Youth Take Over the Bronx — for Environmental Justice!

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On Saturday, May 16, a super-charged group of Bronx high school students met at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School for a day called “Youth Take Over the Bronx: Getting Involved to Create Our Own Future.”

The event was organized in part by the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance (SBRWA). SBRWA is a coalition of grassroots organizations, city-wide advocacy groups, and technical assistance providers who work collaboratively with community residents to create a greener, healthier, and economically vibrant South Bronx. For 15 years, SBRWA has mobilized South Bronx residents to develop a community plan to shut down the Sheridan Expressway and convert it into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard with access to the Bronx River waterfront.

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Interstate 895, (known as the Arthur V. Sheridan Expressway or “The Sheridan”), is a 1.3-mile-long freeway in the Bronx (marked in red on the map above), that forms a short, connecting link between the Bruckner Expressway (I-278) at its south end in the Hunts Point neighborhood and the Cross-Bronx Expressway (I-95) at its north end. Built in 1962 by Robert Moses, urban planner and scourge of New York City neighborhoods, and named for a Bronx Borough Commissioner of Public Works, the 6-lane highway parallels the Bronx River and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. The supposed purpose of the Sheridan was to create a commercial-vehicle-friendly alternate to the Bronx River Parkway.

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The Sheridan is only lightly used, but adds significantly to the poor air quality in the South Bronx, a peninsula strangled by highways.

The Sheridan was originally planned to extend northeast to I-95 at Co-op City, creating a shortcut to New England, but the extension was cancelled. The expressway is viewed locally as a useless stub since the nearby Major Deegan and Bronx River Parkway carry far more traffic on the same route. The Sheridan’s future is uncertain — the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) proposed expanding the highway in 1997, but was met with strong opposition from local environmental justice advocates. Community groups called for an alternative vision that would replace the Sheridan with green spaces, Bronx River waterfront access, affordable housing, and schools.

Proponents of the “Sheridan Corridor Transformation Plan” say that with fewer than 30,000 vehicles passing along the highway daily, it is not needed. They say that it creates a barrier between neighborhoods, and forces nearly 20,000 trucks onto local streets in an area that suffers from high numbers of pedestrian crashes and one of the nation’s worst asthma rates. The community-designed transformation plan would get trucks off local streets through a new direct highway connection to the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center (the country’s largest food distribution center), convert the lightly-used Sheridan into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard, and revitalize the South Bronx and Bronx River waterfront.

The NYSDOT began considering the community plan in 2008, but opposed it two years later, citing a study showing that traffic on local streets would increase if the highway were closed. In 2012, Mayor Bloomberg also opposed plans to replace the Sheridan, and the local community and city and state governments have been at a stalemate since then.

SBRWA invited two youth organizations, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice and A.C.T.I.O.N. to lead a day of activities to educate the community about the expressway and rally support for the hoped-for community plan. In a vibrant show of youth power, Bronx students gathered at Fannie Lou Hamer High School, which faces the highway, on May 16. The conference was the first on the community plan organized and led by youth, and the entire day was charged with the high school students’ calls for environmental justice and a greener, locally-based vision for their neighborhoods.

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Key elements of the Sheridan Corridor Transformation Plan have been laid out by the Pratt Center for Community Development.

After hearing from Amanda Septimo, district director for Congressman Jose E. Serrano  (NY, 15) and one of the youngest senior staffers in Congress, the big crowd divided up over cafeteria tables laden with small-scale Sheridan Expressways made from colorful LEGOs. As student leaders quizzed the tables about the history of the highway and the neighborhood, those with the right answers were allowed to choose among LEGO versions of green spaces, affordable housing, or amenities like hospitals to add to the mini expressways. A vast array of workshops focused on topics ranging from environmental justice, climate resiliency, the Hunts Point Lifelines Rebuild by Design proposal, the South Bronx Community Resilience Agenda, and a population study of American eels in the Bronx River, to name just a few. Student organizers had invited representatives from the Bronx River Alliance, The Point Community Center, We Act, Sustainable South Bronx, the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, Nos Quedamos, and many other groups.

By the end of the day, participants rallied around the conviction that “We can use the land to build a healthier community.” Bronx students united behind the Sheridan Corridor Transformation Plan, which will create 900 units of affordable housing, direct connections to Starlight Park on the Bronx River Greenway (the park is currently very hard to access, due to its location east of the Sheridan), new park space along the river, space for local businesses, streets and highways that work, reconnected streets and cleaner air, and 2,600 permanent jobs.

The students urged supporters to tell Governor Cuomo (518-474-8390) to start the #SheridanTransformation project NOW! You can let the Governor know that in his State of the Borough address on February 19, 2015, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. finally called on Cuomo to support the Sheridan Transformation Project.

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About JenniferS.

A founding member of Bronx Climate Justice North.
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