Allysa De Wolf, Intern at Interfaith Center of New York
On Thursday, April 22, The Interfaith Center joined with Faith Leaders for Environmental Justice in the inauguration of the new Healthy Living Harlem Green Map. A group of us spent the next few hours on a walking tour through a couple of the highlights on the map. Our journey began at the Interfaith Center where we traversed up Riverside Drive next to Riverside Park. The day was perfect with clear blue skies and the warm sun lighting our way up to Riverbank Park on 145th St.
I have often driven by Riverbank Park and remarked at how interesting it was to see a park atop a concrete building with trees, basketball courts, and other features but never knew what exactly this park was sitting on. To those who are also ignorant of its mysterious foundation, Rivebank Park sits on top of a sanitation plant. As we explored the amenities (the community garden, Hudson River view, track, ice rink, etc) we couldn’t ignore the tall cyndrical towers “hidden” among the recreational items. These towers remind park goers and residents’ noses that in fact the children and families playing and living within close proximity are atop and near a sanitation plant. In fact this plant is one of the biggest in the city. The representatives from West Harlem Environmental Action (WeACT) explained to us to dichotomy of this “green” space. On one hand it is taking something that is altogether harmful for our lungs and environment and “greening” it but on the other residents are constantly breathing in the chemicals being released into the air. Below the Riverbank Park and to the North we visited a vegetable garden.
The vegetable garden was busy with volunteers turning the soil and preparing the earth to plant the next harvest. This space, open to the public and used by the community is a great example of residents taking unused space and making it not only beautiful but resourceful. It backs up to and under the West Side Highway down a little street that once was full of garbage trucks waiting to empty their loads and in a place where drugs and prostitution used to run rampant. Now this garden along with a new waterway park are the highlights.
At the new waterway park that sits between 120th and 140th st the water is beginning to team with life. WeAct talked about how when the park was in its first planning stages a military surveyor tested the water where the park was to break ground and said there were no signs of life. Now there are fish and other sea life making a home under the docks and bridge that juts out into water. In water front parks residents not only have more room to play but a reminder that we live on an Island. Often this simple fact can be overshadowed by the tall buildings and busy schedules NewYorkers live by. A new dock that has been built as part of the park is waiting to be used as a kayak and boat dock. This could potentially bring in revenue from site seeyers and adventure buffs. This whole area was a great reminder of how going Green ca be profitable to pocket books, health, animal life and the environment. It is a win-win situation for all here. As we made our way down the park we ended our tour at the Bus Depot near 120th St.
This Depot sits across the street from one of the biggest new housing developments and three schools. When one stands underneath the windows of the depot one can hardly breath from the fumes. It is another reminder of the low income areas and minority communities being used as a dumping ground for toxic plants and depots. Children in upper Manhattan and other minority areas are known for having the worst asthma in all of New York City because of bus depots like this one. By the end of the walk, I could feel my lungs itching from standing in Riverbank Park among the sanitation plant and standing here watching the buses going in and out. Now, I have asthma and feeling the effects so easily made me realize even more how bad this problem is. I looked over to the schools sitting directly in front of the air ducts and windows. I imagined the small lungs breathing in the fumes everday as they came out for recess. This tour was a good reminder of the need for more parks, vegetable gardens and green areas in low income and minority areas like Harlem but it was also a sobering reminder of the toxins and pollutants these residents are forced to breath in everday.
*If you would like to check out the map for yourself go to www.greenmap.org and search for “Healthy Living Harlem Green map.” Faith Leaders for Environmental Justice is a collaboration of diverse religous leaders working together on food and climate justice. The Interfaith Center is a founding member of this collaboration.