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Woman Around Town: Majora Carter—Greening the Bronx

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In Game 2 of the 1977 World Series, a fire started in an abandoned elementary school a few blocks from Yankee Stadium. Howard Cosell, announcing the game for ABC-TV, intoned, “There it is, ladies and gentlemen. The Bronx is burning.”

That catch phrase seemed to sum up what was happening at that time in the Bronx. “White flight,” orchestrated by the real estate industry sent whites fleeing to the suburbs, “redlining” had banks designating whole sections of the borough unacceptable for investments, and landlords began to torch their buildings in order to collect the insurance money. The Bronx was indeed burning.

Majora Carter remembers what it was like to grow up in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s. During a talk she gave on February 17 at the Museum of the City of New York, she showed photographs of the borough’s devastation—burned out buildings, lots covered with rubble. “This is where we played,” she said. “Our community often resembled a war zone.”

(An exhibit at the Museum, Broken Glass: Photographs of the South Bronx by Ray Mortenson shows the wreckage during the 1980s).

“We were well known for being pregnant teenaged mothers and crack addicts,” Carter continued. “I should not be here because of all those things that happened.”

Not only has Carter remained in her neighborhood, but also she has been instrumental in revitalizing the Bronx. Her motto, “Green the Ghetto,” is a rallying cry for those who are determined to change their environment and living conditions. Now with President Barack Obama also pushing a “Green” agenda, Carter’s work is being showcased for what can be accomplished by individuals and communities. Her company, Majora Carter Group LLC, is sought after by others nationwide and even internationally for guidance on attacking environmental problems.

To hear her tell her story, Carter became a community activist almost by accident. After graduating from Wesleyan University as a film major, Carter was unable to find a job and so returned home to live with her parents. One day while out walking her dog, Zena, she found herself at the Bronx River and began to envision a riverside park. The Giuliani Administration saw the Bronx as a place to deposit more of the city’s waste. Carter saw an 11-mile network of bike and pedestrian paths that would connect neighborhoods to the riverfront. She managed to score a $1.2 million Federal Transportation planning grant to design what has become the South Bronx Greenway. The riverside park opened in 2001, and Carter was married there in 2006. “It is the first waterfront park in our community in sixty years,” she said. “It is a beautiful thing that reflects back to the community.” (When she showed photographs of the park, the audience broke into spontaneous applause).

Carter was just getting started. In 2001, she founded the non-profit, Sustainable South Bronx, serving as executive director. In 2003, she built one of the nation’s first and most successful urban green-collar job training and placement systems. She said that the program has an 85 percent success rate for finding people jobs after training. “Many men in the program have been incarcerated and the women had been teen moms,” she said. Ten percent, she pointed out, are now in college. Besides teaching these people job skills, Carter said the program stresses leadership development, team building, and other qualities needed for succeeding in the workplace.

This job-training program goes to the heart of one of Carter’s fervent beliefs, that if you give people options, they will make positive choices. “Those who are consistently denied a good living, become a threat to themselves and others around them,” she said.

Carter also has pioneered the concept of green roof installation, actually planting grass and other plants on rooftops. Pointing out that 20 percent of New York City consists of rooftops, Carter highlights the benefits: more efficient use of storm water; a natural cooling process, helping to lower the temperature in buildings; and, of course, providing food, flowers, and other greenery to areas which are now dominated by blacktop and concrete.

The crisis the country is now experiencing, has affected the ghetto for a long time. Somehow, it is fitting that the Bronx is leading the way in the city’s green revolution. Carter may downplay her own influence, but she has been the driving force behind this movement. What she has accomplished in a short space of time speaks volumes about her energy, dedication, and ability to inspire others. No wonder she is so optimistic about the future. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “And beauty to be found everywhere.”

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions

Favorite Place to Shop: Lot-Less

Favorite Place to Eat: Our kitchen—My husband’s food is the best!

Favorite New York Sight: Hunts Point Riverside Park

Favorite New York Moment: Wearing my Obama for President pin at the right-wing News Corp’s New York Post when they honored me with the Lifetime Achievement Liberty Medal last October. That we can all come together to recognize and respect each other in NYC is crucial to our long-term survival as a city, and the happiness of our everyday experiences.

What You Hate about New York: The Condo/Shopping Mall/Stadium mentality of “Economic Development.” None of these are the least bit “green,” but they have proven to be the basis for the Bloomberg economic agenda for the past seven years.  Meanwhile, the City is building prisons in my neighborhood and laying off 1,000′s of teachers.  Shameful.

What You Love about New York: The Subway System, the diversity, the Bronx.

Two exhibits at the Museum of the City of New York underline the messages in Carter’s talk:

Broken Glass: Photographs of the South Bronx by Ray Mortenson, through March 8

Growing and Greening New York: PlanNYC and the Future of the City, through April 22

Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street
212-534-1672
www.mcny.org

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