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Study spotlights Hunts Point’s empty lots

Ajhani Ayres

Hunter College students Nate Heffron and Josh Thompson engage residents in an interactive mapping exercise. The residents were asked to visualize their ideas for the possible repurposing of vacant lots in the neighborhood.

Researchers ask residents how they’d repurpose abandoned spaces

What would you do with a vacant lot in your neighborhood? This was the question posed to neighborhood residents by a group of Hunter College urban planning students who recently catalogued the underused spaces – empty lots, abandoned buildings and city property — around Hunts Point.

The students, who call themselves The Hunts Point Studio, spent the last year identifying and mapping more than 100 vacant lots, and presented their findings at The Point on March 26. Using digital mapping software called G.I.S., the group canvassed the peninsula and used city records to identify the current use of each lot.

Their next step, they said, is to incorporate the opinions and needs of the community in hopes of finding ideas for these unused spaces.

“The main goal is to listen carefully to the people that live in the neighborhood, allowing them to site their wishes as far as how they see them being used or repurposed,” said Hunter College Associate Professor Laxmi Ramasubramanian, who oversees the program.

The Hunts Point Studio consists of seven Hunter College graduate students who partnered with the non-profit organization Sustainable South Bronx, which since 2001 has worked to improve quality of life and environmental conditions on issues such as air quality, lack of green space and the proliferation of heavy industry.

At one point in its history, block after block in Hunts Point was reduced to rubble due to the unrelenting series of fires set by landlords and arsonists in the 1970s. The term “The Bronx is burning,” has haunted the neighborhood ever since.

In the 102 lots that the students identified, they found the following breakdown of uses, as defined by city records:

  • 10 are classified as ‘lots with no use,’
  • 2 are ‘underutilized park property,’
  • 30 are used for ‘parking or waste,’
  • 14 are ‘vacant buildings,’
  • 14 are ‘city designated parking,’
  • 28 are ‘vacant with active use,’
  • 4 are community gardens or playgrounds.’

“I think it’s a shame that there are 102 vacant lots in the community, especially when residents have the desire for more green space,” said Angela Tovar, director of policy and research for Sustainable South Bronx. Tovar graduated in 2011 from the same urban planning program. “There are a lot of underutilized spaces that can go to better use,” she said. “People just need a forum to express their ideas.”

At the meeting, three tables were set up so residents could place their ideas on a map of the area using different colored stickers. Chatter grew louder as the conversations at each table commenced. At bigger sites, such as the Garrison lots on the corner of Edgewater just north of Rocking the Boat, and the vacant lot near Barretto Point Park, residents were in favor of a park expansion, additional recreational space, green space or a possible picnic pavilion. The former Spofford Juvenile Detention Center was targeted for affordable housing or a community clinic. On some of the smaller lots, residents envisioned community gardens and urban farms.

Stephanie Almodovar, a high school sophomore, attended the meeting with The Point’s student activist group A.C.T.I.O.N. (Advocates Coming To Inform Our Neighborhood), which works to raise community awareness. Though she does not live in Hunts Point, Almodovar visits her grandparents here frequently and knows her way around.

“There are a lot of young people in the community — one of the lots should be used for a skate boarding park,” she said. Her grandparents “don’t get out much,” she said, so for them, she would like to see a community garden because “my grandmother is into that, she’s a fan of gardening.”

Another participant noted a major void in the neighborhood that could be addressed with better planning: food.

“I honestly don’t do a lot of food shopping here,” said Steve Yankou, a member of the punk rock group No One and the Somebodies, who moved to the neighborhood a year ago. Yankou feels the one grocery store in the neighborhood is not the best for fresh produce. He is wary about gentrification, so his wish is to see some sort of food co-op rather than upscale grocers. “I would much rather like to put money into the businesses in my community, instead of having to go elsewhere to grocery shop,” he said.

Other participants were looking for ways to address a chronic community problem: unemployment.

The Point’s program manager, Rebecca Rosado, was looking toward “anything that produces gainful employment, and a working environment that is safe and in the end will produce a living wage.”

After brainstorming for about 45 minutes, Blank Plate, a local organization that offers cooking classes at The Point, prepared and served a vegetarian meal. The group started “No Beef Thursdays” five years ago to promote non-violence. Chef Kelston Bascom, the owner of Bascom Catering & Events, had his students prepare a meal of pasta salad, Caesar salad, a chicken salad and fruit smoothies for the evening.

The Hunts Point Studio will analyze and process all the information they gathered at the meeting, and then post it online at their website, www.huntspointstudio.org.

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