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Bronx Activists Take Local Fight Against 'Environmental Racism' to a Global Stage

Grocery giant FreshDirect will get $127 million in public subsidies to build a facility on the Bronx waterfront. Local residents took their campaign against it to the United Nations.
Photo by Alice Speri

For more than two years, a group of South Bronx residents has been fighting against the planned relocation of a giant online grocery store to their doorstep — arguing their case at an endless string of court hearings, community meetings, and street rallies.

But last month, South Bronx Unite took its campaign against FreshDirect to a very different stage — the UN Climate Summit.

The neighborhood's issues — from food sovereignty, to clean air, to climate-related displacement — are the same that affect poor communities across the world, the group says. And, while they feel marginalized in New York City, local residents have been building connections "with communities of color, working communities and the global south who, like the people of the Bronx, are often on the frontlines of climate change," the group wrote in a statement announcing their participation in the international event.


All photos by Alice Speri.

Mychal Johnson, a co-founder of South Bronx Unite, the coalition of residents fighting the relocation, was one of 38 civil society delegates selected to participate in the week-long event, which was attended by more than 100 heads of state.

"This is a clear example of what's happening globally, but it's local," Johnson told VICE News, of his neighborhood's battle against FreshDirect. "Corporations are the main culprits behind the degradation of our environment. Here it's vehicle emissions that cause asthma, but on the larger level, it's carbon emissions that cause global warming."

FreshDirect's relocation to the South Bronx waterfront — a flood zone, as Hurricane Sandy revealed in 2012 — would bring an estimated 1,000 daily truck trips through a neighborhood that already sees some of the worst traffic in the city, also thanks to a FedEx hub, a printing and distribution center, and four waste transfer stations, Johnson said.

"In every other location in the city, this would be a park," Johnson said. "But not in the Bronx."

The neighborhood, which is home to the highest concentration of public housing in New York, also has some of its highest asthma rates — 21 times higher than the figures in richer areas. One in five children in the area suffers from the disease, according to South Bronx Unite.

"No one here doesn't know anyone with asthma, it's an epidemic," Johnson said. "And the FreshDirect trucks want to come right here."

Bronx Community District 1, which includes the waterfront neighborhoods of Mott Haven and Port Haven, and where the FreshDirect facility will be built, is over 96 percent black and Hispanic. This leads Johnson to describe the treatment of the South Bronx as a form of "environmental racism."


"We're just miles away from the financial capital of the world, but things are totally different here in the South Bronx," Johnson said. "This is basically warehouse central, truck central, garbage truck central. We're getting garbage trucks from all over the city."

"There's no reason the Bronx has to have everything New York City doesn't want to have," he added.

FreshDirect's relocation will bring in an additional 1,000 truck trips a day — and that's diesel trucks, despite the company's pledges to go "green." "They lost much of their fleet during Sandy," Johnson said. "But they did not replace them with green vehicles, they replaced them with diesel trucks."

FreshDirect — which is currently headquartered in Long Island City in Queens — did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News, but the company has long maintained that its move will be beneficial to the South Bronx, bringing access to healthy food and new jobs to one of the city's poorest communities. The company has promised 1,000 permanent jobs and 644 construction jobs — gaining the support of some local officials, though not all.

Critics have responded with skepticism to those claims. They point out that there is no guarantee that the jobs created will go to local residents, and that the neighborhood needs better than non-unionized, mostly minimum wage positions that will only reinforce the cycle of poverty in the area.

Even so, FreshDirect has been found eligible for at least $127 million in public subsidies — a handout that New York City's mayor Bill de Blasio had once criticized as a "mistake."

Neighborhood advocates had hoped the new, more progressive administration would step in to stop the move, and even placed hundreds of calls to the mayor's office to stop it. "De Blasio campaigned on making an issue out of this project, saying that this kind of subsidies shouldn't be going to these kinds of companies," Johnson said. "We thought that he would be advocating for true change and this tale of two cities he so proudly talked about wanting to change."


But, since taking office, the mayor has been pretty much silent on the move.

A spokesman for the mayor told VICE News that the subsidies were executed "in the previous administration," but did not clarify the mayor's position regarding the relocation, residents' health concerns, and their demands that officials stop the deal.

"We have the largest concentration of public housing in the city right here, 40,000 people in a two-mile radius," Johnson said. "People are living here and the whole area is being made into an industrial park. It's like a parking garage down here. You see how the top of the building is darker than the rest of it? It's because we're circled by highways." 

Going to the UN, Johnson understands, will hardly change much — and the agency's own track record in enforcing environmental protections is just a sign of the uphill battle advocates across the world face.

"I know the UN have been getting only non-binding agreements — and the US has played a huge role in there not being legally binding agreements — but what's most important is the fact that like-minded people come together," he said. "We need to form coalitions; we can't rely on our governments or our leaders, but when we come together we can probably force their hand, hopefully hold their feet to the fire, and make them do what's right."

On September 23, a group of South Bronx residents marched in Manhattan carrying asthma pumps cut out of cardboard, and joined the more than 400,000 people that turned out that day for the historic People's Climate March. Ahead of the summit, Johnson also brought some of the other participants to visit the Bronx.

Just before the week of events kicked off, VICE News caught up with him for a tour of his neighborhood, including the spot where FreshDirect plans to build its new warehouse — one of the area's only green spaces, — and its waterfront, battered by Hurricane Sandy and apparently abandoned by the city.


The plot on the South Bronx waterfront where the FreshDirect facility will be built.

FreshDirect's 500,000-square-foot facility will sit on land that was documented to be a Native American burial ground. The state recognizes the area, but no plaque or monument designates it as such.

"In theory, you're not supposed to aggravate the ground at a certain depth," Johnson said. "But they're allowing FreshDirect to build that plant over it and potentially put an underground parking garage. How does that not affect the site?"

Mychal Johnson, a co-founder of South Bronx Unite, the coalition of residents fighting the relocation, shows VICE News around the waterfront.

"Had this project being planned for Manhattan or Brooklyn, it never would have happened," Johnson said. "It would have been held under a lot more scrutiny. They continue to bring these projects to the South Bronx.

"Guys go out here and fish, but we shouldn't have to fish like this," he added.

Two decades ago, an explosion at the nearby ConEd facility blew up the pier. It was never fixed. Then two years ago, Sandy destroyed what remained of the waterfront.

"All this charred wood has been sitting here for decades and no one has ever made them replace the dock that they blew up," Johnson said. "And we know there are gonna be more storms like Sandy. With climate change, we know it's gonna happen. But there's no mitigation plan here."

"I was here a couple weeks ago, a couple was laying on that rock like they were on the beach," Johnson said. "Why is it that this is how we have to enjoy our waterfront access? This is not how it's done in any other community. Nowhere in New York City should look like this."

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi