As she drove her minivan along Hunts Point Avenue on a recent afternoon, Edith Macano marveled at how streets that once crawled with prostitutes and garbage now look tidy and benign.
“At one time, this was more like junkyards,” she said. “Now they’ve even given us a post office. It’s cleaner than it was 15 years ago.”
Macano has lived in the Bronx since she arrived as a little girl from Puerto Rico 40 years ago and has seen the neighborhood go through many changes. But now she and other residents are concerned that plans to build a new jail in Hunts Point will be a step backward for a community that feels it bears a disproportional burden of industries that benefit New York City more than the neighborhood itself.
“They need to build schools, that’s what they need to do,” Macano said, as her 9-year-old granddaughter sat in the back seat sucking on a lollipop. Public debate on a new jail was sparked in April of 2006, when the city’s Department of Corrections proposed a 2,000-bed detention facility to the City Council. The project, estimated to cost $375 million, would relieve some of the strains on Rikers Island, a penal colony, which on any given day houses around 15,000 inmates.
Rikers Island is a 400-acre lot that lies in the East River between the Bronx and Queens. It has 10 detention centers, the oldest of which opened in 1935. Many of the island’s facilities are temporary structures built in the 1980s and 1990s when the prison population swelled, and, yet, they are still in use today.
Prisoner’s rights groups, including the Legal Aid Society, have long decried the unsanitary conditions and overcrowding that plague the deteriorating buildings. Legal Aid has been a vocal advocate of plans to relocated prisoners to jails in the other boroughs.
“I think it’s important to ensure decent housing of prisoners and that the city should take whatever opportunity is available to advance that cause,” said John Boston, a Legal Aid attorney.
Moreover, since the island is only accessible by a single road from Queens, it can be difficult for family members to visit inmates, and transporting prisoners to court dates in Manhattan can take up to 14 hours, according to Legal Aid. Though few would argue against alleviating the situation at Rikers Island, there are also very few communities that welcome the thought of sharing their neighborhood with a massive jail. John Roberts, the district manager for Community Board Two, said he believes some of the objections are simply reactions to the stigma of detention facilities.
“It’s the negative connotation of a jail,” he said.
Roberts pointed out that the jail could be an important source of jobs for the neighborhood, though the community board itself has not taken an official position on the project so far.
Boston agrees that there is often a knee-jerk reaction against jails, which in his view is often unjustified. In his Cobble Hill neighborhood in Brooklyn, a jail is slated to reopen.
“I routinely walk within sight of it,” he said. “It’s never had any serious effect on my quality of life other than symbolically, and I try not to get agitated over symbolism.”
But Legal Aid has revised its initial support for the project based on revelations that the Department of Corrections plans to increase the density of dormitory units by 20 percent.
Regardless the specifics of conditions inside the proposed jail, in the low-income community of Hunts Point, where almost half of residents receive public assistance, neighbors would like to see such sizable investments go into improving the neighborhood rather than incarceration.
Objections to the proposed jail gave birth to a coalition group of more than 20 grassroots organizations that calls itself Community in Unity. The group has worked to insert its concerns into a decision-making process that does not habitually seek out community voices. On April 13 this year, the group organized a march of around 200 people out to Oak Point to protest the jail.
Elena Conte, an activist with Sustainable South Bronx, called on city officials to “not short circuit our process with a shortsighted arrogance and poor planning.”
Community clashes with Industry
About 14,000 residents live in a 20-block housing core on the Hunts Point peninsula east of the Bruckner Expressway. The peninsula has a curious blend of industrial and residential spaces. Almost the entire perimeter is surrounded by industry: a water treatment plant, a fertilizer plant, wholesale produce, meat, and fish markets that feed most of New York City’s 8 million residents, as well as numerous smaller warehouses and distributors.
“When they did the zoning 50 years ago, that basically sealed Hunts Point’s fate,” said Roberts, the community board manager. “They should never have zoned residential areas there.”
The concentration of wholesale markets that rely on trucks to distribute their goods, combined with disagreeable fumes from the water treatment plant and fertilizer manufacturer, have exacerbated respiratory conditions among residents in the neighborhood, which has the highest rates of hospitalization for asthma for both children and adults in New York City, according to the city department of health.
“When I first moved here we went through bad cases of asthma just to get used to the neighborhoods pollution,” said Judith Raphael, a resident for four years in Hunts Point, whose teenage daughter has asthma.
Raphael says the neighborhood is isolated, cut off from the rest of the borough by the elevated expressway, which creates a physical division, but also a psychological one.
“This is a little island compared to outside in the Bronx, people don’t come here unless somebody brings them,” she said, leaning on a broom on her building’s stoop as she took a break from housework. “(People) don’t know about the pollution, they don’t know how they just forget our schools.”
Raphael, raising three teenagers as a single mother, would like to see more recreational programs and parental support.
“It’s tough growing up in this neighborhood,” Raphael said. “You want to teach your kids a certain kind of structure (so) they won’t wind up in the jails that they’re building.”
Raphael and other community opponents of the Oak Point jail proposal have been joined by elected officials. City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who represents Hunts Point, has played a prominent role in trying to block the plan, arguing that the last thing the neighborhood needs is another jail on top of a juvenile detention center and an 800-inmate prison barge.
“What we need is community-friendly development that can create work opportunities,” Arroyo said. “We just don’t need another waste transfer station, another homeless shelter or another jail. We suffer from an unfair share of all of those. They’re very negative things that continue to keep this community one of the poorest congressional districts in this nation.”
The eight other city council representatives from the Bronx have joined Arroyo in opposing the jail, along with borough president Adolfo Carrion, State Assemblyman Ruben Diaz and congressional representative Jose Serrano.
In a letter to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg last year, Serrano said, “I am troubled by the scale of this project, which suggests that my district and my borough are once again being asked to shoulder far more than their fair share of unwanted municipal infrastructure.”
In unison, these elected officials have urged the city to include the community in the planning process, but so far, their requests have gone unanswered.
“We got to stop crimes, but how are you going to stop crimes if we don’t try to raise a better tomorrow with our children?” said resident Judith Raphael. “We have to break the cycle.”