might be used to expand the waterfront but also pollutes the surrounding area with emissions from the trucks that transport the goods.

A proposal for a greenway that runs the length of the waterfront—championed by the Harlem River Working Group and the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality—envisions how a pleasant, usable Harlem River might coexist with the industrial waterfront. The project would enact the recommendations set forth in the 1993 Greenway Plan for New York City, an ambitious effort that identified a vast network of bicycle and pedestrian paths throughout the city and has already been implemented in some boroughs.

As a new vision for the waterfront forms, the specter of gentrification inevitably emerges. Local leaders worry that a beautified neighborhood will lead to current residents being priced out, said Young.

“Should we leave the South Bronx torn up because that will keep people from living there?” he said. “That’s not likely. People have been moving here for quite some time, because Manhattan has become unaffordable.”

with Colin Weatherby

Balancing Act Between Jobs and Green Space

Balancing Act Between Jobs and Green Space

Bronx Recycling moves construction debris next to the Harlem River south of the 149th Street Bridge. Photo by David L. Lewis

Picture the Harlem River waterfront of the future: green grass, clean water, pedestrian walkways, bike paths.

Now picture the Harlem River waterfront of today: a storage facility, a moving truck company, a used auto dealership and a recycling center.

As the recent controversy over Fresh Direct shows, transitioning the Harlem River waterfront area from one picture to the other is a delicate balancing act for city planners and public officials caught between the need to preserve jobs and  community dreams for recreation.

The South Bronx, located at the southern tip of the only New York City borough connected to the mainland United States, is a major interstate transportation hub as well as a haven on the waterfront, and both industry and residents must be able to find the middle of the road for waterfront access to be a success.

“Public access to the waterfront is tremendously important, and this administration is making enormous strides in adding public open space, but New York City’s waterfront is far too diverse to have a one-size fits all plan,” said Rachaele Raynoff, chief spokeswoman for the City Planning Commission. “The city’s working waterfront is still a vital part of the city and regional economy.”

The frequent truck travel through the South Bronx – 11,000 diesel truck trips per day, according to the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance — brings pollution and traffic but also signifies how important this area is to business activity. From the South Bronx, businesses can connect to interstate highways, freight rails and a network of bridges that connect to the rest of the city and Long Island and provide a passageway to destinations in New England, upstate New York, the Midwest, South and West Coast.

Convenient access to Manhattan was why Oz Moving and Storage set up shop at 101 Lincoln Ave. on the Harlem River three years ago. The company, which moves and stores residential and commercial items in New York, New Jersey and California, finds the address a cost-effective location for accessing the rest of New York.

“We do not utilize the waterfront per se – it is all about distance to midtown,” said Nimrod Sheinberg, vice president of sales at Oz. “For a business, time is money, so as it saves us time to get to Manhattan, it has a financial benefit for us to be on the waterfront.”

“The use of the land doesn’t have to be water-dependent, it just doesn’t need to exclude people from the water.” — Harry Bubbins

Few businesses directly on the waterfront expressed opposition to residents accessing the waterfront near their property. But community advocates have charged the city with favoring businesses without asking residents what they would like to see along the waterfront. In the controversial Fresh Direct deal this Februrary, the city announced Fresh Direct’s move to the Harlem River Yards before even conducting a public hearing.

“I don’t know what the residents wanted because they never asked the residents,” said Bettina Daimiani of Good Jobs New York, a labor group that has criticized the deal. “City and state officials did not ask the residents what they wanted at all.”

FreshDirect, the online grocer set to receive $127.9 million in city subsidies to relocate to the South Bronx, is the most recent poster child of big business whose presence will create a barrier to waterfront access.

The 500,000-square-foot warehouse, projected to open in 2017, will sit on a swath of undeveloped urban landfill on a narrow waterway known as the Bronx Kill, which connects the Harlem River to the upper East River. The location also provides easy access for the company’s fleet of 200 trucks to its service areas in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island.

Fresh Direct emphasized its move would create nearly new 1,000 jobs in the next six years and promised to try fill 30 percent of them with Bronx residents.

But community members argue the city once again promoted business interests over the desire to use the land for a bicycle and pedestrian greenway and a connector to Randall’s Island.

“The use of the land doesn’t have to be water-dependent, it just doesn’t need to exclude people from the water,” said Harry Bubbins, environmental activist and director of Friends of Brook Park.

Business and residents may diverge in uses for the waterfront, but in a neighborhood where unemployment runs to 14.1 percent, jobs are one area where they may be able to find common ground.

Majora Carter, a pioneer in the urban environmental justice movement, said the business community was instrumental in her success developing open space in the long-neglected Hunts Point neighborhood nearby.

Carter said a similar partnership with companies such as Fresh Direct could be positive for both jobs and waterfront access further south in Mott Haven.

“This is a good example of an opportunity to start working with an incoming corporate neighbor ASAP to build a partnership that can prepare local people to compete for jobs related to that infusion of economic activity and grow the riverfront in a responsible way,” Carter said in an email.

Calls to Fresh Direct for comment were not returned.

Even if the company does fulfill its promise to create jobs, the community is concerned about the quality of the jobs brought to the neighborhood.

The Bronx has the highest percentage of low-wage workers in the city, defined as workers who earn $11 per hour or less, and community residents were trying to avoid the proliferation of more low- wage work.

That’s about the same pay as the service jobs – restaurant workers, retail salespersons, park maintenance – that would follow development of residential and recreational waterfront, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fresh Direct starts its drivers at $11 an hour and provides no benefits or union representation. Picker-packers, truck drivers, forklift operators – jobs prevalent at warehouses and storage facilities like the ones along the Harlem River – earn $18 per hour on average, the bureau said in its 2012 survey of wages.

“Its not just about giving jobs but also about understanding what the impact is,” said Ashwin Balakrishnan, coordinator of the Watershed Alliance. “In order for the partnership to work, they have to be on the same page about the details. Businesses need to meet their bottom line, and communities need to make sure there is development in their area.”

Planners’ Dreams and Urban Realities

Planners’ Dreams and Urban Realities

The concrete barrier at the end of Lincoln Avenue -- one of only two locations where a public street meets the Harlem River waterfront in Mott Haven. Photo by Anika Anand

A new Mott Haven—mixed-use, greener and benefiting from the kind of transformative waterfront access that has taken place in other New York neighborhoods—already exists on urban planners’ drawing boards.

The neighborhood is long overdue for concrete change beyond the maps and renderings, activists say.

“The Harlem River is one of the least accessible waterfronts in the city,” said Chauncy Young, a community organizer who heads the Harlem River Working Group for the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality.  “Communities have been cut off.  We are trying to reconnect.”

City officials have acknowledged the need for renewal through a series of zoning changes over the past seven years, designed to encourage new kinds of development.

But they also acknowledge some formidable barriers: most of the land on the river is privately owned, the existing infrastructure blocks waterfront access, and capital-budget funding is still a distant dream.  In reality, officials say, market forces will determine how quickly change comes to the Mott Haven waterfront. They hope for an uptick in the economy to quicken the pace of change.

In 2009, the city rezoned the Lower Concourse, stretching from the 149th Street Bridge down to where Park Avenue meets the Major Deegan Expressway.  The rezoning was a response to a decline in industrial use and the desire to encourage commercial and residential activity.  The plan created a Special Waterfront District where a public walkway would follow the shoreline of the Harlem River through the newly zoned area — a little over a half-mile long.  It also included a waterfront park between 144th Street and 146th Street.

But three years later, there hasn’t been any movement.  Most of the rezoned land is privately owned, and the new zoning will only take effect when new development occurs.

Because of the Oak Point Link, a freight rail short-cut that carries two trains a day, residential builders along nearly two miles of waterfront would have to install noise-abatement windows to satisfy environmental regulators. City officials have likened it to building next to the elevated subway tracks or in busy mid-town Manhattan.

That hasn’t stopped urban planners from imagining what ideal waterfront access would look like.

Last year, students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a plan of their own for the Harlem River Waterfront.  Called “Bronx: Meet Your Waterfront,” the project won the  “By the City, For the City” competition.

The proposal envisioned a greenway, or a path for biking and walking that connects at four different waterfront locations: High Bridge and Depot Place, Macombs Dam, Pier Five and Lincoln Avenue, using existing abandoned paths and empty lots to connect the spaces.

The city approach banks on the private sector and economic expansion to usher in change on the waterfront.

In late 2011, the Harlem River Working Group, a community organization devoted to the development of a greenway, secured a $35,000 grant from the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit.  The Working Group is currently working with the Pratt Center to develop its own plan.

The Pratt plan, due to be released in June, is similar to the MIT plan, but it expands up to Fordham Landing and down to Park Avenue and the Randall’s Island connector, proposing these locations as additional greenway sites.

The city approach is more cautious, based on a wait-and-see philosophy that banks on the private sector and economic expansion to usher in change on the waterfront.

The Lower Concourse Rezoning Plan passed in 2009. (Source: NYC Department of City Planning)

Under the Lower Concourse Rezoning Plan, development can’t occur until the private landowners decide to either sell or change how they’re using the existing sites.  The city offers financial incentives for developers to create affordable housing in the rezoned area, but there is little evidence, at least publicly, that any of the eight privately owned properties are up for sale.

The property designated for a waterfront park would need to be sold to the city and turned over to the Parks Department before any public park could be constructed, said Jerry Willis from the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, an Obama administration program to connect urban neighborhoods to their waterways.

The lease is up in 2014, city officials say. But even then, the park probably won’t be built until housing comes in on the surrounding lots, on the theory that it makes no sense to build a park if no one is living there.

“As the market facilitates redevelopment on the Lower Concourse waterfront, the framework will be in place to provide the park for that growing population,” said a City Planning spokeswoman.

A further obstacle is the transit and industrial infrastructure that pervades the area.  Abandoned lofts and warehouses and currently viable industrial plants stand between residential neighborhoods and the waterfront, making it difficult and unsafe for community members to pass through, said Andrew Stone from the Trust for Public Land.

Another safety hazard is the Oak Point Link, a freight line that is a barrier blocking the waterfront. Boaters who are safe at low tide face the danger of being stranded during high tide where the Oak Point Line runs over the water, said Willis. Because of this risk only the Park Avenue and Lincoln Avenue sites could feature boating access, because they extend past the train track.

Even the city would have to build expensive and time-consuming pedestrian crossways over the tracks to protect the public, said Willis.

Such an expansive project is always publicly funded, said Stone.  And, even though the proposed city budget for the Fiscal Year 2013 includes a line recommending the funding for a waterfront park in the area, there just isn’t any money in the capital budget at this time, said a city official.

And it’s not likely to be on the radar in the near future.

“It took the Bronx River Project about ten years to come to fruition,” said Willis from the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. “Ten years ago, Hunts Point and Concrete Plant Park, which are now accessible to the public, were at the same stages the South Bronx is now.”

Over Walls, Under Fences: Community Access Now

Over Walls, Under Fences: Community Access Now

Members of Friends of Brook Park on a canoe trip in the Bronx Kill. Photo by Dirk Ewers

Dirk Ewers took a quick look around as he snuck into the private property that separates Lincoln Avenue from the Harlem River waterfront. His two sons, 16 and 7, were close behind, pulling the family’s canoe on a cart.

“We sneak in there and it’s all bushes and trash and stuff,” said Ewers, 42, of Port Morris.

He and his sons approached the water’s edge where rocks are tied to a fence to prevent erosion.

“That’s where we go in,” he said.

As they placed their boat on the river they glanced across to the Manhattan side where they saw cyclists riding on Harlem River Greenway.

“There are no facilities like that here,” Ewers said.

But that does not stop the Ewers and other South Bronx residents from getting onto the water. While activists like the Harlem River Working Group push for public waterfront access, residents are lobbying for change in their own way –by getting out on the river, using access routes that are not always safe or legal.

“You have to be a daredevil to get to the river.”  — Eve Baron

Because the marshy shore of the Harlem River is bordered by a railroad track and surrounded by industrial and commercial buildings, they are forced to cross busy streets, trespass through privately owned lots and slink around fences to enjoy the river in their own backyard.

Audio: Community Voices

At a neighborhood forum, at an unapproved fishing spot at the end of Lincoln Avenue, over a barbecue in Mill Pond Park — users of the Harlem River speak out on their waterfront. (Produced by Jorteh Senah)

Ewers and his sons often use the makeshift access point on Lincoln Avenue, near a vacant lot behind Oz Moving & Storage Inc. But when they take canoe trips with the youth group of Friends of Brook Park, a community-based environmental group in Mott Haven, they get to the river from a Bronx Kill access point on Randall’s Island. The Bronx Kill is a narrow strait of water between Randall’s Island and the Bronx that connects the Harlem to the upper East River.

From the Bronx Kill they row the canoes to where the Harlem meets the Hudson. The group chooses to launch their boats into the Bronx Kill from Randall’s Island because it is safer than accessing the Kill by land from the Bronx, according to Ewers.

“It’s really awful, you walk right next to the highway and there is a switchback where you go up to the bridge,” he said. “It’s very hazardous, there’s no structure. It becomes even more hazardous during low tide. You can only take one canoe at a time.”

The Pratt Center for Community Development is working with local residents to learn how they currently use the waterfront.

“There is no question that access is a big issue,” said Eve Baron, the senior fellow for policy and planning at the center. “There are definitely people who are passionate about boating on the Harlem River.”

But Baron knows that these boaters often take risks.

“When you are finally on the water it’s pleasant. It’s a great experience for everyone, especially the kids.” — Dirk Ewers

“You have to be a daredevil to get to the river,” she said.

Despite the challenges, Ewers has been rowing on the Harlem River for the past three years.

“When you are finally on the water it’s pleasant,” he said. “It’s a great experience for everyone, especially the kids.”

The Ewers and other members of Friends of Brook Park, as part of the Harlem River Working Group, advocate for waterfront access and restoration along the Harlem River and the Bronx Kill. The group’s mission is to create a recreational place along the southern part of the river where the community can take back the land from the industries that overflow it.

“There is no single official waterfront access for six miles,” said Harry Bubbins, the director of Friends of Brook Park. ”It has divorced the community from engaging with the waterfront and allowed these industries to try to stream in and take over the rest of our land.”

Friends of Brook Park is not the only group using the waterfront.

Misa Tiam, 30 of Manhattan, goes to the water’s edge to take pictures of used motorcycles he sells online. He said the area creates a natural backdrop for his bikes.

“It’s raw, rural, ghetto. You know ghetto fabulous,” Tiam said.

Community members have been trespassing through vacant lots to access the waterfront for generations, according to Antonio Bassatt, the president of the Metropolitan Wholesale & Retail Beer & Soda Distributors Inc. He has been doing business in the area since 1972.

Mott Haven residents just have to look across the Harlem River to see a gleaning waterfront esplanade in Manhattan. The Harlem River Park opened in 2008. Slideshow by Matt McNulty

Bubbins is proud to follow their path. In his view, opening up the waterfront to the public would be a political act. He believes Mott Haven, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation, is also one of the most overlooked by the government. He said providing waterfront access would give the respect the community deserves.

“It would help us achieve greater self-respect if we don’t have to slink around,” Bubbins said. “Why can people fish off the Upper East Side greenways and we don’t have comparable amenities on this side of the water?”