Vol. 13, No. 9 May 4 - 17, 2000


THE STATE OF OUR PARKS -- Third in a Series

Norwood's Waterfront?

Restoration Work Aims to Lure Residents to Bronx River


he Bronx River may be out of sight for area residents, but it lies just a short jaunt away, just beyond Webster Avenue and behind French Charley Playground at 204th Street and the Allerton Ballfields.

To bring the community closer to the underappreciated water body, several Bronx organizations and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation have stepped up efforts to revive the Norwood section of the river as a recreational destination in recent years.

In its prime in the mid 1800s, the Norwood stretch of river, between Gun Hill Road and Allerton Avenue, served as a spectacular waterfront dining area with cafes and restaurants on its banks.

But by 1900 the river was a virtual open sewer, littered with abandoned cars,   refrigerators and even washing machines, according to Nancy Wallace, executive director of the Bronx River Restoration Project, Inc. (BRR), a nonprofit that began turning the tide in 1974.

At that time the trails along the river, obscured with mountains of silt, were not identifiable and garbage littered its banks and clogged some of its passageways.

Seeking to restore the river's beauty and access, environmentalists and community groups organized intensive clean-up and erosion control efforts. BRR, literally a trail-blazer in river activity, has, with the help of volunteers, removed tons of garbage from the area since its founding and now conducts an environmental education program at the river.

But the river's extensive problems required even greater attention. In 1997, revival efforts picked up momentum when the Parks Department organized the Bronx River Working Group, with about 50 community groups and public and private institutions participating. The coalition has sponsored clean-ups of the water and surrounding forests all along the river and is guiding efforts to restore its ecosystem.

The restoration work in Norwood takes on a character all its own, park officials say. "That section of the river is very different and very special," said Michele Bakacs, Bronx River Outreach Coordinator for Partnerships for Parks, an arm of the Parks Department. "It's really the most natural area of the river. You feel you're in a rural area. It's all lined by forest."

The diversity of plant and animal life makes the forest an ideal laboratory for teaching students about ecology. The Gaia Institute, a Bronx-based nonprofit scientific organization, is now conducting a forest study in the area with high school and college students, inventorying trees and other plant life.

Norwood resident Janice Flood has been a pioneer in restoring the east bank of the river in this section. For a year, Flood has led the teenagers she supervises in an after-school program sponsored by the Neighborhood Initiative Development Corporation (NIDC), in planting and clean-up efforts, removing a destructive and rampant non-native plant, called Japanese knotweed, and replacing it with native plants. The area came to Flood's attention after she attended the Bronx RiverFest in Shoelace Park, above Gun Hill Road on the east side of the river, last June. She thought to herself, "Why isn't somebody working between Gun Hill and Allerton?"

This summer, the Bronx River Conservation Corps, which employs up to 100 teens will add to Flood's efforts by doing similar work on the east and west banks of the river.

To reinforce and build on these efforts, the Natural Resources Group (NRG), also a part of the Parks Department, secured $850,000 dollars in New York State Environmental Bond money to restore streambanks, flood plains and forest on the west side of the river in the area closest to Norwood, between Kazimiroff Boulevard and what is known as the Burke Avenue Bridge. NRG now needs to obtain matching funds, and is working to get support from Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and members of the City Council, including June Eisland, according to Marc Matsil, who directs the NRG. Matsil said the group is aiming to have funding in place by fiscal year 2001.

In January, Congressman Eliot Engel allotted $250,000 in federal transportation funds for the enhancement of bike and pedestrian trails in Bronx Park, extending from north of the New York Botanical Garden up to the borough's northern border. Soon after, the City Council matched Engel's contribution.

These grants are complemented by a variety of public and private allotments that support the entire Greenway Trail, which extends from the Kensico Dam in upper Westchester all the way to Soundview in the south Bronx.

Volunteers and Working Group participants give a great deal of credit to Parks Commissioner Henry Stern and his Bronx deputy Bill Castro for focusing on the long-neglected Bronx River. Back in 1997, Stern created a Bronx River Action Plan to improve access and for development and restoration, and he declared 1999 "the year of the Bronx River."

Despite the flurry of activity, area residents are wary of frequenting the river's Norwood section, primarily because of safety concerns.

"They need to make it safer," said Norwood resident Joan Chaparro, who uses the river pathway as a shortcut from Webster Avenue to the Bronx River Parkway. "I don't like to come here because it's deserted."

Children, too, say they are wary of traveling through the park. "There's a lot of drugs and homeless people," said Danny Nieves, a young Norwood resident. "There's always people smoking." The park is also known to community residents as an area for prostitution.

Turning this around presents a big challenge for river activists. "It's one of the most accessible areas of the river," Bakacs said. "We're trying to change the reputation of the area by bringing in community groups."

Wallace thinks organized events are key to reviving the river's image. "What will make it the safest is to have a lot of people, to hold concerts, events, nature walks, bike rides," Wallace said. "Most people don't know what's there."

"With a lot of activities, people will feel safe," she added. "Once people come to see what's there, they will come back."

Park Near River Gets Mixed Reviews


While work goes on to preserve and beautify the Norwood section of the Bronx River, some community members hope the park that leads to the river will be improved as well. Located at East 204th Street, off Webster Avenue, the park is home to five ballfields, a cricket field and French Charley Playground.

Some Norwood residents would like to see more recreational diversity in the park. On a recent afternoon, a group of boys chatted about their local green space. Danny Nieves complained that the park lacked a basketball court. "Every day we put a crate on the gate [to use as a basketball hoop]," he said.

The elementary-school-age kids also complained that the sprinklers weren't turned on last year. "We had to turn them on ourselves," Jeffrey LaPresta said.

LaPresta said he would like to see a dog run, "like they have in Oval Park." In fact, the kids admitted they were a little envious of Oval Park, at the other end of Norwood, which has basketball, tennis, handball and soccer facilities.

But Nicholas Farro, principal park supervisor for districts 11 and 12 (Norwood is in district 7 but this park not does not come under its jurisdiction), said the baseball fields have multiple purposes. He explained that the fields are used for soccer, football and rugby. "We put up four goal posts every fall [for soccer]," he said. Farro added that the five fields are heavily used during the spring, summer and fall.

The Parks Department has also cleared the playground to make way for new equipment, new asphalt and a new sprinkler system. Councilwoman June Eisland allotted $150,000 for the project and the Parks Department will cover the remaining $85,000 of the cost, according to Paul Sylvestro, the department's chief of operations in the Bronx. The project is scheduled for completion at the end of June.

Safety is also a big issue in the park [see river story], as residents complain that lighting is minimal. Currently, there are no plans for additional lighting in the park.

Get Involved

** Bronx River Restoration Project, Inc. trains volunteers to monitor water quality and accepts volunteers for general projects.  BRR also recruits teens for the Bronx River Conservation Corps.  Call 933-4079.
** To find out about other events and for information about the Bronx River Working Group, call Michele Bakacs, Bronx River Outreach Coordinator at 430-1846.

Save the Dates
** On May 13, Bronx River Keeper Day, volunteers will plant and clean up from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.  Meet at the park house at 219th Street and Bronx Boulevard.  Call 933-4079.
** On May 20, there will be a cleanup from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Oval Park. Call MWSCC at 655-1054 for details.
** On May 21, River Ecosystem Expedition, an educational canoe tour of the river in the North Bronx, at 1 p.m., sponsored by the Urban Park Rangers.  Call 430-1832 on May 8 between 10 and 11 a.m. to register.  Space is limited.
** Bronx RiverFest at Shoelace Park, 219th Street and Bronx Boulevard.  Clean-up along waterway.  Also, nature walks, model boat decorating, arts and crafts and games, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m..  Bedford Park resident Katie Bukofzer, who is active in the Appalachain Mountain Club, will lead a crew to clear trails along the river in the Norwood vicinity.  For more information, call her at 733-2123.

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