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High Bridge, High Line and High Brow: Green Justice from New York to Los Angeles

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Image from the High Bridge video.

This summer New York City will begin a $62 million restoration of the 1,200-foot-long pedestrian and bicycle High Bridge (two words) between Highbridge (one word) in the Bronx and Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. The city will be repairing not just a bridge, completed in 1848, that has been closed for 40 years, but a vital link between people on two sides of the Hudson River, according to the New York Times. On the Bronx side, the bridge will anchor five acres of new parkland in a particularly destitute part of the city's poorest borough, where residents face varied health problems, including obesity and lack of exercise.

The revival of the High Bridge -- the oldest bridge left in New York City -- is the culmination of an 11-year campaign by dozens of community groups, elected officials, park workers and historians from across the city. Community organizers posted a short video on YouTube, and co-founded a youth program, Highbridge Historians, to educate the community about the significance of the bridge. KCET has produced a video report, "Park Poor," on underserved communities that are squeezed out of green space. New media organizing like this is a best practice to build support for green justice in other cities.

Mayor Bloomberg approved the High Bridge restoration in 2007. The Bridge's complex structure and its designation as a city and national landmark required review by 10 city, state and federal agencies. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is working with the High Bridge Coalition to restablish the Bridge as a popular destination, improve the parks that serve as gateways to the Bridge, increase waterfront access to the Harlem River, and tell the story of the historic and cultural significance of the Bridge. Bridges can build community.

Once heavily Irish, the Highbridge neighborhood is now mostly black and Hispanic. Today, 35% of Highbridge residents live below the poverty line, compared with 28% of all Bronx residents, and 19% of all New York City residents, according to an analysis by Queens College. The median household income is $26,140, compared with $34,264 over all in the Bronx, and $50,285 in New York City.

Unlike the High Line in Manhattan, the restoration of the High Bridge has not attracted wealthy private donors and organizers; instead it had to rely entirely on public funding in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression: $50 million from the city, plus $12 million in federal transportation grants. In contrast, New York City has invested about $153 million in the first two sections of the High Line park in trendy Chelsea, generating an estimated $2 billion in new developments. The contrast between the High Bridge and the High Line illustrates the need for green justice for all, including park poor, income poor communities and communities of color, not only in New York City and Los Angeles but across the nation.

High Line Park in Manhattan | Photo by Nic Garcia/The City Project. See The City Project for more

Ironically, Amanda Burden, director of the New York City Planning Department and chair of the city Planning Commission, recently told the New York Times, "I like to say that our ambitions are as broad and far-reaching as those of Robert Moses, but we judge ourselves by Jane Jacobs's standards." She added, "Creating fine-grained open spaces in combination with remaking the city's land-use blueprint is what I'm most proud of."

Critics say that Ms. Burden's work will lead to a gentrified city that no longer has a place for working-class New Yorkers. "The High Line didn't create any new affordable housing, only condominiums for the rich, and the park itself has no open spaces for kids, but is more something for tourists to walk through," according to Miguel Acevedo, president of the tenants' association at the Robert Fulton Houses, an affordable-housing development in the neighborhood. Ms. Burden responded: "Improvement of neighborhoods -- some people call it gentrification -- provides more jobs, provides housing, much of it affordable, and private investment, which is tax revenue for the city."

Interesting that Ms. Burden invokes Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Jane Jacobs's approach in her classic "Life and Death of Great American Cities" was more diversity is better. Who can disagree with that -- although many do.

Robert Moses is more of a challenge. Moses transformed the New York park, public housing, and transportation systems, and created tens of thousands of good jobs to help the city and nation get back to work during the Great Depression, as thoroughly documented in Robert Caro's epic biography of both New York City and Moses, "The Power Broker." Moses was a mastermind in attracting New Deal dollars and other federal funds in New York during the 1930s for those public works projects -- but people of color and the poor were disproportionately excluded from public benefits including park access, housing and jobs. Thus, for example, Moses built 255 neighborhood playgrounds in New York City. Moses built most of the playgrounds in the neighborhoods that needed playgrounds least. Moses built few in neighborhoods that needed parks most. He built the fewest playgrounds in the parts of the city inhabited by 400,000 African Americans. "Robert Moses built 255 playgrounds in New York City during the 1930s. He built one playground in Harlem," according to Caro.

Moses built one pool in Harlem, in Colonial Park at 146th Street. He was determined that this would be the only pool that African Americans and Puerto Ricans, whom he also considered "colored people," would use. He employed only non-Hispanic white lifeguards and attendants at the Thomas Jefferson Pool in disproportionately white, Italian immigrant East Harlem. African Americans and Puerto Ricans would walk three miles to Colonial Park rather than use Thomas Jefferson Park three blocks away.

To restrict use of state parks by people of color and by poor and lower middle class families, Moses restricted public transit. He built bridges across his new parkways too low for buses to pass. Bus trips therefore had to be made by slow local roads, which discouraged people from making the trips. Buses needed permits to enter state parks; buses charted by African Americans found it difficult to obtain permits, particularly to Moses's beloved Jones Beach. Moses further limited park use by the poor by imposing parking fees at all state parks, despite the national tradition of free parks.

Caro concludes his monumental book from the perspective of Moses and the few supporters he had left towards the end of his life: "Couldn't people see what he had done? Why weren't they grateful?" (See, for example, Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York 318-19, 509-12, 513-14, 1162 (1974).)

Image from the High Bridge video
Image from the High Bridge video

Discriminatory actions in urban planning against people of color and low income people were not the result Moses's subjective motivations alone, and did not happen only in New York City, as revisionist scholars emphasize. History is relevant to understand how things came to be the way they are, and how they could be better. Patterns of disparities in access to parks, pools, transportation, housing and jobs are not an accident of unplanned growth, or an efficient free market, or personal animus, but the result of a history and continuing legacy of discriminatory laws, policies and practices. New Deal legislation and programs from social security to mortgage subsidies were discriminatory in both intent and effect, as a result of deals between southern segregationist senators and northern liberals. (See, for example, Martha Biondi, "Robert Moses, Race, and the Limits of an Activist State," chapter in Hilary Ballon & Kenneth T. Jackson, eds., Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York 116-21 (2007).)

Los Angeles, for example, pioneered the use of racially restrictive housing covenants that prohibited people of color from buying or occupying housing in non Hispanic white communities. The California courts upheld the practice until 1948 and 1951, when the United States Supreme Court held such covenants are unconstitutional and unenforceable.

Parks in Los Angeles were commonly segregated except for Lincoln Park in east L.A., where Latinos and African Americans could congregate together. Beaches in Southern California were generally segregated. One exception was Bruce's Beach, which was set aside for African Americans until the city of Manhattan Beach and the KKK drove them out in the 1930s. Pools like the Plunge in Pasadena were segregated except on "International Day," when people of color could use the pool. The book "Contested Waters" about the social history of the swimming pool offers "a good course in America. All its traits, fine and lamentable are found here -- the most vivid being, alas, our stinking racism," as Dick Cavett has written.

Today in Los Angeles, this legacy lives on. Children of color living in poverty with no access to a car have the worst access to parks, and schools with five acres or more of playing fields, and suffer disproportionately from obesity and diabetes and at risk behavior including gangs, crime drugs and violence. Similar patterns hold true for nine counties of Southern California studied to date.

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Bruce's Beach Celebration. See The City Project for more

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its regulations help ensure green justice and guard against discriminatory intent and impacts in urban design. Andrew Cuomo as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, for example, withheld federal funding for a proposed warehouse project in downtown Los Angeles unless there was full environmental review that considered the park alternative and the impact on people of color. That led to what is now the Los Angeles State Historic Park. Ensuring green justice in this way is a best practice example that Los Angeles can offer to other cities.

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