Helping Hunts Point shed pounds

In a neighborhood plagued by diabetes and heart attacks, the busting ‘Rec’ is on the front lines of the war on obesity and disease

By Sarah Grieb

Photo by Sarah Grieb
Leighton Wynter, long time resident of Hunts Point, appreciates having a gym in his neighborhood.

Yanete Rodriguéz sips from her water bottle and wipes sweat from her brow as she cools down from the workout she finished moments before. When she started exercising at the Hunts Point Recreation Center four years ago, she weighed 289 pounds. Now, Rodriguez weighs 162, and is headed for her goal of 159.

“I was very heavy. I want to keep it off,” she said.

Rodriguéz is one of some 1,600 adults who have signed up to use the center, known locally as “the Rec,” which just celebrated its seventh anniversary. The center is an airy two-story space with large windows looking out on the surrounding park. It includes a fitness area equipped with 10 cardio machines, a weight room with six weight machines, as well as free weights, a gymnasium, a computer lab, a multipurpose and performance space and an indoor track.

The Rec has an important role to play in Hunts Point’s health, say public health authorities. One in four adults in the South Bronx is obese, according to the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, putting them at increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Nearly one in five Hunts Point ant Mott Haven residents has adult diabetes, double the citywide average.

And more than half the residents get no exercise at all, the health department survey found.

That’s typical of economically-depressed neighborhoods all across the country, according to Nicholas Freudenberg, distinguished professor of public health at Hunter College and the City University Graduate Center. The numbers “point to the importance of public policy that increases the possibility for physical activity in poor urban communities,” he said.

Although New York City averages nearly four acres of park land for every thousand residents, and the Bronx is richer in parks than any other borough, Hunts Point and Longwood offer residents less than an acre of park per thousand residents.

The hunger for more was demonstrated this summer, when the Parks Department finally completed the renovation of the park next to the Rec. For two years the space was a muddy construction site. It reopened with a new basketball court, baseball diamond, sprinklers, playground and handicapped accessible picnic tables that drew in neighborhood people of all ages.

People flocked to the Rec when the renovations were completed, said Fernando Rosa, the center’s manager. “It was like I was giving out hotcakes! It was the place to be.”

Rosa, who has worked at the Rec since it opened in 2001, recently lost 20 pounds, and hopes his effort will encourage others to get in shape too. He said he not only looks better, but feels better. That’s what he tries to stress really matters, he said.

Rosa focuses especially on young people. On school days, starting at about 2:30 in the afternoon as schools are letting out for the day, school-aged children happy to be out of class start trickling into the Rec for the after-school program.

Rosa started a workout regimen for the program, but “kids said I was too hard on them,” he laughs. However, he still tries to get them to think about the food they were eating and to encourage them to eat more fruits, vegetables and salad, instead of just beans and rice, even once or twice a week.

He said one surprised but grateful father wanted to know what Rosa had told his son. “He said, ‘my son is asking for salads and fruit. Thank you!’ I told them, ‘You are what you eat. If you eat a pork chop, you’re a pork chop.’”

The free after-school program is so popular that it has a waiting list, but the number of adults signed up to use the Rec’s workout facilities has fallen since the city imposed a $50-a-year fee in 2006. but is beginning to rise again.

Membership plummeted 66 percent; according to Parks Department figures, but the numbers don’t tell the real story, a spokeswoman for the department said. Many of the people who registered as members when it was free didn’t use the center, said Jesslyn Tiao Moser, in an email response to questions from The Express. “Current membership numbers more closely capture the number of people who are using the center,” she said.

In addition, according to the figures supplied by the Parks Department, membership rose by 476 people in the fiscal year that ended on June 30.

Nevertheless, the city’s Independent Budget Office concluded that the fee would not bring in a significant amount of revenue and would hurt attendance.

Freudenberg agrees that the fee probably does more harm than good. “I think it’s a mean-spirited policy, and we ought to not charge people to use public facilities,” he said.

“It’s harder when you have to pay. It made you think,” said Enrique Henriquez who decided to pay the fee and continue using the Rec. “I’m happy with it; it’s a blessing,” he said.

“It’s a bargain,” said Wilberto Sanjurjo who works in Hunts Point but lives in Queens. He thinks the Rec is a great deal, especially when compared with the cost of private clubs like Bally or New York Sports Club.

Cynthia DeJesus, who uses the Rec a several times a week and lives just three blocks away, likes that “it’s cheap and close,” and thinks the fee is worth it. “I don’t want to be fat, I come here to lose weight and be healthy,” she said.

Leighton Wynter, another member who lives nearby, has been using the Rec since the first week it opened. He says it’s more than just a gym; it’s a community treasure.

“This is the richest city in the country and smack dab in the middle of it is the poorest congressional district that has some of the nicest facilities in the country,” said Wynter.

He heaped praise on Rosa. “If you go to another gym, you don’t know who runs it. I know him.” Rosa, he added, has “integrated himself into the community and that’s really something.”

Rodriguéz shares that sentiment. “It’s like a family here,” she said.

As Rosa walks through the center he greets almost everyone by name, flowing between English and Spanish. The kids from the after-school program light up when he talks with them. “People talk negative about Hunts Point,” he said, “but I feel I’m a neighbor.”

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