To many people, myself included, Hunts Point seems like a very strange place to grow up. For 4,000 children, it isn’t very strange; it is their home. We at Iridescent don’t work in a vacuum—by setting up shop in Hunts Point, we have come to function as part of the ecology of many Hunts Point kids’ childhoods. I have recently become interested in placing our work in this ecological context. With this post (and some other forthcoming efforts), I hope to contribute to expanding the understanding of what it is to grow up in Hunts Point.
Beyond the Bruckner
Crossing the Bruckner on Lafayette Avenue, most of Hunts Point is hidden by a slight hill. Our first encounter is with Platinum Pleasures, the newest of the Hunts Point strip clubs. The local community board has been fighting their application for a liquor license for over a year, as they have for 2 other recently opened Hunts Point strip clubs. Like the others, the license was recently approved, and Platinum Pleasures will open in time for the summer. Lately I have noticed young women entering and leaving—interviewing.
Continuing on Lafayette Avenue, we notice a giant brick building with large arched windows. The Banknote Building, previously a currency factory, then a mixed-use building in disrepair, and now, after a poorly timed $25 million renovation by a national real estate investment firm, it sits nearly empty, far from the economic revitalization envisioned. Now there is talk of leasing 147,000 square feet to the NYC Human Resources Administration, creating a huge welfare distribution office serving over 2000 welfare seekers per day.
Continuing along Lafayette, across from the Banknote, we notice an explosion of trees and stone turreted buildings behind tall walls and locked gates. The Corpus Christi Monastery has operated for over a century, and dozens of nuns pray behind these walls. In over a year of working across the street, I have never seen the nuns come outside. According to a nun, their involvement in the community consists of “Sometimes praying for them.”
When the monastery ends, Hunts Point’s main athletic park, Julio Corballo Fields, begins. The park is full of baseball and basketball games all spring and summer, kids running everywhere, families relaxing on benches and bleachers. The park is also popular with the destitute homeless, many of them clients of the Bronks Works Living Room shelter across the street. The Living Room is a drop-in center with lax rules concerning drug and alcohol use—it must happen outside, and so it happens in the park, alongside the baseball games. This is one of the many dualities present in Hunts Point.
The next street, Spofford Avenue, contains both the PS 48 public elementary school, serving around 900 students, and the Spofford Juvenile Detention Center, which before closing in 2011 after 54 years of operation, jailed thousands of children.
We turn left on Manida Street, down a row of sleepy 2-story row houses, a street that could exist in any of the outer boroughs. People smile at you, tend gardens, leave toys and tools unattended. A pleasant-seeming place to live. At the end of the street we find The Point Community Development Corporation, a non-profit arts, education, and activism organization which has served as the voice and the organizing spirit of the neighborhood for nearly two decades. Activism projects include the ACTION program, in which high schoolers take leadership, activist, and community organizing roles in the community, tackling social issues and initiatives. ACTION and The Point pervade the Hunts Point community.
Taking a right on Garrison Avenue, we tread the border of residential and commercial—tall tenements and public housing developments on the right, rows of auto repair shops to the left, cars hanging into the street at odd angles, men outside yelling at passing traffic. There are many sidewalk operations too, men (never women) squatting on cardboard, a few tools beside them, rising when a car slows.
Dog waste covers the sidewalk—it is necessary to look down and sort of dance through it. Recently, stylized signs have appeared throughout Hunts Point, commanding: “Limpialo! Pick it up!” But they appear to be ignored. There is trash everywhere.
Further down Garrison, the auto shops and tenements continue for several blocks until heavier industry takes over. Bronx Charter School for the Arts, a beautiful arts integrated elementary school, is sandwiched between Garrison and the shadow of the Bruckner.
At the next intersection, Hunts Point Avenue, we pause. To the left, Hunts Point Avenue intersects Bruckner Blvd, the north and south on and off ramps of the Bruckner Expressway, the Hunts Point Ave 6 train station, Bx25 and Bx26 bus stops, and 4 other city streets, at the fifth most dangerous intersection in the state.
Hunts Point Avenue is the peninsula’s main artery and main local economic sector. Hunts Point Ave bisects the Hunts Point residential district, a not-quite 18 square block zone housing over 12,000 people. Walking southeast through the most dense local economic zone in Hunts Point, we encounter 42 storefronts in 3 blocks. 5 of them involve healthcare, including 3 Urban Health Plan centers. 2 involve education—the Hunts Point Alliance for Children pre-K play space, where infants and caregivers are invited to learn through play, and the beautiful new Hyde Leadership Prep Charter School high school building. 34 store fronts involve an economy of poverty—mini markets, check cashing stores, liquor stores, barber shops, fried food stores, pawn shops, 99 cent and discount stores, laundromats, miscellaneous financial services centers, a nightclub. There is an out of place flower shop.
Back to Lafayette Avenue, we turn left down a long sloping hill. To the right we can see the edge of the school building housing 3 schools: MS 424, the Hunts Point public middle school; The Hyde Leadership Prep Charter School Elementary School; and the Hyde Middle School. The school marks the end of the neighborhood and the start of industry. We are soon surrounded by warehouses and truck depots, endless unmarked importers and exporters, receivers and distributors. During the day, this area is quiet. At night, as truck traffic increases, this part of Hunts Point crackles with prosititution and drug sales. For more on the Hunts Point addiction/prostitution scene, check out Chris Arnade’s work.
Lafayette ends at Hunts Point Riverside Park, a beautiful park built on the Bronx River in conjunction with Rocking the Boat, a non-profit boat building and water science education organization doing amazing work with middle and high school students. Through Rocking the Boat and Riverside Park, the Hunts Point community enjoys the chance to develop a relationship with the river they live so close to but otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
South-East on Edgewater Drive, we’ve come upon a wide industrial road, blank brick facades and shabby yards to the right, long corrugated fences to the left. There is a small truck depot to the right and then the wall to the left opens up to an endless parking lot filled with semi trucks, and we have reached the entrance of the largest food distribution center in the world. The Hunts Point Produce Market houses the world’s largest wholesale produce market, the world’s largest meat market, and the largest seafood market outside of Japan. The Hunts Point Produce Market occupies 329 acres of Hunts Point, or one third of the peninsula, and is the source of most of New York City’s food. Tens of thousands of trucks move food in and out of the market each day at all hours.
The Hunts Point Produce Market is completely inaccessible to the local community, which is barred by wholesale agreements from buying food there, and by union arrangements from working there. The irony and morality are heavy: one of the poorest communities in New York City, a true “food desert,” hosts the world’s largest accumulation of food resulting in $2.3 billion of annual revenue, and yet accesses neither the food nor the money. A last note on the Produce Market: on the south-eastern tip of Hunts Point, bordering the Fish Market, hang two appendages. One is an 870 bed prison boat docked off the Fish Market parking lot behind a network of chain-link fences and razor wire. The second is an abandoned, rusty building with an upper platform perforated by large cavities leading to cavernous docking bays below for trash barges headed out to sea—if you were looking for the end of the bowels of New York City, this is it.
West on Ryawa Avenue, we pass heavy industry on the right, and the Hunts Point Wastewater Treatment Plant on the left. The huge plant cleans up to 400 million gallons per day of wastewater and sewage, producing toxic “sludge.” Before 2011, the city sent much of the sludge waste to the New York Organic Fertilizer Company (NYOFCO), located just around the corner in Hunts Point. For nearly 20 years, NYOFCO turned about 69,000 pounds of sludge per hour into commercial fertilizer, a “green” process of waste disposal in that it makes use of waste. It wasn’t so “green” for the local community though, as toxic gas fumes produced by roasting chemically treated human waste so badly haunted Hunts Point that, at the peak of its operation, “…children were vomiting in the streets and contracting pink eye, and residents were suffering from chronic nausea, headaches and nose bleeds.” The plant was finally closed in 2011, but more for economic reasons than for concern for public well-being. The city saves about $18 million per year by paying a different company to drive sludge to Pennsylvania. In the absence of the active fertilizer plant, the sewage plant and dozens of smaller industrial plants, including several EPA-registered toxic gas producing plants, continue to emit dangerous fumes. NYOFCO retains their lease and permits, and the right to process imported sludge in Hunts Point.
Between NYOFCO and the wastewater treatment plant lies: an abandoned field, a long stretch of warehouses, an MTA storage yard, and Barretto Point Park. 1 mile from the nearest residential zone, Barretto is the product of years of local efforts. A concrete plant had closed, leaving the soil torn and poisoned, the land covered in ruin and rubble. The community mobilized and a $7.2 million park was built. Barretto Point Park is beautiful: a large green space, athletic courts, playgrounds, community outdoor space, a long dock, water access, an amphitheater, even a floating pool docked offshore. A triumph of community activism. A subsequent local campaign extended the daily closing from 3pm to dusk. Another resulted in a city bus route during summer. The bus route was quickly cancelled during budget cuts—there is a new campaign to restore it. Another campaign is working to prevent construction of 13-story sewer treatment towers in the neighboring lot, which would block sun from the park lawn for several hours each day. Battles are not easily won, in Hunts Point.
The park bustles during summer, as people flock from Hunts Point and beyond, bus or no bus. The highlight of the season is the Fish Parade, in which hundreds of community members and organizations dress as and/or design fish-themed floats/vehicles/effigies and march from Riverside Park to Barretto Park, a tongue-in-cheek welcome to Hunts Point for the fish market and the millions of dead fish who briefly become their neighbors.
Up Tiffany Street, we encounter the many blocks of industry—scrap yards, factories, recycling yards, warehouses, auto shops, mysterious unmarked buildings, etc. that insulate the community from the waterfront. Most of the peninsula is industrially zoned, bustles during the day and empties at night, when you can walk for quite awhile without seeing another human.