Education / Environment

Hunts Point celebrates Earth Day

Michelle Baricevic

Zera Megget, Wanda Suero and Vanessa Capistran (left to right) help spruce up Hunts Point Riverside Park.

More than 150 volunteers chip in at Rec Center

On any other weekend, Vanessa Sapistran would probably have stayed at home and taken advantage of the regular two-day break from the rigors of school. But last month, she got herself out bright and early to give some rusted garbage cans a new coat of lush black paint in Hunts Point Riverside Park.

“I don’t want to be the kind of person that when I grow up, I didn’t do anything for my community,” said Sapistran, a 14-year-old student at Saint Ignatius School. 

Earth Day celebrates 45 years

By Michelle Baricevic
Forty-five years ago on April 22, 1970, a Wisconsin senator launched an event that would shift the mindset of the nation. Inspired by the anti-Vietnam War activism around him, Gaylord Nelson wanted to take those fiery rally cries and use them to create a movement that would not only make an impact on his own state, but maybe even change the world.

Nelson’s Earth Day took place in Denver, but was a springboard for events across the country, inspiring nearly 20 million Americans to take to the streets and rally together to promote a healthier Mother Earth.
Later that year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency was formed; the Clean Air Act would be passed that same year and revamped by Congress in 1977 and in 1990; the Clean Water Act was next in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act followed in 1973.

Despite the passage of federal laws, it took New York City longer to catch up, and Hunts Point even longer. It wasn’t until 2006 that the neighborhood started to reclaim its waterfront, with the opening of Barretto Point Park. Hunts Point Riverside Park followed in 2007, along with Concrete Plant Park in 2009, but efforts are still being made to continue improving the local environment..

She was not alone; joining her on April 25 were 150 volunteers taking part in Sustainable South Bronx’s second annual “Celebrate Hunts Point!” volunteer day pegged to national Earth Day.

The event, which kicked off at Manida Street’s Hunts Point Recreation Center, was a way for residents to give Hunts Point’s parks, playgrounds and gardens some needed tender love and care.

“What you’re going to do today is not menial work, or work beneath you,” said Chris Acosta, the Parks Department’s director for Hunts Point. “It’s above us all to make sure that when we go to any park in any borough, it’s as clean, safe and beautiful as say, Central Park. These are our Central Parks.”

Before heading to the project sites, volunteers were led in a 15-minute workout by instructors from Shapeup NYC. The smallest to the largest volunteers began moving to Usher’s “Scream” in an elaborate routine of toe touches, jumping jacks, lunges and kickboxing jabs. The workout allowed volunteers to get their blood flowing before arming themselves with spades, rakes, garbage bags and gloves.

“When I was sleeping, I couldn’t wait to come to clean and put mulch around the trees,” said Leslie Paulo Rivera, 11, who volunteered along with her 12-year-old sister, Ashley, at Hunts Point Playground. Volunteers also painted signs for Bryant Hill Community Garden and cleaned the river banks of Concrete Plant Park.

“The bigger importance is to ensure that people know that some of these parks are out there,” said Angela Tovar, director of sustainable policy and research for Sustainable South Bronx. “We want to get people excited about volunteering and doing more work locally.”

The event took place just three days after Mayor Bill deBlasio visited The Point CDC to unveil a new plan to address environmental issues in the city’s lower income communities. One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City is meant to act as a blueprint for improving air quality, lowering gas emissions and reducing waste.

According to an Environmental Protection Agency Study  released in 2013, “94 million tons of pollution were emitted into the atmosphere in the United States.” These pollutants included carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide and are commonly emitted from vehicles, factories and fuel consumption.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Hunts Point. As the center of the world’s largest Produce Terminal and Meat Market, Hunts Point receives an estimated 15,000 truck trips daily. That total is set to increase by 1,000 trips once Fresh Direct opens its new facility in Port Morris.

It is an issue that Edith McGee said needs to be addressed more seriously. The 28-year-old volunteer received a certification in asbestos, confined space and OSHA from Sustainable South Bronx in 2013.

“They’re not aware that there’s people that do live in this community and it’s affecting us,” McGee said.

Despite the efforts of local environmental activists, the statistics do not look good for the Bronx. According to a 2014 study by the New York State Comptroller’s Office:

  • The Bronx had the highest number of average annual deaths (57.7), as well as the highest age-adjusted asthma death rate by far (43.5 deaths per million residents), among all counties in the state.
  • Chief among the study’s list of leading asthma-causing factors was commercial truck exhaust.
  • An additional 1,400 diesel truck trips is due to the transport of garbage.
  • Hunts Point and Mott Haven are home to 11 waste transfer stations, with six down the river in Port Morris.
  • And, according to the City Council Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, nearly one third of the city’s 21,000 tons of waste gets treated within these facilities.

These are reasons why community clean-up projects are important: they enable residents to take environmental issues into their own hands, said Arielle Brender, a Fordham University environmental studies major.

“A lot of people feel really, really disconnected from the word ‘environment’ or ‘nature,’” said Brender, 18, who acted as a site manager at Hunts Point Playground. “It’s really important to hop on wherever you can. What am I going to do with my Saturday, sit in bed? No, I’d rather be here. It’s fun, these kids are so great and they immediately get passionate about it. They realize this is their space and they have to be responsible for it and it empowers them.”

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