Greening the South Bronx

Greening the Ghetto
Majora Carter (2006)

Film Review

I make no secret of my belief that real political change must start at the local. To bone up on my organizing skills, I’m presently doing a master class called “How Communities Awaken”. It’s been decades since I took a formal class. For homework they’ve given two books and a flash drive full of videos, podcasts and journal articles.

Naturally I went for the videos first. This one is a 2006 TED talk by an African American environmental justice* activist from the South Bronx.

The most striking part of Carter’s talk is her narrative describing how local politicians and developers deliberately target politically vulnerable communities. I saw the exact same thing happen to Seattle’s central area in the 1980s.

As in Seattle, major Interstate expansion (to shorten the Manhattan commute for wealthy Westchester County residents) displaced thousands (600,000) of South Bronx residents. The family homes many had purchased became virtually worthless.

In addition to the Interstate, South Bronx residents have been saddled with four power plants, a sewage treatment plant and a toxic waste site. Due air pollution, one in four South Bronx kids has asthma, seven times the national average.

Fighting Back Through Community Empowerment

Carter describes how she and her neighbors turned this around by obtaining a $10,000 grant to transform a desolate Hudson River dump site into a park. And how this success led to the formation of a Green Wave movement in South Bronx.

In addition to building community and greatly improving the physical environment, her Green the Ghetto movement has translated into serious economic development. In addition to offering job training for ecological stewardship, her community started New York’s first green roof** installation business.

The end of the film features an intriguing interaction (i.e. putdown) with Al Gore about his patronizing response when she approached him about addressing environmental justice in his climate change slideshows.

*Carter defines environmental justice as the right of a community not to be saddled with an undue burden of environmental problems.
**A green roof is a living roof partly or completely covered with vegetation, to optimize energy conservation and minimize water runoff.