Environmentalism: Nothing New for African-Americans
Submitted by Morgan Powell, a landscape designer, who edits Bronx River Sankofa on You Tube and Facebook. He is passionate about New York’s Bronx River and its African American heritage. Here is his third submission in a series to highlight the generous yet delicate resource of the Bronx River and African American engagement with our environment as a whole.
This blog will address four decades in the life of a ghetto park’s stages of development. We’ll recognize some of the local leadership whose initiative was founded by a white Catholic activist in 1974. Today, a riverfront park is being rebuilt as a monument to over three decades of stewardship, civic accomplishment and vision that grew from those efforts: West Farms Rapids park along the Bronx River Greenway.
Africans are known to have been taken in as community members by Native Americans throughout the age of North American colonization by Europe. I believe this came out of a mutuality of consciousness — two traditional cultures creating family for survival.
West Farms Rapids (2 Acres)
The West Farms Community is one of many historic settlements along the Bronx River, which is the only freshwater river in New York City. Measuring 23 miles, this blue corridor has been central to the life of the Bronx since pre-colonial days. It winds its way from the heights of Westchester County to meet the East River at Hunt’s Point. Called Aquehung (River of High Bluffs) by the Mohegan Indians who fished and hunted along its banks, the Bronx River derives its name from Jonas Bronck (1600-1643), a Swedish sea captain who settled 500 acres of the mainland in 1639 as the Bronx’s first European resident.
While his land extended to the Bronx River, his home overlaid by today’s neighborhood of Port Morris, was closer to where the East River bends toward its path to the Long Island Sound. The attraction of beaver fur brought European traders in the early 1600s at a time when Africans were know to accompany some trappers in the region. Soon, the Dutch followed by greater numbers of English settlers arrived.
Mills began to sprout up along “Bronck’s River.” By the mid-1800s as many as 11 mills were processing paper, flour, pottery, cotton, rugs, barrels, lumber, grains (wheat, millet, corn & barley), gun powder and tobacco, powered by the stream. More than a small share of those raw materials (e.g. cotton and tobacco) were harvested by African-Americans as near as Connecticut and as far away as Louisiana working in bondage and freedom.
The Bronx River Valley’s economy grew through the 1600s and 1700s. Farming and cottage industries developed and flourished until the Revolutionary War, when the river became a shifting battle line between American Patriots and British Loyalists. The De Lancey family estate, now part of the Bronx Zoo, is well documented as a site of 18th century tensions. American troops gained control of the area when British Loyalists evacuated in 1783.
During the era between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 and again in the 1840s during the construction of the New York & Harlem Railroad, factories sprang up along the Bronx River shores, which harnessed the current to power manufacturing. At one time, at least 11 mills stood between North Castle and West Farms. The Bolton Bleachery for cotton and wool textiles operated for many decades on the same site where the Lorraine Hansberry Academy is now situated at the intersection of Boston Road and East Tremont Avenue.
These industries brought both prosperity and pollution as they dumped their refuse into the waterfront. In 1896, a report by the New York State Legislature stated that the river had become an “open sewer” and appointed a commission to remedy the problem. After intensive study, the commission recommended that the city purchase the land alongside this waterway and transform it from an unregulated zone of farms, slums and factories into a landscaped nature preserve. America’s first parkway was thus born, allowing the city and state to control activity along the river and providing motorists, bicyclists and strollers with a pleasant venue for recreation and scenic trips.
The Bronx River Parkway (opened in stages from 1916-1925) protected the watershed as it entered Bronx Park as envisioned by major advocates of it from the Bronx Zoo. However, the Bronx River did not receive dedicated ecological rehabilitation south of East 180th Street until 1974, when Ruth Anderberg founded the Bronx River Restoration Project (BXRR) on the inspiration of then Bronx Police Chief Anthony V. Bouza, who had already launched an intergovernmental dialogue to clean the river. West Farms Rapids (formerly Bronx River Park, originally Restoration Park) marks the genesis of those efforts. The rock-stuffed rubber-tire retaining wall most prominent on the east bank is a landmark commemorating 1980, when this place was officially opened as a park. Around this time, BXRR also created what’s now called the Bronx River Art Center (BRAC) nearby and River Garden, and published the Bronx River Restoration Master Plan. This plan advocated the ecological revival of the whole river complete with a continuous linear park from the Kensico Dam to its mouth at the East River.
Many hands contributed to these early efforts, including teen-aged and adult workers and community leaders from Lambert Houses, like BXRR treasurer Marcel Woolery, Jr. Meanwhile, independent efforts to rehabilitate the surrounding community and expand green spaces were accelerating under the leadership of MBD Housing with black icons like Genevieve Brooks and E. J. Mitchell.
BXRR’s efforts were funded by city programs like Summer Youth Employment. Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), local elected officials, Phipps Houses, and other organizations dedicated resources for construction, programming and maintenance. In the 1990s, local residents and workers formed a new coalition to revive this site. Called the West Farms Friends of the Bronx River, members included Michelle Williams, Bernard Tim Johnson, Nessie Panton (still active at River Garden), Andre Williams, Juanita Carter (honored with a street sign), Perquida Williams, Sebert Harper (currently a New York City Housing authority tenant gardening consultant) and others.
They organized riverfront clean-ups, planted the park’s original butterfly garden and worked with the Parks Department to install picnic tables for family recreation. In 1997, HPD gave the city jurisdiction over this park and by 2008 the Parks Department owned it. Also in 1997, Partnerships for Parks convened the Bronx River Working Group, comprised of 20 founding partners, including Phipps Community Development Corporation, BXRR and the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality. This collaboration culminated in 2001 with the creation of the Bronx River Alliance.
In 2000, the Transportation Equity Act allocated $770,800 to renovate the park. This mid-Bronx node of the Bronx River Greenway broke ground in 2008 to improve safety and enhance multi-modal access, featuring a canoe launch, a new butterfly garden, an amphitheater and direct access to East Tremont Avenue where Bronx Street was absorbed into this park and demapped. The Department of Parks and Recreation of the City of New York, the Bronx River Alliance and community partners continue to maintain this remarkably beautiful and historic site.
More about the author – Morgan Powell is editor and founder of Bronx River Sankofa on You Tube and Facebook. His initiative is part of a local movement to recognize four decades of African American environmentalists & over 350 years of Bronx social history including Afro ethno – botany in the Bronx River watershed. Over 525 folks have attended live presentations of his. Bronx River Sankofa is an independent project of the Bronx African American History Project of Fordham University in partnership with the Bronx County Historical Society.