Rethinking Illness in the South Bronx

“We find it hard to say, ‘If you have really great open space near you, literally everything could get better. You will be less likely to experience crime. You will be more likely to have higher quality mental health. You will be more likely to do active recreation,’” said New York Restoration Project’s Director of Government Affairs Bethany Hogan during a recent panel conversation by More Art and CUE Art Foundation, two organizations dedication to supporting emerging artists and promoting cross-disciplinary collaboration. The panel was entitled “Rethinking Illness: Art, Health, and the Environment.”

Hogan was discussing the Haven Project, a community-led strategy to design, build, and manage a network of open spaces on the waterfront in Mott Haven and Port Morris in the South Bronx. The project consists of three large scale capital phases. One is the rebuilding of a pier at the end of East 132nd Street in Port Morris. The second is building a new waterfront esplanade that connects that pier to the Randall’s Island Connector, and the third is the revitalization of a large, vacant parcel of land that used to serve industrial purposes. The project aims to examine, mitigate, and reverse negative health outcomes prevalent in the community such as asthma rates and chronic heart issues, which have widely been linked to an environment with massive roadways, poor connectivity, and large concentrations of industrial activity. It seeks to improve street connectivity and support a new network of open space, which is expected to support health across many different areas.

“We’re talking about communities that have had to shoulder a burden of really heavy industrialization so that the rest of the city doesn’t have to,” Hogan said, addressing historical land-use strategy in the area. “We’re talking about massive highway infrastructure that bifurcates the physical landscape of the community, and causes extensive air pollution, including all of the run-of-the-mill usual problems like redlining and segregation,” she said. NYRP has secured funding to deliver the first phase of The Haven Project: building the East 132nd Street Pier Park.

Hogan explained that while NYRP has been working in the Bronx since the late 1990s, decades of environmental justice leadership and cultivation by groups like South Bronx Unite, The Point CDC, and NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, among others, is what helped the organization adopt its current approach in the area. This includes ideas surrounding the community-led design processes, and demands for municipal buy-in and acknowledgement that issues like poverty, low high school graduation rates, and high rates of chronic illness are inextricably linked.

Other members of the panel included a member of the Mayor's Sustainability Advisory Board and Environmental Defense Fund Regional Director Andy Darrell, Ironbound Community Corporation Environmental Justice Manager Melissa Miles, and Mary Mattingly, the creator of Swale, a floating food forest that travels to public piers across the city.