In 1948 a scar began to appear across the center of The Bronx running west to east and much like a line drawn across wet sand with a finger, it erased everything in its path.
It was the beginning of the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, one of the many ill-conceived works by Robert Moses, that would leave an indelible mark on our borough.
As construction of what would eventually be one of America’s most congested highways continued, it tore communities in half, leaving one side stranded from the other and while white and communities of color were both impacted during its construction, it was the Black and Latino community that bears the brunt of its legacy years later.
Decades later, with over 200,000 vehicles spewing toxic fumes into the air as they creep along towards their destinations each day, Bronx asthma rates, as a result, are some of the worst in the nation, as particles from the constant traffic like Nitric Oxide and PM 2.5 particles are released into the air.
Is it any wonder that The Bronx has some of the highest such rates in the nation? Is it any wonder why we have some of the worst health outcomes in not just the city or state but also the nation?
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, The Bronx became the epicenter with the highest death rate in New York City and one of the highest in the nation as the coronavirus is a respiratory tract infection making people with such pre-existing conditions all that more vulnerable the majority of which are Black and Latino
So when Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said that racism is built into our country’s highways, it wasn’t hyperbole as it is these very communities that have been suffering from the negative impacts of environmental racism for more than half a century.
But it doesn’t have to stay this way and New York City’s greenest borough can become even greener.
Slowly across the country, more and more cities are creating new green spaces as well as acres of land for more housing.
And this is exactly what we need to do in The Bronx and heal the wounds created by Robert Moses when he cut our beloved borough in half with the Cross Bronx Expressway.
By beginning to cap the Cross Bronx, we can begin to help literally clean up the air in these very vulnerable communities with the added benefit of creating new land that can be used for a combination of open green spaces and to create critically needed housing in our borough, and housing that is truly affordable.
Not only would we help restitch The Bronx and its communities that were destroyed by Moses but we would also help alleviate our current housing crisis and abysmal health rankings.
Less toxic fumes from an expressway = cleaner air and less asthma triggers.
And this isn’t getting rid of the expressway, it’s simply covering it up and letting our borough carry on with a greener, cleaner future for all.
Imagine a day in the future when you can walk across a park instead of a highway spewing deadly pollutants.
It’s possible. We just need the political will and muscle to make it happen.
For the past few years momentum has been building from Bronx residents across the borough fighting for environmental justice like Nilka Martell of Loving The Bronx from the Parkchester area of the borough and one of the many neighborhoods greatly impacted by the daily intrusion of the expressway.
Martell has been working with local elected officials on capping a small portion of the expressway in her neighborhood but now with President Biden’s infrastructure plan, many of us are daring to dream big.
According to a study led by Peter Muennig, MD, MPH at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in 2018, 2.4 miles of the expressway were identified as areas that could be capped over and thus creating more greenspace.
“Deck parks can produce multiple health benefits. Most notably, they remove contact between pedestrians and automobiles. In doing so, they not only reduce accidents but they also encourage active, pollution-free transportation such as biking or jogging.” reports the 2018 study.
It goes on to indicate that, “…deck parks also place vehicles in a tunnel, thereby reducing noise and air pollution in surrounding neighborhoods. Finally, deck parks provide green space in which people can exercise and relax. In doing so, deck parks have the potential to reduce diabetes, heart disease, mental illness, cancer, low birth weight, and death associated with accidents.”
And all it would cost, according to the study, would be approximately $757 million. While it may sound a lot, the potential health benefits outweigh any upfront costs in the long term. Healthier people are less of a financial burden on our precarious health care system.
In a borough where we have the highest rates of diabetes, asthma, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, we have a mandate to do right by our communities and those who not only live in them today but the generations that will continue to call The Bronx home long after we’re all gone.
We deserve to live and breathe.
But the moment to do so is now, while there is political will to spend our hard earned tax dollars on one of the largest infrastructure proposals in our nation’s recent history.
A version of this article was originally published in StreetsblogNYC on Friday, April 23, 2021.