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FLOAT ON

All right, we know the Bronx River is nasty—you’d have to have some real cojones to swim in those murky waters. But trust us, you’ll be giddy about taking the No. 6 train to Hunts Point, where you’ll find some fresh, cool chlorinated water at the tip of Barretto Point Park on the Floating Pool Lady, a barge carrying a seven-lane, 25-meter-long pool. Debuting last summer at Brooklyn Bridge Park, the mini-oasis has now been tugged to the Bronx for another hot season of swimming (and will remain there for three more years). So dive right in, and hold your nose—just because the water is good doesn’t mean the air out there is.

June 27-Sept. 1, 11 a.m., 2008

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Drama at New York’s Only Wholesale Farmers’ Market

Smelling faintly of fish and diesel, the parking lot at the Fulton Fish Market is the kind of place where people make jokes about dumping bodies. It also happens to be the makeshift home of New York’s only wholesale farmers’ market—or what remains of it.

One blustery April morning, five trucks were parked in a semi-circle next to the river, the water slapping against the rocks below. The farmers—most of them well over 60 and clad in overalls—huddled stoically in the cabs of their trucks, dozing off or chatting until a buyer pulled up to inspect their wares. The farmers had arrived at 2 a.m. and would stay until about 8:30 a.m., after which they’d pack up and head back to their farms.

The New York wholesale farmers’ market has a long and vital history, but now it’s virtually without a home and teetering on the brink of extinction. If the group loses just one or two more farmers, the market probably won’t survive.

Why should you care? You’ve heard the arguments for buying local: The produce is fresher; less fuel is consumed; it’s good for small farmers and the local economy. But trekking to greenmarkets with cute cloth bags only goes so far.

The big wholesale buyers—stores and restaurants—don’t find it feasible to shop at consumer greenmarkets. So if you want more local produce from shops and restaurants, there has to be a convenient wholesale source. And because big wholesale merchants generally don’t buy from small and mid-sized farms, those farmers need to find a way to band together and market themselves to wholesale buyers.

None of the chefs I spoke to had even heard that a wholesale farmers’ market exists at the Fulton Fish Market, even though they all thought it was a good idea. “A wholesale farmers’ market would be ideal. Unlike the everyday shopper at the greenmarket, we’re buying in heavy bulk—so cost-wise, it would be ideal,” said Neil Ferguson of Allen & Delancey.

Lee Gross, chef at Broadway East, agreed: “A wholesale produce market for the restaurant industry that is akin to the Union Square farmers’ market would be great. Who wouldn’t want that? I do a fair amount of shopping in Union Square, and as a chef, it gets frustrating maneuvering around all of the civilians who are taking a leisurely Saturday stroll.”

Bolstered by data that indicate this unmet demand, the state Department of Agriculture and Markets has proposed creating a dedicated site for an expanded wholesale farmers’ market with indoor and outdoor facilities for 130 farmers. The department is betting that better infrastructure, publicity, and organization would attract more farmers and buyers. Both Toronto and Paris have already done this successfully.

Last year, the project’s proponents found a champion in Governor Eliot Spitzer, who declared in his 2007 State of the State speech that he was making a wholesale farmers’ market a priority for 2008.

And then Spitzer ended up screwing the farmers as well as Ashley DuPré. Spitzer’s ouster means that 2008 will see no new construction. Governor Paterson said through a spokesperson that he “remains committed to the wholesale farmers’ market and pushed to keep funding for it in this year’s budget.” And there’s $40 million for agricultural development in this year’s state budget. But can the various bureaucracies and players agree on a plan?

Jack Hoeffner is a fifth-generation Hudson Valley farmer and the coordinator of the current market in the parking lot. He’d heard about Spitzer’s plans, but he’s skeptical about promises from the government. Hoeffner has seen the devolution of the market over the past 50 years. In 1935, his family, along with about 100 other farmers, started selling their produce in the Bronx Terminal Market, near Yankee Stadium. But when the city handed over the Terminal Market to a private company under a 99-year lease, the farmers were eventually kicked out to make way for the market’s redevelopment as a retail space. They moved to a parking lot under the Major Deegan Expressway. Two years ago, the developers said they needed that parking lot for construction equipment, so the farmers—their numbers rapidly dwindling—were homeless again. They rented part of the parking lot of the Fulton Fish Market; this is their second season there.

There’s an obvious fix to this situation that wouldn’t require a whole new building: Give the farmers space in the Hunts Point wholesale produce market. That’s where the big produce vendors are located, and it’s where the vast majority of wholesale buyers in the city get their produce now. That option was on the table at the start of this season, but the deal fell through.

“We made several attempts to go into Hunts Point and were always beaten back by the merchants,” said Hoeffner.

Actually, Matt D’Arrigo, one of the biggest vendors and the co-president of the market, says he was all for the plan. But Hoeffner heard that a few vendors—the ones who also deal in local produce—were wary of bringing in the competition. Hoeffner got nervous and decided to sign the lease with the Fulton Fish Market for the 2008 season—right back where he was before.

Curt Conklin, who owns Homestead Floral Designs, a floral and produce shop in Westchester County, buys from Hoeffner, whom he’s known all his life. “I’ve seen it change from something gigantic and very vibrant, to something . . . still vibrant, but much smaller,” he said. “I was upset when the vendors didn’t allow the farmers to come to Hunts Point, and I think that the state has neglected the farmers by not putting in a decent facility.”

For his part, D’Arrigo is trying to get the Hunts Point produce market refurbished. He proposes that one of the old buildings could then be made into the farmers’ market. In his vision, the new produce market for the traditional big wholesalers would be next-door to the old one, which would house the farmers—a perfect one-stop produce shopping setup for stores and restaurants. D’Arrigo will propose his plan to the Economic Development Commission this month.

Meanwhile, Hoeffner and his fellow holdouts will be out in their trucks by the East River six days a week, selling herbs and flowers, then tomatoes and sweet corn and other summer fruits and vegetables, before packing it in for the season around Thanksgiving and waiting to see what next year will bring.

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Hunts Point: Where To Eat (With Strippers)

It’s midnight on a Monday night, and the walls of Fratelli’s Pizza Café are thumping with the music from the Hunts Point Triangle strip club next door. John Fratelli is kneading dough for pepperoni rolls and leafing through Forbes between fielding orders from the wholesale market workers. (“Hey, John! Send over a pie at 1:30, willya?”) Sometimes, John says, strippers from next-door come by for whole lasagnas. “I don’t know how they do it!” he says. “They eat a whole lasagna and then dance all night!” He clutches his stomach and laughs.

Restaurants in Hunts Point cater to the people who work hard slinging fish and breaking down sides of meat (and stripping). Manhattan might be the restaurant capital of the world, but it’s actually this South Bronx neighborhood that is essential to the way we eat. Whether you’re picking up broccoli at D’Agostinos, or enjoying a porterhouse at Peter Luger, much of the fresh food you buy has passed through the wholesale markets in Hunts Point.

The Hunts Point food-distribution center is the largest wholesale food market in the world. It’s made up of three entities—meat, fish, and produce markets—that supply restaurants and supermarkets throughout the country. Thousands of employees at the market work through the night to ship food to the sleeping city.

The market sits on a desolate South Bronx peninsula jutting into the East River. Planes from LaGuardia take off directly across the water and roar low overhead. The neighborhood feels remote from Manhattan, but it’s vital to the city.

Although the market is large, it’s often startlingly old-fashioned; many of the companies at Hunts Point are small and family-owned. And although the neighborhood looks gritty, it often feels like a small town. Guys just off work wave out their car windows to each other, and when they stop by a nearby restaurant, the person behind the counter already knows what they want.

“It’s a blue-collar job engine,” says produce market co-president Matthew D’Arrigo, of D’Arrigo Bros. Co. “Thousands of guys come through—customers, drivers and workers . . . you’ve got a real hardworking-man kind of mentality.” That intricate infrastructure of moving food in and out, 24 hours a day, makes for a lot of hungry people. So where are the best places to eat in the neighborhood that feeds the city?

Fratelli’s Pizza Café is justifiably famous for its broccoli-rabe hero. The sautéed broccoli rabe has a sheen of olive oil and comes on a soft roll, studded with golden-brown cloves of garlic. John, Joey, and Mario, the three Fratelli brothers, learned to cook from their immigrant parents. Fratelli’s hours are the same as the wholesale market’s: open continuously from midnight on Sunday until midnight on Friday; closed on weekends.

According to Mario, who works midnight to noon, there are a number of advantages to this arrangement. For one thing, he’s able to make long-simmered stocks and tomato sauces, because there’s always someone there to tend it. And being so enmeshed with his suppliers is also a good thing: “We get everything from the market,” he says, “and the workers there order from us, so they make sure I get the best product at a good cost.”

D’Arrigo, who supplies Fratelli’s with its broccoli rabe, and who eats there often, says: “It doesn’t hurt, that’s for sure, being right across the street.”

Hunts Point used to have a reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the city. But this area, like the rest of the city, has gotten considerably tamer over the years.

Nick Papamichael, the owner of Sugar Ray’s Café, a 24-hour greasy spoon and doughnut shop next to Fratelli’s, has plenty to say about the neighborhood. “They’ve really clamped down on the hookers,” he says. “If you see a good-looking hooker, just say ‘Officer, I’m lost!’ And if they have teeth? Then you know they’re undercovers.”

Sugar Ray’s, named after Nick’s dearly departed bulldog, does a brisk business in egg-and-cheese sandwiches and strong, sugary coffee. This may not be the best place to eat, but it’s a great spot to sit with a cup of coffee and people-watch. Early one morning, on the day after the Texas and Ohio primaries, a table of guys are eating doughnuts and discussing the state of the produce business, while Nick—who seems to be the de facto mayor of the block—busts his customers’ chops.

“What happened to your man Obama?” he asks a black patron.

“He’s not my man!” the fellow protests. “Hillary’s my man.”

“Hillary’s everyone’s man,” Nick grumbles.

Meanwhile, there’s a commotion outside: A guy has double-parked his car, and a cop is about to write him a ticket. “Can’t I get my coffee?” the man shouts. Nick sticks his head out the door. “What is this, a crackdown? Let him come in and get his coffee!” The cop bends over, laughing, and waves the customer on.

“Like I need this aggravation,” Nick says. “If they could be bribed, I’d bribe them.” The only kickbacks the traffic cops will take these days are free coffee and doughnuts.

Market Kitchen, a relative newcomer, is just across the street from Sugar Ray’s and Fratelli’s. Owner Stephen Ezell grew up in the South Bronx before decamping for hospitality school at UC Berkeley and then working for Manhattan restaurateur Donatella Arpaia at both Dona and Anthos.

“I hand-pick our produce, fish, and meat from the market,” Stephen says. “We get the same fish as Le Bernardin, but we can negotiate and barter.”

The food here is more upscale than any other place in the area, but it’s still seriously hearty. There’s the Kitchen Sink sandwich, roast beef with french fries on Texas toast, and the Frank’s Filthy sandwich, which combines barbecued chicken and mac-and-cheese—an item that presumably wouldn’t have flown at Anthos.

Stephen makes his French toast sticks by cutting stale challah into batons, soaking them in orange custard, and then rolling them in cornflakes before browning each one on the griddle. “That’s for a guy who wants French toast, but doesn’t have time to sit down,” he says.

And where else does Stephen eat in the neighborhood? He suggests Randall Restaurant, a Spanish-American place, and Mo Gridder’s BBQ, the barbecue truck that parks just up Hunts Point Avenue.

At Mo Gridder’s, the ribs are toothsome, porky, and lacquered with a spiced, brown-sugary barbecue sauce. Mo Gridder’s “customer lounge” is actually the waiting room of Hunts Point Auto Sales and Service, where you can listen to the mechanics shoot the breeze or peruse The Bronx in the Innocent Years, which sits on the table.

I order stewed goat and pernil from the counter at Randall Restaurant and can barely lug my overloaded plate to a table. The goat is tough and gristly, but the pernil is fantastic, with big shards of crunchy pork skin. The roomy but spartan restaurant is mostly populated with police officers and bus drivers in uniform, all eating similarly enormous plates of rice, beans, and meat.

By chance, I come upon La Misma Nelly Coffee Shop, sandwiched between two auto-repair shops, tiny and easy to miss. (It’s just down the street from the very democratic Mr. Wedge strip club, with a weekly dance contest that welcomes all comers.)

The place has a small steam table, behind which the Dominican owner dishes up orders for the market workers as they trickle in. I have a bowl of yellow rice and bacalao (salt cod stew), which costs exactly $3 and features lovely, firm bits of salt cod mingled with soft, cooked-down tomato and red pepper. It’s the best thing I’ve eaten yet.

“You gotta come Friday for the camarones!” a friendly patron tells me. I think I will. For that and for the dance contest, of course.

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Hanging at the New Fulton Fish Market with an insider

Joe Catalano tries to go to bed by 7:30 p.m. About five hours later, he hitches a ride in a delivery truck to the New Fulton Fish Market in Hunts Point. He likes to get there by 1 a.m. “There’s only so much great stuff that comes in,” he says as he passes through rows of swordfish and giant slabs of tuna. Restless, he might smack the cardboard boxes with his fish hook as he walks by, sending ice flying behind him. “That fucker never stays still!” one of the purveyors complains.

Catalano is the man behind the fish at Eli’s and the Vinegar Factory, and he’s the fish buyer for B.R. Guest Restaurants, which include Aqua Grill, Blue Fin, Ocean Grill, and others. In the market’s 400,000-square-foot refrigerator, he’s a respected fixture. Not that he’s ever stationary. Flipping through his clipboard full of orders, he scurries up and down the stalls, returning here and there to press gently on a sea bass or lay hands on a fat scallop or two. Catalano is hired for his knowledge, but he trusts his instincts. “You can tell a good fish by looking at it,” he says. “When you open the box, does it say, ‘I’m good to eat’?'”

Sometimes it seems this simple. Running his finger along a striped bass, he says, “You want the firmness. When you cut it, filet it, it doesn’t fall apart.” But there are tricks. At one point, he holds a shrimp under a visitor’s nose. “Smell the iodine? It’ll eat like iodine,” he says, tossing it back onto the pile. He offers a different shrimp, from a different pile. It smells like absolutely nothing. “That’ll eat good,” he says.

About 30 years ago, when he was 26, Catalano found himself miserable on a business trip in Milwaukee and promptly quit his job, with no plan. “I was a jerk,” he says. He started driving trucks for his brother-in-law, who owned a big shellfish company. It was just “a means to an end,” he says, but pretty soon Catalano opened his own store on the Upper East Side. “I had no knowledge of the fish business,” he recalls. “I happened to hire the right guys.”

And many of the guys he knows become pals. Not only a fish person, Catalano’s a people person. Besides pressing bass, he may even grab-ass one of his pals. “I love that guy—and he has great fish,” he says of one of his “victims.” Good relationships can lead him to some great catches. At Emerald Seafood Company’s stall, one of the guys points out John Dory, a favorite of Catalano’s. Intrigued, he asks whether any have sold. “I would never sell them,” the guy tells Catalano, “until I showed them to you.” Catalano picks out a few, and they become specials that night at a couple of the restaurants.

The “hot fish” this particular day is wild king salmon, and they’re huge. “Are you kidding me?” Catalano exclaims. “They gotta be freaking elephants. What do I need a 40-pound fish for?” The seller comes over and says he thinks the fish looks good. Catalano replies: “Great. Take it home. Feed the family!” After a few minutes, the guy says “All right, you old fart,” and magically produces some smaller fish.

“There’s always something,” Catalano later explains. “If you don’t bitch and moan, you don’t get the good stuff.”

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The Dark Side of Summer

Each year, New Yorkers suffer and quietly die on our beloved “heat island”— a special urban hell where average temperatures soar more than seven degrees higher than in the gas-guzzling suburbs. Last summer’s 46 confirmed heat victims in New York City included Tyron Dugger, a 47-year-old mentally handicapped man who died along with his 82-year-old mother in their sealed and sweltering East New York apartment. Just blocks away, 69-year-old Edna McEachin also succumbed, as did 85-year-old Anne Cialeo, of Conduit Boulevard, who died sitting upright in her bed. City health officials can’t be sure, but they think another 100 New Yorkers were killed by that particular blast of summer.

“Heat waves are invisible killers of invisible people,” says NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of the landmark Heat Wave, an analysis of Chicago’s apocalyptic summer of 1995. “More heat waves are on the way, and it’s important to get a real sense of the danger posed.”

While world leaders fret over the 20th century’s one-degree Fahrenheit temperature climb, localized high temperatures in large North American cities have risen up to two degrees Fahrenheit each decade since 1950. Global warming could double that rate, warns E. Gregory McPherson, a research forester with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, in the book The Ecological City.

The density of our cityscape—where we live and work stacked floor-upon-floor and commute in packed subways and buses—fosters energy efficiencies unheard of elsewhere in America. On a per capita basis, our gasoline consumption matches the national average of 1920 and our electricity usage is half of contemporary San Francisco’s. Our per capita greenhouse gas emissions are a third of those seen nationally today.

Yet we roast our relatively virtuous skins on vast acres of concrete between asphalt and glass towers that convert nearly 45 percent of incoming sunlight into sensible heat. Dead-end or poorly oriented canyons interfere with air convection, trapping warm and dirty air. Meanwhile, our physiological vulnerability to heat has grown. Hypertension, diabetes, depression, obesity, and other modern ailments—and the treatments for them—compromise our ability to flush and sweat, the primary coping mechanisms.

By many measures, heat deaths have actually dropped, thanks to one of the least sustainable contraptions ever invented: the air conditioner. In 1970, 40 percent of NYC households had at least one. Last year, 80 percent did.

But switching on the AC starts a negative feedback loop.

“Anyone who has ever stood in the West 4th Street station in the middle of summer knows it feels like 120 degrees down there, and it’s because of the air conditioners blowing out hot air from the subway cars,” says Joyce Rosenthal, an urban planning doctoral student and research investigator with the Cool Cities Project at Columbia University.

Now imagine that phenomenon on a citywide scale. An Okayama University study found air conditioners raised ambient temperatures in Tokyo by almost three degrees Fahrenheit. The Heat Island Group at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, in California, calculated that the efforts to offset the phenomenon in Los Angeles cost more than $100 million annually. By comparison, New York City is denser and lacks the steady ocean breezes. “I would not be surprised if in New York the number was on the order of $150 million,” says lead scientist Hashem Akbari.

Heat is also an issue of local environmental justice. Just look at Hunts Point in the South Bronx, where poverty is the handmaiden of heat death. Hunts Point is chockablock with low-slung warehouses, virtual ovens. Without adequate street trees, asphalt turns to goo. The exhaust of 60,000 weekly truck trips, power plants (to keep New York’s air conditioners chugging), and sewage treatment plants is transmuted by heat into thick smog. The children there, mostly black and Latino, are afflicted with asthma so severe that they require hospitalization for it at a rate four times the national average.


photo: Ira McCrudden

Heat preys on the most vulnerable among us. Nearly half of all heat victims live alone. People older than 65 account for more than half of heat deaths. The city health department reports that 28 percent of the 2006 victims had known cognitive or psychiatric disorders. Pregnant women are also vulnerable, and lab mice have shown extreme deformities in fetuses where the mother experienced a six-degree body temperature rise for just 30 minutes. Children, like the elderly, overheat faster.


BETTER SWEAT IT OUT
Lessons gleaned from nature’s billions of years of evolution—and innovations from our preindustrial past—might help us survive on our urban heat islands, and even cool them a bit.

You can almost take comfort in the knowledge that humans remain one of the most astonishingly heat-tolerant mammals. Our simple ability to sweat—five times that of horses and double that of camels—is alone absolutely remarkable. And it makes no particular difference where your ancestors came from or what they looked like. “All humans appear to function as tropical animals,” writes Dr. Sarah A. Nunneley, an editor with the journal Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine.

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So why are we wilting and dying?

“We’re born with a lot of sweat glands, and that will be true if you are Nordic, African, or Indian. You’ll retain that ability, regardless of your ethnicity, if you’re raised in a tropical environment,” says Mark S. Blumberg, author of Body Heat: Temperature and Life on Earth. “But we lose some of that capacity through disuse, especially in the first few years of life.” If you grow up under an AC, you risk losing the ability to function without one.

Being able to adjust to your climate means being able to survive. An Indiana State University study of leaf-cutter ants found that those coming from cities functioned in 108- degree heat for 20 percent longer than their country cousins. The effect in city-dwelling humans can be just as profound.

“That morning power walk or run on a warm April day in the low 80s feels terribly hot, but in July or August won’t because you’ll have acclimated,” says Dr. Thomas Matte, of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. When you’re used to the heat, electrolytes make up less of your sweat. Instead of sweating so much around your torso, you’ll sweat more efficiently from your arms and legs. And your trigger point for sweating will rise.

“But if you stay in your chair in an air-conditioned room and never have to turn on your hormones and heat-loss mechanism, you’re not going to be a fit organism,” Blumberg says.


YOUR BRAIN ON ICE
We also hamper ourselves with lousy diets. Instead of consuming junk food and fatty ice cream (and then rushing to gulp down sports drinks and electrolyte supplements), we should drink plenty of water or juice, and eat dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, whole grains, vegetables, blackstrap molasses, and bananas to get the calcium, magnesium, and potassium adults need.

And don’t fetishize ancestral lore. Drinking hot tea on a hot day won’t cool you down, but rather will burden your body with extra heat to disperse—it’s a matter of basic physics. Chinese skullcap is believed in Asia to stimulate flushing, but Western scientists aren’t yet convinced. Capsicum, the operative component in cayenne pepper and other hot spices, stimulates neural channels designed to receive signals of thermal stress. Some argue that the chemical can be beneficial by tricking the body into producing a protective sweat without exertion. But, asks Hunter College nutrition professor Arlene Spark, “Why would you need to trick the body into sweating during a heat wave?”

Michael Caterina, a professor of biology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a leading capsicum researcher, says, “One thing that’s pretty clear in lab animals is that when newborn rats are injected with capsicum, they lose some of their temperature-sensing neurons, and for the rest of their lives they’re missing this subpopulation of neurons. If you put them into an excessively warm environment, they can’t protect themselves against overheating.” In adult humans, capsicum temporarily dulls or deadens those receptors in a localized fashion, such as on the tongue.

Apart from toughing it out and allowing our bodies to care for themselves, we can take cues from critters. The most basic advice regarding summer clothing—that it should be light-colored, thin, and loose—nicely mimics a camel’s fur, which provides sun protection and prevents sweat from simply rolling off before it can absorb body heat and transfer it to the air.

Nature is full of tricks for beating the heat. Blumberg is particularly admiring of the gazelle’s carotid rete, an intricate web of thin blood vessels (read: increased surface area) below the brain stem. This web allows a gazelle fleeing a lion to protectively chill its brain to more than seven degrees Fahrenheit below its body temperature, even as its muscles are pumping frantically.

“That advantage is important because the brain gets damaged at a lower temperature than the rest of your body. It’s a bit like the neck cooler you see in the Sharper Image catalogue. It’s cooling the blood that goes to your brain. There’s a conceptual validity to the product, but I don’t know of any scientific studies on it,” he says. “But we do know that it feels damn good.”

Not that the brain always gets pride of place. As Blumberg writes, “A ram continues panting as long as its scrotum is overheated, even if its body temperature decreases more than two degrees Celsius (four degrees Fahrenheit). It appears that the ram is more committed to maintaining the temperature of its testes than to maintaining its deep body temperature.”


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SO MUCH FOR SHADE
Buildings and cities, like bodies, are in large part plumbing. In ancient Egypt, wealthy pallace dwellers installed cooling systems that circulated water from aqueducts through the walls. Today’s cutting-edge “green” buildings in Tribeca, Harlem, and Chelsea, among other neighborhoods, save electricity by employing geothermal cooling, looping water through coils deep underground to chill the air in the chambers above. Seven World Trade Center, a model sustainable building, uses rainwater for cooling and for watering plants.

New York City is, by world standards, ridiculously rich in fresh water. Our civil engineers spend much of their time racing to find ways to get rid of it. Household “gray water” from showers and sinks and storm water could slake the thirst of the 1 million new trees Mayor Bloomberg is calling for. Many sidewalks could be lined with “nearly continuous greenswales,” says Rohit Aggarwala, director of the Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability. Bloomberg also wants a tax credit for so-called “green roofs,” which would be covered with grass and other plants.

Just don’t expect even a newly verdant metropolis to spell the end of our heat island.

“In terms of urban heat, I’m not a big green roof fan,” says Cornell University urban-forestry researcher Thomas Whitlow. “If you had green roofs on 80 percent of the feasible buildings in Manhattan, you could conceivably lower air temperatures by half a degree. A half a degree doesn’t make a diddlysquat worth of a difference.”

And we’re asking a lot of trees too, Whitlow argues. “That tree you plant in front of a 50-story building, that huge thermal mass, what the hell is it going to do? The tree is going to do zilch,” he says. For what it’s worth, trees in skyscraper canyons should be tall and narrow to encourage convection of hot air away from the surface and avoid trapping exhaust from vehicles.

Not that architects are giving up on cooling buildings with plants. They’re designing green terraces, ivy-shaded windows, and “living walls.” These new methods might shave some degrees from towers, but nothing would be as effective as simply building shorter ones, Whitlow notes. “But at some point you’ve no longer got a city,” and we’re back to environmentally unsustainable sprawl.

Green roofs (and roofs covered with white paint) are excellent means of cooling top-floor apartments, and shade trees planted close to buildings can cool ground floor rooms. That will produce measurably lower demand on the electricity grid, as demonstrated by Philadelphia’s “Cool Homes” project.

“You also have to be sober about how you extrapolate the benefits of one tree. Two trees don’t necessarily give you double the effect of one tree. A thousand trees might give you two hundred times the effect of one tree in terms of energy balance with the hardscape,” Whitlow estimates.

But he doesn’t deny the powerfully beneficial presence of parks, with their evaporative colling from leaves and water bodies, and their distance from those overheated skyscrapers.

“I’ve been out where it’s in excess of 100 degrees on Columbus Avenue, but in Central Park, at the castle, temperatures are 20 degrees cooler,” he says. “Certifiably, inside the park, things are a whole lot better.”

These cool and beautiful oases draw people out from their steamy apartments, lowering air-conditioning demand and combating the social isolation we know is a killer. On hot nights in generations past, people slept in parks and on docks even more often than on their fire escapes. Yet before we rhapsodize about parks too much, we must acknowledge that the lowly and suspect air conditioner has probably saved more lives than a radically green urban makeover could. Much of the solution lies in what’s at the other end of the power line.

Or in what’s coming down the pike, whether it’s dress suits made with the same nanofibers that keep athletes cool or gizmos straight out of Star Wars.

Scientists at Stanford University, with the backing of the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Projects Agency, have created a cooling device that boosts athletic performance as dramatically as steroids. Just slip your hand into the RTX glove—that’s short for Rapid Thermal Exchange—and let the technology do the rest. Designed to help people with cystic fibrosis, the RTX creates a mild vacuum around your hand and a special cone in which ice water circulates. Grab ahold, and your overall body temperature will start falling. Like other hairless skin regions, the human palm is densely populated with heat-shedding structures called venous plexuses and arteriovenous anastomoses.

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Call it a new way to get a grip on local warming.

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Sins of the Father

A chauffeur-driven black Lincoln Executive pulled to a stop in front of a crumbling building in the South Bronx on a chilly night this past October and out stepped Father Louis R. Gigante, the low-income- housing developer and brother of legendary mobster Vincent “the Chin” Gigante. Father G. was once hailed as the savior of the South Bronx for convert-ing hulks of charred buildings into affordable homes for impoverished families. But on this night, the white-haired 74-year-old priest had arrived to meet with angry tenants who accuse this once heroic figure of being a slumlord.

Just as his late brother, onetime head of the Genovese crime family, would have done, Father G. brought an entourage to protect himself from a potentially volatile situation. On the dimly lit sidewalk in front of 741 Coster Street, one of the buildings that Father G. renovated but which now have devolved back into violent slums under his guardianship, he and the local Catholic pastor, William J. Smith, met two security guards and two tall uniformed police officers from the 41st Precinct. (The police officers claimed that someone from the neighborhood asked them to come to the meeting, but tenants insisted none of them called the department.) Father G. was escorted into the building by his nephew, Salvatore Gigante, son of “The Chin.”

The Chin became one of New York’s most dangerous mobsters and later one of the most strange as he faked mental illness to try to avoid prosecution (think “Uncle Junior” in The Sopranos). Meanwhile, Father G. became a beacon of light for many of the city’s poorer residents. As a street priest in the ’60s, he was kicked out of a City Council meeting for vociferously railing against the horrendous living conditions in the South Bronx. But today, Father G. heads a housing empire, takes home a $150,000 salary, and is despised by many of the same kind of low-income residents he once helped.

Gigante, who manages the buildings but doesn’t own them, faces major problems on two fronts: HUD has started foreclosure proceedings, and Gigante’s tenants are fighting to block their sale to the priest’s company. Under Gigante’s watch, they say, the Hunts Point I Rehab project—home to about 300
low-income residents—has fallen into such disrepair that the apartments are almost uninhabitable. After years of living without heat or hot water and with holes in their ceilings and rotting floors, residents formed the United We Stand Tenants Association with help from the nonprofit organization Tenants and Neighbors, and they might just be successful in stopping the sale. The tenants have been angry for a long time and allegations have flown, but Gigante has glided past. But now tenants are organizing against him for what is believed to be the first time in his long career.

It was only fitting that the priest and his entourage walked through a dark tunnel of scaffolding lined with smashed lightbulbs to get to their meeting. The founder and head of the recently formed tenants’ association, Mildred Colon, glared at Father G. and the entourage of police, security guards, and management staff on the sidewalk. “We would like to have security all the time, not just when management is here,” Colon said angrily as she walked by the men. Inside awaited a crowd of tenants in an equally dark mood.

buildings for insurance money, and teen gangs were battling one another for control of the streets—the Catholic Church fought on the front lines of the tenants’ rights movement. Father G. launched the South East Bronx Community Organization (SEBCO) in the fall of 1968 with funds from the federal Section 8 housing program, through which tenants pay 30 percent of their income in rent and the federal government pays the difference. “I brought the neighborhood up from ashes to help the people in the South Bronx,” Gigante has told tenants. “There isn’t one other organization that can take credit. Nobody is going to kick me out of my neighborhood.”

During the resurrection of the South Bronx, Father G. fought the city on behalf of tenants. In her book South Bronx Rising, Jill Jonnes described a 1969 incident in which Father G. organized 300 Hunts Point residents who heaved furniture and wood from abandoned buildings and set fire to them in trash barrels, marching up and down 163rd Street while chanting the familiar protests that echo through the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings today: No hot water. No heat. We’re sick and tired of junkies.

“There was nothing holier-than-thou about the man,” recalled veteran community activist Aureo Cardona, who described Father G. as one of his closest friends and praised him for serving the Puerto Rican community. Cardona grew up in the South Bronx and was a member of the Catholic Youth Organization run out of St. Athanasius Church when Father G. was one of the priests. He wrote a musical about the burning of the South Bronx, which he described as a cancer spreading through the neighborhood, and headed one of the first housing organizations, the South Bronx Community Housing Corporation, in the late 1970s. “People of the cloth are usually up on the pulpit reciting words,” said Cardona. “Gigante took those words to the street. He rolled up his sleeves and he got things done.”

Father G. captured the limelight when he hit the streets to rebuild the South Bronx, but his family’s infamy cast a big shadow. Vincent Gigante, one of Father G.’s four brothers, ran the Genovese crime family while dodging criminal charges most of his life. Their parents, Salvatore
and Yolanda Gigante, had emigrated from Naples to New York City in 1921; Salvatore worked as a watchmaker and Yolanda was a seamstress. Growing up in Greenwich Village in the ’40s, Vincent Gigante dropped out of junior high and boxed as a light heavyweight in several Manhattan clubs before becoming the protégé of Vito Genovese. Between the ages of 17 and 25, Vincent was arrested for receiving stolen goods, possession of an unlicensed handgun, auto theft, arson, and bookmaking. The majority of the charges were dismissed, but at age 30 he was convicted of heroin trafficking, alongside Genovese, and served a five-year prison term.

The Gigante family saga shifted into the initial stages of a Homeric epic in 1969 when Vincent Gigante was arrested again. He was indicted for conspiracy to bribe the entire police force of Old Tappan, New Jersey, that year, but the charge was dropped after psychiatrists deemed him mentally unfit to stand trial. For the next three decades, Gigante wandered around the Village in a tattered bathrobe and slippers, muttering to himself in what many believed was an elaborate ruse to avoid criminal prosecution and for which he earned the nicknames “Daffy Don” and the “Oddfather.” Convinced that Gigante was running the crime family from a building across from his family home on Sullivan Street, the FBI pursued him for years. But the feds failed to nail him with the wiretapped conversations that were used to ensnare other mob figures of the time.

Father G. became the family spokesman, defending his brother’s claims of mental illness and outright denying the existence of a Mafia—he argued that the Mafia was an anti-Italian stereotype created by the media and law enforcement officials. Despite Father G.’s support, Vincent Gigante was convicted in 1997 of racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder for attempting to assassinate several of his enemies, including John Gotti, head of the Gambino family. The Chin was sentenced to 12 years in a federal prison. It wasn’t until 2003 that he admitted in court that the bathrobe theatrics were an act to avoid prosecution. The Chin died in prison at the age of 77 in 2005. As a
New York Times article noted, Father G. preached at the funeral that friends and family knew him as “a gentle, kind man, a man of God.”

Yet there are allegations that Father Gigante not only protected his brother, but helped him run the Genovese crime family from prison. In a deposition taken on June 12, 2006, for a civil suit filed by the federal government against the International Longshoremen’s Association, George Barone incriminated the priest. Barone is a former hit man and soldier from the Genovese crime family turned cooperative witness once he was marked for death by the mob. When asked whether a mob head can conduct business from jail, he replied, “Yes, yes, they do, and probably will always continue to. Chin Gigante to the day he died was feared as the boss of the Genovese family and continuously
through his brother, the priest, he sent messages out.”

While his brother became infamous, Father G. mostly avoided allegations of mob ties and instead achieved his own brand of celebrity. After seminary and a two-year stint in Puerto Rico, where he learned to speak Spanish, he was ordained in 1959. He quickly won a reputation as a priest with chutzpah for halting street fights on the Lower East Side. When he was transferred to St. Athanasius in 1962, he was said to have wielded a bat on walks around the neighborhood. After the launch of SEBCO, Father G. tried his luck in politics; he unsuccessfully ran for Congress in the 1970 Democratic primary, but he won a city council seat in 1973. When his term was up, he spent a week in jail for refusing to testify before the grand jury about his conversations with reputed mob figure James “Jimmy Nap” Napoli, whom he called a “dear old friend.” The priest also appeared in two films; one of them was Last Rites (1988), about a mob-connected priest in New York City.

Depending on whom you speak to in the South Bronx, Father G. inspires either devotion or disgust, but his power and influence are undeniable. His nonprofit organization expanded into a mini-kingdom with a real estate value of $50 million. Between 1978 and 2004, the SEBCO team registered 18 businesses, including six nonprofit organizations and 12 for-profit companies. Gigante is listed as CEO of five of the corporations and a chairperson of the majority of the nonprofit organizations. The money flows into the nonprofits in the form of government funds and tax-deductible donations and into the for-profit companies in the form of contracts for services, records indicate. Hunts Point I Rehab is a private company, and its financial records are not public. But Gigante’s nonprofit financial records demonstrate how the money moves around his companies. SEBCO VIP Housing Development Fund, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide housing for the elderly, shows government contributions for 2004 at $37,517. Gigante’s security company, Sentry Security, was paid $106,904 for services, resulting in a significant net loss. Nonetheless, the priest is listed as taking a $150,000 salary. Father G. has claimed that he never rejected wealth. “I didn’t take a vow of poverty,” he was quoted as saying in a 1981 Times article. “People think that I don’t get paid and that I’m a saint for doing it. That’s their problem.”

It’s impossible to deny the impact his company has made in the South Bronx. He employs more than 300 people, including many from the surrounding neighborhoods. Piles of rubble, hulks of burned-out buildings, and abandoned cars from the Hunts Point of the ’70s have given way to fully developed neighborhoods, some even with rows of ranch houses and cars parked suburban-style in driveways. But even as Father G. was transforming the neighborhood, he was accused of working with the Mafia. William Bastone, in his 1989 Voice article “The Priest and the Mob,” revealed that Father G. had developed more than 2,000 housing units with roughly $50 million in federal funds by hiring contractors whom authorities deemed mob-connected. But the city was never able to dig up enough dirt. “We never prosecuted them,” Manhattan D.A. spokeswoman Barbara Thompson said of SEBCO. “The only time we would run into them was when we were conducting investigations on other companies or individuals, organized crime–related and otherwise. Then we would come up against the contracts they had with SEBCO.”

In those days, Father G. was said to play an aggressive game with his rivals. At one point, his main competition for federal funds was Ramon Velez, a man for whom former mayor Ed Koch coined the phrase “poverty pimp.” The battle for political power and federal funds became so heated, wrote Jill
Jonnes in South Bronx Rising, that Velez called the priest a “maricon” (a derogatory Spanish word for homosexual) and Father G. retaliated by punching Velez in the nose. Today, the elder Velez suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and his son runs his housing organization, the South Bronx Community Management Company.

“In the beginning, you had a lot of competition,” said Ramon Velez Jr. “There were four organizations fighting to develop community housing. There were turf wars and people jockeying for position.” When asked about the fight between his father and the priest, he replied, “There have always been stories about that. They had their differences. Honestly, I don’t know. It wasn’t dinner-table type of conversation.”

The men made peace and each carved out his own section of the Bronx. Father G. laid claim to Community Board 2’s district, on which he sat for 22 years, and rigorously pursued federal money to construct buildings. Harold DeRienzo, the founder of Banana Kelly, another community group in the South Bronx involved in redevelopment,
said that Father G. often called him into his office. One such time, seated behind a desk, chomping on a cigar, the priest confronted DeRienzo about his intentions. “What are you trying to do?” he recalled Gigante asking him. “Are you applying for federal funds?” Father G.’s philosophy, DeRienzo explained, was that once you had a rivalry for federal funds no one received money. So he wanted no competition. “The city was bankrupt. The state was out of the housing game. Section 8 was the only game in town,” DeRienzo said. “The man has been very successful in developing low-income housing. I’ve seen him outmaneuver people—
planning-wise, business-wise, and politically. As long as I stayed away from the Section 8 applications, there wasn’t a problem.”

With a hero’s reputation still mostly intact in the South Bronx, Father G. is not someone tenants would have expected to fight.

“SEBCO brought hope to the neighborhood,” said Joyce Culler, first vice chair of Community Board 2 and someone who has worked to rebuild the community through multiple housing scandals. “This is a battle we shouldn’t have to fight. How do you break something that was so beautifully built?”

SEBCO was also well-built—now it’s a $50 million housing company. But Father G.’s operation is accused not only by its tenants but also by federal housing officials of mismanaging four federally subsidized buildings, known collectively as the Hunts Point I Rehab. SEBCO refurbished them more than 20 years ago, and although it does not own them, Gigante has acted as the de facto landlord. (Gigante said in an interview that the actual owner, Samuel Pompa, is living in Europe and was unreachable for comment.)

The priest, who started winding down his formal parish duties in 2002 and is now retired, wants to purchase the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings, folding them into his portfolio of more than 8,500 developed or managed housing units in the city that he has built up during the past three decades.

Mildred Colon, 51, a longtime resident of one of the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings, started the tenants’ association a year ago out of frustration. On August 4, 2006, for example, residents received a $14,390 bill from Con Edison because Gigante’s management company hadn’t paid it. Her daily calls about the gaping hole in her kitchen ceiling—roughly the diameter of a sewer cover—went unanswered for months. On August 30, she confronted the building super about the lack of hot water in the building. In response, she said, he swung a broom at her and called her a “bitch.” She filed a complaint with the police department and called the management company. The superintendent still runs the building.

“I’m fighting because I have lived in the buildings for 24 years,” said Colon. “I love my community. But the conditions have gotten so bad I can’t continue to let SEBCO take over. Father Gigante said that this is his community, but he doesn’t live here. He hasn’t saved the neighborhood. He abused the neighborhood. I may be slow to understand his bullshit, but I’m not stupid.”

There is evidence to support the tenants’ claims. Gigante’s management company, Building Management Associates Inc., received a combined yearly rental income of $1.8 million from the tenants and a subsidy from HUD to pay the utility bills and maintain the apartments, according to HUD records. Yet over the past two years, the records show, the utility payments have been in default, and the buildings are falling apart. “We are not satisfied with SEBCO’s management,” said Deborah VanAmerongen, director of HUD’s New York multi-family office.

HUD inspectors evaluated the entire physical structure in April 2004 and gave the tenements a score of 28 out of 100; 60 is failing. SEBCO was given 60 days to make improvements. But two months later, when HUD reevaluated, the score increased only one point, to 29. HUD again demanded that SEBCO make repairs. But when the federal agency assessed the buildings in August 2005, it gave them a score of 39. Inspectors dole out evaluations based on what they find the day they arrive on site, VanAmerongen explained. So an increase in 10 points could mean, for example, that the superintendent cleaned the buildings that morning. “It’s still a bad score,” she said. “It’s very uncommon for buildings to get scores so low.”

When asked if SEBCO had enough money to provide heat, hot water, and minor repairs, VanAmerongen replied, “One would think.” But she didn’t elaborate on whether or not HUD was investigating how the money was used, stating simply, “I can’t speak to that.” Ruth Ritzema, special agent in charge of HUD’s Office of the Inspector General, said that as routine procedure, she could not confirm or deny criminal investigations.

As the buildings have deteriorated, some of the area’s junkies, prostitutes, and drug dealers have taken notice and staked out positions in the project’s hallways and elevators. One night in September, a strung-out junkie with unruly hair, a dirty white T-shirt, and ripped jeans lurched out of an elevator that smelled of urine. He howled at the tenants before stumbling out the front door. More than two years ago, Gigante’s management company removed the security guards who once manned the entrance to the buildings. To make matters worse, tenants said, police broke down the door a year ago in pursuit of criminals and despite multiple complaints from residents, Gigante’s management company never fixed it. Father G. told the tenants that his company ran out of money. “Security was given to this building because I put it here,” Gigante said at one of the meetings between tenants and management. “But we didn’t have enough money, so we had to move them out.”

It’s a slap in the face to tenants like Evelyn Alameda, a petite, soft-spoken single mother who has encountered prostitutes having sex in the hallway and addicts shooting up in the stairwell in the middle of the afternoon. One night, she said, she yelled at a trespasser to leave the building, but he merely lifted up the sleeve of his shirt, slapped his arm to emphasize a gang tattoo, and then walked on, ignoring her plea. A 13-year tenant, Alameda said she constantly checks her back when walking through the hallways of her home. She has reason to be cautious—a young woman was raped in the corridor almost two years ago by an intruder. “When they took away our safety, they took away our dignity,” Alameda said.

Father G. may not have a legal obligation to provide security guards, but by law, his company is obligated to provide minimal security like functioning doors and windows. The problems have festered for years, even when there was security, and once Father G.’s company was held accountable. On August 3, 1997, when guards from Sentry Security were still patrolling the sidewalks, a crazed man dashed into the lobby of one of the Hunts Point I Rehab tenements. With the security guards in pursuit, the man fled up the stairs, jumped the fence, and entered the adjacent building through a rooftop door. At the same time, a nine-year-old girl waited in the doorway of her apartment while her grandmother, 60, put out the trash. As the grandmother was about to enter her apartment, she felt a strange hand on her back. The man was behind her. He shoved the grandmother into her apartment, and according to the court transcripts, terrorized the pair for over an hour.

“He dragged me all over the floor,” said the grandmother in court. “Me and [my granddaughter].” The man announced that he was HIV-positive and that he was going to prick the grandmother and granddaughter with a needle. The grandmother made her way to a window to scream for help, but he pushed the pair into another room and brutalized them.

“He grabbed us by our necks,” the grandmother said. “I had this bun and he would push it all the way to the back like he wanted to crack my neck. So, he would grab the little girl and slam her to the other side of the room . . . I would take the girl away from him so he would let go of the girl and grab me. He was like an hour hitting me, hitting me up and down with the floor . . . he was hitting me in my entire body. I was struggling with him. I felt this pinch that he gave me. But I didn’t pay any attention to it because I was struggling with him so much so he wouldn’t harm more my girl . . . we were both screaming so much. Nobody came. Not even security. Nothing. Nobody.”

Eventually, neighbors heard the screaming and called police. Five or so cops climbed through the window, grabbed the man, and hauled him out of the apartment “like a pig,” according to court records. The grandmother and her granddaughter brought a civil suit against Samuel Pompa’s corporation, Hunts Point I Associates, and the SEBCO management and security companies, and it landed in the Bronx Supreme Court in 2000. SEBCO and the other defendants argued that they couldn’t be held responsible for the crime for two reasons: There was no prior criminal activity in the building alerting them to a possible offense, and the company satisfied its obligation to supply minimal security. In the end, the case was settled out of court, with the management team agreeing to pay the grandmother and her granddaughter, according to their lawyers. Now almost 10 years after this brutal crime, there’s less security than before.

The tenants’ security problem extends all the way to Washington, D.C. It is unclear how SEBCO has used the tenants’ rent money and the HUD subsidy because HUD itself doesn’t track how the money is spent. Instead, the owners or managing agents calculate their expenses and submit an audited financial statement to HUD at the end of each year. When the buildings failed HUD’s 2004–05 inspections with those dismal scores of 28, 29, and 39, HUD officials said their only options were to foreclose on the buildings or withhold the subsidy money. HUD considered recommending the projects for its “Mark-to-Market,” a program that reduces the federal subsidy to market-level rents but also restructures the mortgage so that the payments are lower, freeing capital for renovations. But 20 years after SEBCO first renovated Hunts Point I Rehab, HUD determined that the projects required complete “gut” rehabilitation. Since the amount of money needed to repair the buildings exceeded that which could be legally mandated within HUD’s guidelines, the buildings were disqualified. But even though they knew—from the results of their own inspections—that the residents were living in squalor, HUD reduced the yearly subsidy going into the buildings by roughly $1 million. The result has been a drastic decline in conditions over the past two years. “It is mandated by Congress to reduce the rents to market level,” said HUD’s VanAmerongen. “We had no options left at that point and no additional resources. We were obligated. We had no choice.”

Many tenants said they think they have no choice but to fight Father G. Not all of them are longtime residents. Concepion Samb, for one, explained how she moved to the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings five years ago when she could no longer afford her apartment in a more affluent section of the Bronx. Working as a home health aide, she suffered a cutback in her hours and struggled to cover her bills with the $8.95 that she earned per hour. This is her first Section 8 home, she said. Walking around her apartment, she pointed out the problems in each room. The vent in the bathroom is broken, so there is a constant layer of mold in the shower. A radiator in her bedroom burst last year, leaving a rotting hole by her bed that’s spongy when she steps on it. In the winter she wears two pairs of pants, two sweaters, two pairs of socks, and a robe to keep warm—inside her apartment. “Jesus, in the winter you freeze to death,” she said. “I like the cold, but not that cold. It’s lousy. I’m not making the money I used to make, so I have to settle for this crap. Just because you need help from the government doesn’t mean that the management company should reject basic needs like heat, hot water, and respect. It’s humiliating.”

The tenants’ association is racing to find an alternative buyer for the buildings. HUD began foreclosure proceedings late last year, requiring Gigante to pay the outstanding mortgage payments of $500,000 by November 15 to forestall the process and open the door for a possible sale to SEBCO. HUD paid off the $6.8 million mortgage in August, so although Samuel Pompa technically still owns the buildings, HUD has the right to send them to the auction block. After supporting several funding options to refinance the mortgage and stalling the foreclosure process, HUD has lost confidence in SEBCO’s ability to complete a purchase, VanAmerongen said. The details of the foreclosure process are uncertain, but she said that the Hunts Point I Rehab will remain an affordable-housing unit.

It’s unclear why Gigante hasn’t taken the first step toward ownership by paying down the outstanding mortgage payments. But the tenants have made their grievances known. In addition to meeting with HUD, they sent letters to Congressman Jose Serrano and Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer. The foreclosure proceedings have energized Father G.’s opponents. “In a way, that has clearly focused us,” said Tenants and Neighbors representative Patrick Coleman.

There was a time when Father G. was mobilizing people in a far different way. He molded St. Athanasius parishioners into an influential voting bloc, according to Frank Marrero, a Hunts Point resident for 49 years and a current member of Community Board 2’s housing committee. But as SEBCO grew, Father G. spent less time in the community and more time fortifying his businesses. “When SEBCO started having problems with the community, who did they bring?” Marrero said. “Father Gigante is a figurehead and he’ll stand up in the front of the room and tell them how much he did for the community. You can’t argue with the fact that he got things done. But I think they lost touch when they got too big. He’s getting older and the organization has lost touch with the community. . . . When I pray, I pray for him to open his eyes so they will fix the buildings.”

He’d be joined in that prayer by longtime resident Miriam Diaz-Marin, who recalled a warm atmosphere two decades ago in the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings. A small woman with short dark hair and warm brown eyes, Diaz-Marin, 53, smiled as she described how the women in the building threw holiday parties and exchanged homemade food. They named a bench in the courtyard after her son Adam when she christened the building with its first birth. She was thrilled with her new apartment developed by Gigante’s company, and when her family grew to five, she was grateful for her living space, including two bathrooms that she designated “a girls’ bathroom” and a “boys’ bathroom.” “It was so new,” Diaz-Marin said. “I was so proud of it.”

Diaz-Marin doesn’t leave her apartment much any more. Suffering from a respiratory disease, she has difficulty breathing without an oxygen tank. It’s bad enough for Diaz-Marin that there is a lack of heat in the winter, the closet doors pop unexpectedly out of place, and the kitchen cabinets sag, but for three months she was without a functioning shower. The shower in the “boys’ bathroom” stopped working in the fall of 2005, she said. Then in the fall of 2006, SEBCO management told her to stop using the shower in the “girls’ bathroom” because it was flooding the apartment below her. They told her they would fix the problem in a week. Instead, they gave her the key to a vacant apartment on the first floor and didn’t fix the problem until three months later, in December. Diaz-Marin is prone to pneumonia and afraid of catching a chill, so many days she took a “cat bath” in her tub with a small blue bowl. One day she craved a bath so badly that she turned the water on, but the neighbors appeared almost immediately. ” ‘Miriam, Miriam,’ ” she recalled them yelling. ” ‘Turn off the water. It’s flooding!’ ”

Diaz-Marin lives in the worst of the four Hunts Point I Rehab buildings, but all of them are in disrepair. The SEBCO management team sent a letter to the tenants on March 30, 2006, explaining that the buildings needed complete gut rehabilitation. In the letter, they wrote that they would relocate the tenants while they renovated the buildings. So far, there is no relocation plan. In the meantime, tenants wait, anxious to know whether they will still have an affordable home. Tenants like Diaz-Marin are afraid they will be forced to move permanently, or worse, end up homeless. “I’ve been taking sleeping pills for the last year and a half,” she said. “The worries get me going. I just don’t sleep. Oh Lord, I hope they don’t make me move.”

A security guard stands watch 24 hours a day in a small booth at the head of Gigante Plaza between Tiffany and Fox streets in the South Bronx. One side of the plaza is decorated with fountains of lions’ heads made in Italy. On the other side, a security camera aimed at the plaza is perched on top of St. Athanasius, just below the church’s cross. A weatherbeaten blue-and-white sign tied to the courtyard fence reads: “SEBCO: Dedicated to Our Community. Helping Our Neighborhood Grow.” Once referred to as “Giganteland,” the plaza stands in stark
contrast to the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings on the other side of Bruckner Boulevard.

Back on that chilly October night on the sidewalk in front of the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings, Gigante and his entourage walked under the creepy scaffolding and entered the community room of 741 Coster Street. Roughly 40 residents gathered in the shabby room, restless with anticipation. Monsignor William J. Smith, the current St. Athanasius pastor—and also secretary treasurer of SEBCO—glided down the aisles, shaking hands with residents. From behind him, Father G. watched, a half-smile on his face. At the back of the room, near the door, the cops and security guards stood with their arms folded. Seated on backless folding chairs were the tenants, mostly Latina mothers and grandmothers, anxious to learn about the future of their homes. The tenants were quiet at first, and Father G. stood to address them. He alternated between blaming the tenants for the problems in the buildings and being conciliatory. He promised to relocate them and renovate their apartments.

At a meeting two weeks earlier, Gigante tried the same tactics, one moment admonishing the tenants and the next moment pleading for their support. “I know you’ve suffered,” he said to the room. Then he spun around in a circle and waved an arm at provocative signs on the wall that read things like: “We want a new owner!” “We want responsible management.” “Enough is enough!”

“With all I’ve read on the walls,” Father G. said, “I don’t know why you’re still here.” Then he attempted to win their support by suggesting they work together to improve the apartments. “I’ve come tonight to tell you that it’s the real thing,” he said. “We will own the buildings. But I need your help. I need the people’s voice.”

The tone was similar at the later meeting —Father G. alternately cajoled and coddled. “I’m disgusted by what is going on in the buildings,” he said at one point. “Prostitutes having sex in the hallway!” The room erupted. The tenants were furious for being blamed, especially since Gigante’s company hadn’t fixed one of the front doors, which contributed to the problem. “Do you want to exchange your living situation with me?” one of the tenants shouted.

A hot debate ensued for an hour. Father G. promised to return to update the tenants on his plans to buy and refurbish the buildings. With that, the priest and his entourage filed out onto the sidewalk, leaving angry tenants inside.

Later, several tenants said Gigante had made them feel that they were to blame for “destroying his creation.” Father G., for his part, told a reporter, “This is a local situation that was blown out of proportion.” Asked why he removed the tenants’ security guards, the priest-turned-businessman replied, “You can’t have services you don’t pay for.” But when asked if he was the one who, in effect, built the Hunts Point I Rehab, his eyes brightened. He bent his knees slightly, raised his arms above his head and proclaimed, “I built the whole neighborhood!”

Before being whisked away in the black car, Father G. agreed to another interview with the Voice, but he never returned phone calls, nor did he or his management team respond to written requests for information. A few weeks later, however, inside one of the SEBCO offices, Father G.’s nephew Salvatore Gigante responded to queries with this: “I don’t want to hear the sound of your voice. No one is going to talk to you. We have nothing to say. Our actions will speak for what we’re doing.”

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Landmarks of the Bronx and Harlem

Take off those below-14th Street blinders and head uptown—far uptown—to some of New York’s most intriguing and storied neighborhoods.


BRONX

THE POINT • 940 Garrison Avenue, Bronx, 718-542-4139, thepoint.org A dynamic community of artists thrives in the region of the South Bronx known as Hunts Point, invigorating the gritty industrial surroundings with a fresh infusion of creativity and life. The centerpiece of this artistic resurgence is the Point, a magnificent, sprawling arts complex open to the public. Among its offerings are two visual-arts spaces with rotating exhibitions, a photography gallery and center, a 178-seat black-box theater, and a sculpture garden.

FROM MAMBO TO HIP-HOP: SOUTH BRONX TOURS • 718-542-4139 Visit notable East Harlem and South Bronx sites instrumental to the history of mambo and hip-hop with knowledgeable, charismatic guide Angel Rodriguez (on Saturdays in warm weather, by appointment; call 718-542-4139 to schedule). You can have your tour customized based on your interests—stops might include Casa Amadeo, the oldest surviving Latin-music store in New York City, and the Hunts Point Palace, a crucial performance spot for everyone from mambo king Tito Puente to the first hip-hop crews in the ’70s and ’80s.

TATS CRU GRAFFITI HALL OF FAME • 940 Garrison Avenue, Bronx, 718-542-6146 South Bronx graffiti legends Tats Cru have crafted some of New York City’s most jaw-droppingly gorgeous street murals, done completely with aerosols, including several memorials for fallen friends and heroes.

ARTHUR AVENUE RETAIL MARKET • 2344 Arthur Avenue, Bronx The old-school Italian stronghold of Belmont is being increasingly enlivened and diversified with immigrants from other countries, particularly Albania and Mexico, with intriguing results. These days on Arthur Avenue, you can get bureks along with your pizza, and salsa right next to the red-sauce joint. The sprawling indoor market, started by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in 1940 to get pushcarts off the street, is still Italian American to the max, with peddlers selling everything from basil plants to fresh mozzarella to massive slabs of mortadella.


HARLEM

STUDIO MUSEUM IN HARLEM • 144 West 125th Street, 212-864-4500, studiomuseum.org

STRICTLY ROOTS • 2058 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, 212-864-8699 Forge ahead a little further north, past all the usual museum suspects and horrifying squads of tourists, to this striking modern space of contemporary art and African American history and culture. At only $3 with a student ID or $7 without, it’s a bargain compared to some other museums we could name. Then walk a few blocks over for some good eats at Strictly Roots. Vegan Caribbean and soul food might seem to be a contradiction in terms, but this legendary spot, proudly proclaiming to serve “nothing that crawls, walks, swims, or flies,” shows it’s a winning combination.

HAMILTON HEIGHTS/SUGAR HILL HISTORIC DISTRICT • Rows of elegant pre-war brownstones fill the beautiful tree-lined streets of Harlem’s Hamilton Heights district (nicknamed “Sugar Hill”), once home to Harlem luminaries such as W.E.B. Dubois, Thurgood Marshall, and Duke Ellington. Situated on a hill from 145th to 155th Street between Edgecombe and Convent avenues, it’s one of Manhattan’s best-kept secrets. Take a stroll by Convent Avenue’s stately churches, grand old trees, and rosebushes, and feel transported to a different time and place in New York history. While you’re there, tuck into a classy Saturday brunch (with gospel music) at the Sugar Hill Bistro and jazz club (458 West 145th Street, 212-491-5505, sugarhillbistro.com).

SCHOMBURG CENTER FOR RESEARCH IN BLACK CULTURE • 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, 212-491-2200, nypl.org/research/sc/sc.html The Schomburg Center, one of the most fascinating and extensive research institutions of the New York Public Library, is a clearinghouse for a staggering amount of information on African and African American culture, with over 5 million items in stock. Of particular interest are important paintings of the Harlem renaissance and rare artifacts from Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, and other African nations.

EL MUSEO DEL BARRIO • 1230 Fifth Avenue, 212-831-7272 Founded in 1969 by a group of activists and artists, East Harlem’s El Museo del Barrio is New York’s leading Latino cultural institution. The current exhibition, “Voces y Visiones: Highlights from El Museo del Barrio’s Permanent Collection,” celebrates the museum’s 35th anniversary and is on view until February 8.

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Close-up on Hunts Point

Portions of this article have been updated.


During the 1977 World Series at Yankee Stadium, ABC Sports repeatedly cut to aerial shots of smoke rising from the South Bronx. Tax foreclosures and arson for profit had made the area resemble Hamburg in 1943. Nowhere is the transformation the South Bronx has since undergone more evident than in Hunts Point, where dramatic increases in building construction and rehabilitation have led to a remarkable renewal. According to Ebelín, a waitress at the local El Grand 97 restaurant, before, all the buildings were gutted and there was terror on the streets. “Now you can go back and forth. So different!” she says, adding that neighborhood residents come from all over Latin America, including Honduras, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Guatemala. Some fear that development may risk turning the area—rumored to be the birthplace of salsa and break dancing—into another Williamsburg. “Art spurs investment, and then investment spurs displacement. That’s a paradigm we have been trying very hard to avoid,” says Paul Lipson, director of the Point, an area cultural center.

Boundaries: Westchester Avenue to the north, the Bronx River to the east, the East River to the south, and Prospect Avenue to the west, with the Bruckner Expressway bisecting the area

Transportation: Remember J.Lo’s debut album, On the 6? Take the train to East 149th Street, Longwood Avenue, or Hunts Point Avenue and walk under the expressway; about 20 minutes from midtown.

Main Drags: Hunts Point Avenue cuts through the heart of the neighborhood and has many of its restaurants and businesses, while most locals duck under the expressway to Southern Boulevard to shop at the Lot Less Closeouts and the 10 Spot discount clothing outlet, both at 163rd Street and Southern Boulevard.

Real Estate: While much of the rental and sales in the neighborhood is by word of mouth, there are “for rent” signs up at 743 Hunts Point Avenue (718-220-4216) and 720 Hunts Point Avenue (718-522-1723), advertising $700 one-bedrooms and $900 two-bedrooms. Rent-stabilized apartments created through the city’s Neighborhood Entrepreneur Program for low- to middle-income tenants also account for much of the stock. Krislen Management maintains 155 such units in four neighborhood buildings, where rents run from $210 to $525.

Cultural Institutions: “You can build a nice cultural life” in the neighborhood, says the Point director Paul Lipson. He describes the center as “an incubator for the arts.” Located at 940 Garrison Avenue, it’s home to the Graffiti Hall of Fame, the International Center for Photography, and a large number of weekly events, including dance, poetry, hip-hop, comedy, and theater. It featured a production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks (March 14 to 29, 2003) and an r&b concert by the Delphonics (May 3, 2003).

Green Space: Hunts Point Recreational Center (765 Manida Street) offers a weight room, an indoor track, exercise machines, basketball courts, a playground, Internet access, and the adjacent Julio Carballo field.

Local Politics: Councilman Maria del Carmen Arroyo, assembly members Carmen E. Arroyo and Ruben Diaz Jr., Congressman Jose E. Serrano, and State Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr., all Democrats. While the neighborhood is the site of the Hunts Point Meat and Produce markets, which supply food to some of the nation’s best restaurants and send 11,000 delivery trucks through the area every day, at present, locals have to leave the neighborhood to purchase any of it. There are plans, however, to develop a neighborhood retail outlet for the market’s products. According to Lipson, Metro-North is interested in building a new train station next to the proposed market site, moving riders to what will be the new Penn Station in 11 minutes.

Landmarks: Corpus Christi Monastery (1230 Lafayette Avenue), Drake Cemetery (Oak Point Avenue, between Longfellow and Hunts Point avenues), the American Bank Note Building (841 Barretto Street)

Best Restaurant: At El Grand 97 (842 Hunts Point Avenue; “¡Que Dios te multiplique todo por el doble de lo que tú me deseas!” reads a sign inside), order the yellow rice, frijoles, and baked chicken ($5) and top it off with café con leche and cinnamon ($1.25).

Best Bars: Many adult bars have opened in the area since Times Square was made off-limits, including the dubious-looking Al’s Mr. Wedge (673 Hunts Point Avenue) and the Sexy Dancer (1280 Oak Point Avenue).

Crime Stats: The 41st Precinct serves Hunts Point as well as North and South Brother islands in the East River.As of November 6, 2005 it reported 9 murders, 16 rapes, 206 robberies, 289 felony assaults, 183 burglaries. (The 41st Precinct serves Hunts Point as well as North and South Brother islands in the East River. As of January 12, it reported one murder, up one from last year; zero rapes, same as last year; 12 robberies, up six; 26 felonious assaults, same; and 10 burglaries, up three.)

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Trashing the Point

The last time Rudy Giuliani ran for office—his reelection campaign in 1997—he promised heavily Republican Staten Island that its hated Fresh Kills landfill would shut down for good on New Year’s Day, 2002, quelling the secessionist movement that threatened the city GOP’s political future. And where would the 13,000 tons of trash go every day? Oh, that was a little detail to be worked out later, Hizzoner responded.

It’s election season again, and New York’s post-Fresh Kills world of garbage disposal is beginning to take shape. The Giuliani administration relies mostly on trucks to transport waste out of New York, a policy resulting in 425,000 additional truck trips a year on the city’s roads, bridges, and tunnels, leading to vast increases in air pollution at busy intersections, according to a report by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. (His office is suing the administration over this.)

As for the long term, if all goes as planned, not a single registered Republican will get a whiff of the city’s waste. Instead of devising a comprehensive and equitable waste-management plan, city and state officials want to dump 5200 tons of trash a day in the Bronx’s Hunts Point peninsula over the next 30 years.

The company eager to run this venture is American Marine Rail, a New Jersey-based firm and a newcomer to the city’s garbage markets. AMR has proffered a bold plan—to have waste shipped to Hunts Point by barge and whisked off to an out-of-state landfill by rail. No trucks. The waste will arrive at Hunts Point in airtight containers, thus protecting the local populace from noxious odors. “This project will hurt no one,” insists Rob Jones, co-owner of American Marine Rail. “In fact, it may be worse if we’re not there. Trucks are going to come through if there aren’t alternatives available.”

Hunts Point residents aren’t buying it. AMR may promise the moon, but the community faces the possible exodus of many local businesses, which are not thrilled to be situated near a mini-Fresh Kills. Adjacent to the site—which will occupy 5.6 acres, require extensive construction, and operate 24 hours a day, six days a week—are a lumber manufacturer, a Frito-Lay distribution center, and some 10,000 residents already suffering from asthma rates that are among the nation’s highest. What’s more, warns Majora Carter, associate director of the Point, a local economic development nonprofit, the project will “cement the thinking in people’s mind that Hunts Point is only good for garbage. That’s an image we have been trying to fight.”

In January, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)—infamous for its laissez-faire attitude toward waste-transfer stations—and the city’s Department of Sanitation made public their decision: AMR did not have to produce an environmental impact statement, whereby a developer submits a report detailing why its project poses no threat to the environment. (AMR did a less onerous environmental-assessment statement instead.) “This is totally unacceptable,” fumes local assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr. “How do we know that the waste is going to be moved out by rail every day? If rail doesn’t work, will AMR truck then?” According to Mary Ellen Kris, regional director of the DEC, there will be a prohibition on trucking in AMR’s permit. “We believe that the project, despite its size, does not present adverse impacts [to the community].”

Such confidence on the part of these public agencies belies the considerable rail-freight problems many Bronx companies now deal with. Waste Management Inc. opened a $40 million waste-transfer station in the Bronx’s Harlem River Yard last November with the intention of sending 3000 tons of trash a day to Virginia by rail. But thanks to flawed services by CSX Transportation and other snafus, railcars heading down south are not returning fast enough, allowing garbage to languish at the Waste Management facility. (Another nearby transfer station has had the same problem.) Some food distributors and manufacturers in the Bronx have also complained about rail freight in New York, noting that service is slow and the routes are convoluted—railcars can cross the Hudson River only via Albany, a 250-mile round-trip diversion for a company looking to transport down south, as AMR is proposing.

Still, AMR is undaunted by these hurdles. “It’s an economic risk, but a minimal risk,” says Rob Jones. “It remains cheaper to use rail than to truck.”

The risk might be minimal to AMR, but could be enormous to the people of Hunts Point. “I know rail is the way to go, but rail is nonexistent on this side of the Hudson,” says Paul Lipson, executive director of the Point. “That’s the worst-kept secret: You can’t move things out, and that’s why it sits out there days on end.”

Meanwhile, the costs of closing Fresh Kills are rising—both financially and environmentally. According to a new City Council report, the price tag on shutting down the landfill is $622 million, up by $100 million from 18 months ago. Moreover, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an environmental group, believes that an additional 700,000 trucks will traverse the city’s streets by the time the landfill is shut down, if the city meets the state-imposed deadline. The Giuliani administration is expected to announce a new long-term waste-management plan by spring.

American Marine Rail will present its case at a public hearing scheduled for 8 p.m., Wednesday, March 8, at IS 74, 730 Bryant Avenue, in the Bronx.

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Alternating Currents

When the wind clocks south from the waste recovery facility, it carries a stink that, as a friend once put it, could gag a maggot. Compacted sludge from a nearby city sewage treatment plant is fired here at high temperature to form fertilizer pellets. Compared to the smell this process generates, the adjacent sewage plant seems almost perfumed. ‘It’s something you just can’t imagine,’ says local resident Majora Carter. Prevailing breezes waft the reek over a stretch of open scrubland called Barretto Point, a 13-acre peninsular heel that juts out where the Bronx and East rivers join, along the perimeter of the immense Hunts Point market.

It doesn’t take much to dismiss this desolate place out of hand. Yet Barretto Point is abundant with the tougher forms of both local and migratory wildlife and with Native American and Revolutionary history. The Weckquaeskgeek Indians had a village here called Quinnahung; Washington’s troops rested here once in retreat. It also commands what has to be one of the broader views in New York: the confluence of two rivers, the little hump of North Brother Island, the looming hulk of Rikers, and, beyond that, Flushing Bay. Nonetheless, it takes an act of will to imagine this funky plot as parkland. Majora Carter goes the vision one better. The “Director of Re-envisioning” at the Point, a nonprofit community development corporation in Hunts Point, Carter has a plan to make Barretto Point the anchor for a greenbelt that would entirely transform a substantial segment of the lower Bronx River.

To sense how radical a notion this is, you’d first want a picture of the river as is. You’d need, in particular, to envision the segment of it that flows south from the Bronx Botanical Garden, where a meandering waterway cutting through shady woodlands abruptly degenerates into a grim, wet, and much polluted ditch. In the words of a report by the Bronx Partnership for Parks, the Bronx River, “like many urban rivers and streams, is associated with pollution and danger” and “continues to suffer from illegal dumping, erosion, storm water runoff, and a range of other insults.” That’s putting it mildly.

Isolated from surrounding communities by five highways, by railroad tracks, by industrial parks, by auto parts dumps, by scrap-metal yards and by decades of neglect, the Bronx River doesn’t just suffer from insults, it has become one. It’s an eyesore and an affront to the neighborhood where Majora Carter grew up. “Eighty percent of the New York region’s produce and 40 percent of its meat is moved through the Hunts Point market,” at the mouth of the river, explains the activist, “along with 40 percent of its waste.” In this one area alone, there are 24 waste-transfer stations, handling about 12,000 tons daily. Not long ago the city quietly introduced a plan to add yet another plant to the waste stream, this one capable of processing a further 5000 tons a day. “I’d venture to say that this would not have been done in another neighborhood,” Carter says. And it’s a sure bet the plant would never have been sited in the more affluent northern stretches of the Bronx.

“It’s strange,” continues Carter, who owns a house in Hunts Point, across the street from her parents’, “to hear people in this neighborhood saying, ‘How come, when I take my kids out of this area, suddenly they don’t have asthma attacks anymore and they can breathe?’ ”

No one knows for certain if the asthma rate in Hunts Point is linked to the prevalence of sewage treatment facilities. But breathing isn’t something you can take for granted in the miasma of urban politics. Most people would concede that a good way to offset pollution is access to sea air. Yet, as things now stand, the sole place in Barretto Point where anyone can approach the river is the Tiffany Street pier, which is fenced off and under construction, having burnt down twice after being struck by lightning.

For miles upriver the story is essentially the same. Which is why some people might see in Carter’s “re-envisioning” a level of optimism worthy of Candide. Carter and a colleague, Alexie Torres-Fleming, form the nucleus of the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance, a grandiose name for a two-person coalition with plans no less ambitious than the decommissioning of the Sheridan Expressway, the reclamation of disused cement factories, the opening of the Bronx River waterfront to uses common enough in upriver communities but unheard-of in Soundview and Hunts Point. “So far the Watershed Alliance is just Majora and me,” explains Torres-Fleming, executive director of the nonprofit Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice. “But y’aint gonna get much better than that.”

Y’aint. A 35-year-old native of an area that went national only after Amadou Diallo was shot and killed there by city cops, Torres-Fleming runs the only local youth outreach program. Lately, she and her group have focused their efforts on battling the city for control of a 10-acre factory site bordering the river in Soundview. Together with Carter, various parks groups, and Councilmember Pedro G. Espada, Torres-Fleming recently lobbied to remove the cement factory from public auction and study it for potential reuse as an element in a proposed greenbelt puzzle. “There’s a historical rail station at the perimeter of the lot that was designed by Cass Gilbert,” she explains. “We can see it becoming an arts center. The cement factory would have to be razed and the land studied as a ‘brownfield,’ because it’s probably contaminated.”

[

In Torres-Fleming’s vision, a disused spur of Edgewater Avenue that the city wants to turn into a truck route would become a footpath. A broken pier at the river’s edge where her father once boarded fishing boats bound for Montauk would be rebuilt as a place to launch canoes. A slope where a colony of homeless people now live in shacks would be restored and replanted. The concrete aprons where some locals come to fight their pit bulls would be reclaimed. “I used to wander around down there when I was a kid,” says Torres-Fleming, “pretending I was Becky Thatcher.”

A move to prevent the Department of Citywide Administrative Services from auctioning the site was not successful. The factory was leased to the only bidder—the city refuses to release the company’s name—for used-car storage at a rent of just $2500 a month. “It shouldn’t have gone to auction,” says Torres-Fleming. “It’s a shame.”

But that’s not the end of the story. “We truly have a vision for the lower river,” says Torres-Fleming, one that involves connecting fragments of existing parks with slivers of riverside land acquired from the city and from local industry. And while some of the sites are so badly polluted that even to fantasize their reuse requires environmental assessment studies, Torres-Fleming is spurred by a type of hardheaded optimism that critic Ellen Willis once called the engine of emancipation.

It’ll take a lot to emancipate the Bronx River. But, says Torres-Fleming, “nothing we’re doing now seems more outrageous to me than sitting in my attic dreaming up a place for youths in an area with 10,000 young people and no youth center.” The activism Torres-Fleming and Carter are involved with is “as grassroots as it gets. I’m talking about home meetings where you have five people.” The home meetings, it should be stated, are underwritten by grants from the Ford Foundations. And Torres-Fleming isn’t joking when she says, “If not me, then my children or grandchildren will see the river restored.

“I grew up in a time,” she continues, “when there was this social service mentality about community work. It said you’ll be successful to the extent that you can help people leave the neighborhood.” Torres-Fleming tried that. After getting degrees from Fordham and the New School, she married and moved to the suburbs. But something pulled her back to the Bronx, and it may have been the fact that she maintains “this antimissionary mentality.” The paradigms of urban activism have shifted, she claims. “You don’t think about fixing people in a neighborhood anymore, or imposing change from outside. You help create conditions to improve our common existence. Taking back our waterfront is a good example of how that gets done.” *

resident Majora Carter. Prevailing breezes waft the reek over a stretch of open scrubland called Barretto Point, a 13-acre peninsular heel that juts out where the Bronx and East rivers join, along the perimeter of the immense Hunts Point market.

It doesn’t take much to dismiss this desolate place out of hand. Yet Barretto Point is abundant with the tougher forms of both local and migra-tory wildlife and with Native American and Revolutionary history. The Weckquaeskgeek Indians had a village here called Quinnahung; Washington’s troops rested here once in retreat. It also commands what has to be one of the broader views in New York: the confluence of two rivers, the little hump of North Brother Island, the looming hulk of Rikers, and, beyond that, Flushing Bay. Nonetheless, it takes an act of will to imagine this funky plot as parkland. Majora Carter goes the vision one better. The “Director of Re-envisioning” at the Point, a nonprofit community development corporation in Hunts Point, Carter has a plan to make Barretto Point the anchor for a greenbelt that would entirely transform a substantial segment of the lower Bronx River.

To sense how radical a notion this is, you’d first want a picture of the river as is. You’d need, in particular, to envision the segment of it that flows south from the Bronx Botanical Garden, where a meandering waterway cutting through shady woodlands abruptly degenerates into a grim, wet, and much polluted ditch. In the words of a report by the Bronx Partnership for Parks, the BronxRiver, “like many urban rivers and streams, is associated with pollution and danger” and “continues to suffer from illegal dumping, erosion, storm water runoff, and a range of other insults.” That’s putting it mildly.

[

Isolated from surrounding communities by five highways, by railroad tracks, by industrial parks, by auto parts dumps, by scrap-metal yards and by decades of neglect, the Bronx River doesn’t just suffer from insults, it has become one. It’s an eyesore and an affront to the neighborhood where Majora Carter grew up. “Eighty percent of the New York region’s produce and 40 percent of its meat is moved through the Hunts Point market,” at the mouth of the river, explains the activist, “along with 40 percent of its waste.” In this one area alone, there are 24 waste-transfer stations, handling about 12,000 tons daily. Not long ago the city quietly introduced a plan to add yet another plant to the waste stream, this one capable of processing a further 5000 tons a day. “I’d venture to say that this would not have been done in another neighborhood,” Carter says. And it’s a sure bet the plant would never have been sited in the more affluent northern stretches of the Bronx.

“It’s strange,” continues Carter, who owns a house in Hunts Point, across the street from her parents’, “to hear people in this neighborhood saying, ‘How come, when I take my kids out of this area, suddenly they don’t have asthma attacks anymore and they can breathe?’ ”

** No one knows for certain if the asthma rate in Hunts Point is linked to the prevalence of sewage treatment facilities. But breathing isn’t something you can take for granted in the miasma of urban politics. Most people would concede that a good way to offset pollution is access to sea air. Yet, as things now stand, the sole place in Barretto Point where anyone can approach the river is the Tiffany Street pier, which is fenced off and under construction, having burnt down twice after being struck by lightning.

For miles upriver the story is essentially the same. Which is why some people might see in Carter’s “re-envisioning” a level of optimism worthy of Candide. Carter and a colleague, Alexie Torres-Fleming, form the nucleus of the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance, a grandiose name for a two-person coalition with plans no less ambitious than the decommissioning of the Sheridan Expressway, the reclamation of disused cement factories, the opening of the Bronx River waterfront to uses common enough in upriver communities but unheard-of in Soundview and Hunts Point. “So far the Watershed Alliance is just Majora and me,” explains Torres-Fleming, executive director of the nonprofit Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice. “But y’aint gonna get much better than that.”

Y’aint. A 35-year-old native of an area that went national only after Amadou Diallo was shot and killed there by city cops, Torres-Fleming runs the only local youth outreach program. Lately, she and her group have focused their efforts on battling the city for control of a 10-acre factory site bordering the river in Soundview. Together with Carter, various parks groups, and Councilmember Pedro G. Espada, Torres-Fleming recently lobbied to remove the cement factory from public auction and study it for potential reuse as an element in a proposed greenbelt puzzle. “There’s a historical rail station at the perimeter of the lot that was designed by Cass Gilbert,” she explains. “We can see it becoming an arts center. The cement factory would have to be razed and the land studied as a ‘brownfield,’ because it’s probably contaminated.”

In Torres-Fleming’s vision, a disused spur of Edgewater Avenue that the city wants to turn into a truck route would become a footpath. A broken pier at the river’s edge where her father once boarded fishing boats bound for Montauk would be rebuilt as a place to launch canoes. A slope where a colony of homeless people now lives in shacks would be restored and replanted. The concrete aprons where some locals come to fight their pit bulls would be reclaimed. “I used to wander around down there when I was a kid,” says Torres-Fleming, “pretending I was Becky Thatcher.”

A move to prevent the Department of Citywide Administrative Services from auctioning the site was not successful. The factory was leased to the only bidder—the city refuses to release the company’s name—for used-car storage at a rent of just $2500 a month. “It shouldn’t have gone to auction,” saysTorres-Fleming. “It’s a shame.”

But that’s not the end of the story. “We truly have a vision for the lower river,” says Torres-Fleming, one that involves connecting fragments of existing parks with slivers of riverside land acquired from the city and from local industry. And while some of the sites are so badly polluted that even to fantasize their reuse requires environmental assessment studies, Torres-Fleming is spurred by a type of hardheaded optimism that critic Ellen Willis once called the engine of emancipation.

[

It’ll take a lot to emancipate the Bronx River. But, says Torres-Fleming, “nothing we’re doing now seems more outrageous to me than sitting in my attic dreaming up a place for youths in an area with 10,000 young people and no youth center.” The activism Torres-Fleming and Carter are involved with is “as grassroots as it gets. I’m talking about home meetings where you have five people.” The home meetings, it should be stated, are underwritten by grants from the Ford Foundation. And Torres-Fleming isn’t joking when she says, “If not me, then my children or grandchildren will see the river restored.

“I grew up in a time,” she continues, “when there was this social service mentality about community work. It said you’ll be successful to the extent that you can help people leave the neighborhood.” Torres-Fleming tried that. After getting degrees from Fordham and the New School, she married and moved to the suburbs. But something pulled her back to the Bronx, and it may have been the fact that she maintains “this antimissionary mentality.” The paradigms of urban activism have shifted, she claims. “You don’t think about fixing people in a neighborhood anymore, or imposing change from outside. You help create conditions to improve our common existence. Taking back our waterfront is a good example of how that gets done.”