Where would one stop on a “toxic tour” of New York City? From underground oil spills to lead-painted windowsills, contaminated sites abound. In recent years, there have been increasing efforts and demands to clean them up, whether to protect the health of people and other living things, satisfy legal requirements, or make way for lucrative new uses. For our special series Cleaning Up?, we are presenting a number of short illustrated case studies of recent remediation projects in and around the city. What do we do when we “clean up”? What kinds of technical interventions exist, and what are their social consequences? Together, consider these case studies not as a primer of remediation techniques, but as a survey of practices and attitudes. For our purposes, remediation entails not only abating toxic chemicals by engineering basements and barriers, specifying chelating agents and plants, or dredging, but a range of practices that extend from environmental engineering to justice struggles, policy, planning, and design. These buildings, landscapes, and other intentional projects to repair, recover, and redeem contaminated environments demonstrate both conventional and emerging techniques, and their aspirations and contradictions.
Illustrated by Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez, these case studies don’t conform to the satisfying “before” and “after” scenario wherein a site is miraculously cleaned, restored, or recovered. The city is not like the stained white polo shirt resuscitated by a trifecta of Mom, washing machine, and Tide. Residues are not so much contained or erased as they seep, move about, and linger in the air, water, and soil. Approach the images instead like a game of “spot the difference,” where some things change, but much remains the same.
The first stop on our tour is Starlight Park and the new headquarters of the Bronx River Alliance along the Bronx River. Inaugurated last year as a triumph of environmental activism and restoration, the new environmental education center represents not a “happily ever after,” but an ongoing process of recovery and repair. — MM
If you stand on the banks of the Bronx River, near Starlight Park, facing north, a lush, natural waterway unfolds, complete with egrets, butterflies, and diving cormorants — a dreamy scene were it not for the roar of truck traffic on Sheridan Boulevard and the Cross Bronx Expressway. Face south, and the river widens and deepens, making room for the odd commercial barge that moves freight along the waterway’s final two miles and into the East River. At this junction sits the Bronx River House, a vine-covered building containing a boathouse, community spaces, classrooms, laboratories, and the headquarters of the Bronx River Alliance.
The official opening of the Bronx River House in 2020 represented an important milestone in the long history of community activism to restore the river, which flows 23 miles from the Kensico Reservoir in Westchester down through predominantly low-income neighborhoods of the Bronx. A toxic mix of sewage, trash, urban runoff, and chemical waste released indiscriminately by the factories located along its banks has wreaked havoc on the river’s ecology for over a century. Hundreds, if not thousands, of neighbors have labored to reverse the damage since the 1970s, through the Bronx Restoration Project, and in collaboration with local businesses, police, and even the National Guard. From the mid-1990s, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ), a faith-based organization focused on social and environmental justice in the South Bronx, advocated strongly for the renovation of Starlight Park, which borders the Bronx River House, and the return of the community’s access to the river.
During routine repairs in 2003, workers discovered black “taffy-like” veins of coal tar under the park, a former manufactured gas plant, in addition to harmful levels of heavy metals, cyanide, and volatile organic compounds. Con Edison was found liable for the toxic residue, but it was YMPJ who set the high standards for the company’s remediation of the site, by rallying the local community, mounting pressure at public meetings, and hiring technical experts and top-tier lawyers to assist with their campaign. The clean-up involved excavating contaminated soil, importing clean fill, installing a warning barrier, and post-remediation monitoring. The State’s Department of Environmental Conservation also implemented strict controls over what could be developed on the site. YMJP’s efforts at Starlight Park helped establish a precedent for the remediation of 23 further sites throughout the city where Con Edison once operated plants.
Starlight Park is one of a number of former industrial sites being turned into riverside parks as part of Bronx River Greenway Plan, an initiative led by the Parks Department and the Bronx River Alliance, a nonprofit organization that coordinates the restoration of the river, and runs recreational and environmental education programs for the surrounding community. Alliance staff and volunteers have returned native vegetation and aquatic life to the river, repaired riparian wetlands, and improved water quality. A simple idea underpins the group’s work: By increasing access to the river, there will be an increase in those who will be moved to steward it.
The new building is central to the Bronx River Alliance’s restoration efforts, providing space to coordinate volunteer garbage clean-ups, store kayaks, and analyze water samples. Wrapped in vines, sheltering an inner wall of moss, and featuring geothermal pumps, solar panels, and rainwater tanks, the building was conceived by architects Kiss and Cathcart as a living part of the landscape (the landscape is by Starr Whitehouse). Designed to create and monitor its own microclimate, the building captures and filters rain, converts sunlight, and cleans the air. But its environmental performance is equally symbolic. Touted as “one of the greenest buildings in the South Bronx,” the headquarters embodies a new relationship to the river, one based on community stewardship, science, and education.
Regular canoe tours and hands-on learning activities take place against a backdrop of ongoing pollution and warnings which advise against swimming and fishing in large sections of the river. Unhealthy amounts of runoff, sewage, pet waste, and trash still find their way into the water. Bacteria in the river’s Combined Sewage Overflow (CSO) regularly max out the Alliance’s sensors. Massive failures in urban infrastructure and services, from collapsed pipes to unregulated trash management, are mostly to blame. Even successes — such as the reforesting of the river’s banks — have created fresh sources of debris. Cleaning up branches from the new trees is now part of the Parks Department’s maintenance schedule. Restoring the river and remediating its shoreline require constant attention and coordinating actors across the watershed in an ongoing process of recovery and repair.