Final Report-ML

The Prolonged Suffocation of the Bronx: A look at the absence of any bright and clear future for clean air for the residents of Mott Haven

By Michael Lukijaniuk


            Running around and chasing after your neighborhood friends in some made up game, that is the childhood many people remember. Looking at each other to kick a ball over or play yet another game of hide and seek. And then one of them collapses. The day goes from the sounds of children yelling, to the sound of an ambulance speeding in. All the adults around looking on in a shared feeling of pain. This is nothing new to them, but it never gets easier.

  In the southern portion of the Bronx lies a section of Residential Area named Mott Haven. Primarily made up of Latin and African Americans, it is home for one of the largest populations of minorities within New York city[1]. It is also home to a sinister nickname, “Asthma Alley”, which stems from the community’s higher exposures to air pollutants as a result of its larger volumes of commuting traffic. This barrage of vehicle exhaust comes from the Bronx being a central hub for commerce consisting of a wide network of roads and highways that link parts of New York to the mainland of the US[1].With its centralized location, traffic cannot be avoided through this section. Its resulting air pollution is inhaled on a regular basis by all who live within Mott Haven. More particularly, its residents see this impacting their children the most. The younger generation showed “asthma hospitalization rates several times higher in the South Bronx than in other NYC areas”[2]. Children were showing increased rates of cardiovascular struggles and an overall decrease in lung functionality thus putting an immense burden on younger bodies which can be far more detrimental to their growth. This issue had long been made aware to the public, yet in 2018 the newest addition of FreshDirect’s facility brought in a larger wave of truck transport. Under the guise of community benefits, the facility was pushed through and opened. Much of the community shared disdain for this decision, declaring it an additional burden on their already taxed air quality.  A local group named South Bronx Unite came out publicly against the plans prior to the companies construction saying that the business would not only increase health issues and lack any definite job addition, but it was ignoring the publics democratic right to have a say on a matter that was being justified using outdated safety standards[3]. All of these past events are well documented, supported by vast amounts of research to prove the underlying causes. Yet even with all the resources at hand, nothing has been done nor has anyone been held accountable for these transgressions. Capitalizing on what is already present, this paper will take it a step farther and create a concise roadmap showing that ultimately, nothing has been done to better the lives of the South Bronx residents and politicians have simply continued the cycle of exploiting the environmental injustices most heavily present in Mott Haven.

            The aim of this paper will be to break down the entirety of the matter to better explain how the situation came to be and where it has progressed. Ultimately, the goal will conclude with the clear lack of political initiative to get involved with a known issue where there are options.  The first portion of the paper will detail the layout of the city and its environment that the residents of the Bronx live in. It will then move into a detailed account of the health issues of the children of Mott Haven with various studies done to prove the impact the local air has. Following, the opening of Fresh Direct and the community response need to be broken down to provide the reader a detailed account of the major event showing residents that their voices were not being heard. And finally, this paper will conclude with Politician responses to the matters at hand and the common theme of denial in addressing Mott Havens plight.  

Mott Haven

            Mott Haven is located at the southern portion of the Bronx, surrounded by some of the largest freeways New York has to offer to its commuters and deliveries. Directly to the east you can see the Sheridan Expressway. Looking out towards the west leading towards the main continent is the Major Deegan Expressway. To top both of those off, directly to the north can be found the cross Bronx Expressway which creates a full encirclement. The residents cannot escape the 24/7 cloud of exhaust that clogs the air. Most of the traffic that comes in and out of the south Bronx is primarily shipments of various products that originate from the shipping district which lies scattered around the coastal section in the southern tip. This all stems from the easy access to multiple highways that travel in all directions of the city. Along with the high volume of traffic, Mott Haven is subject to additional factors for pollution such as two waste transfer stations one of which receives and processes all the total waste from the entire Bronx. In conclusion, the southern portion of the Bronx is the central hub for any business looking for the best access to its customers. However, nothing comes completely free in the commercial world. Having this much vehicle exhaust puts a never-ending strain on the air quality in Mott Haven which is stuck in the center of it all. The direct result, a rapidly declining population of healthy children and young adults who must shoulder the price.

            Among various young children, asthma can be found as a common occurrence. Most grow out of it as they grow older and their lungs develop. For the younger generation of Mott Haven, this is not an easy solution. With their air constantly being polluted, they experience asthma at a rate several times higher than other parts of New York. This form of cardiovascular stress comes in the forms of wheezing, breathlessness, tightness in the chest and aggressive coughing[4]. Other forms of sickness such as hyper-tension, diabetes and even obesity were found to be exacerbated by air pollution. If a condition worsens past a certain point, hospitalization can occur. To better understand the level of impact the air pollution was having on the children of Mott Haven, a wide range of scientific studies were conducted using varied air sample collectors, either situated in a single spot or carried by children. Each one of these studies concluded that residents were exposed to higher-than-average air pollution[5]. Most pointed out that the annual fine particulate matter presented showed quantities greater in Mott Haven than averages for the Bronx Borough and the entirety of NYC. These detriments would be enough to hold back any student wanting to do anything as simple as running. This sort of handicap was far from being resolved anytime soon and families were left with this overhanging issue.

Fresh Direct

            Unfortunately, knowing about an issue and acting on an issue are two vastly different things. Even more so when the actions taken steer away from the correct response. This was seen clearly with the struggle against the newest addition to the Southern Bronx, FreshDirect. The company advertises itself as a popular source of fresh produce delivered to your door. And in 2012, the company announced its intentions of building a warehouse in the southern Bronx. It had been leaning back and forth between New Jersey and New York, where the only factor differentiating the site would be which side of the water would the building be on. Politicians in the Bronx and jumped at the opportunity, throwing numerous incentives towards the company to solidify its location choice. However, when the community caught wind of these plans, they began to immediately object. Many saw this addition as nothing more than an even larger strain on the already heavily polluted air in the Bronx. Knowing that the company specialized in deliveries, it would only bring in a new wave of trucks commuting to and from the Bronx. Two sides quickly formed and argued the benefits and downsides of the addition. On one hand, the construction of Fresh Directs warehouse would create far more jobs within the area. The company promised food for welfare and food stamp recipients, and that the site would be very much “green” in the eyes of the residents. A local civil rights groups by the name of South Bronx Unite, made up of residents living in the Bronx, came out against Fresh Direct stating that the damage it would cause far outweighed the incentives being offered[7]. Their largest concern was that there was no proof that environmentally safe standards would be implemented and that the residents would yet again be shouldered with a larger increase in air pollution. Any green vehicles that the company could report were lost in Hurricane Sandy and these would simply be replaced by diesel trucks. The job incentive was perceived as a false promise. At no points was it stated that the company was required to hire people from the South Bronx, and that outside citizens could apply. For those that did find a job with the company, very little pay was offered to compensate for the work done. South Bronx United argued that Fresh Directs history of “discriminatory and unfair labor practices” as well as lobbying against City living wage legislation was more than enough to show a high probability of continued low standards of job options if passed. Lastly, the final decision about approving the construction of the site was announced two days prior to the publics hearing on the matter. This was perceived as the governments refusal to hear the peoples voices on the matter. Showing little regard for the opinions of people that would be directly affected by this decision demonstrated a clear lack of being upfront on the matter, and a sense of urgency to push the plans through as quick as possible.

The Community Fights Back

Even with the plans being approved, the community came out in droves to protest. Many knew that their air was already heavily polluted and were ready to fight another increase at any cost. South Bronx Unite gathered testimonies of residents and rallied people to attend any event possible to make their voices heard. Unfortunately, by 2014 the project broke ground, and by 2018 completed its construction. These transgressions would not had come to pass had it not been for the leaders in power that allowed for this to happen. Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. had spearheaded this project with Governor Cuomo to approve construction far ahead of any community involvement. The argument was that this addition would do nothing but serve as a valuable contribution to bettering the lives of the residents. Yet studies done after the completion of the project have all projected otherwise. Community leaders such as Arthur Mychal Johnson came out in hearings stating that rather than bettering lives, they have simply provided public subsidies to companies such as FreshDirect looking to expand and profit[8]. While other parts of NYC were showing decreases in air pollution levels, the South Bronx was showing an incline in the pollutants which aligned with the arguments that residents made. The entire ordeal showed that if big businesses could guarantee profit, it could come at any cost including the health of residents.

             With the coronavirus pandemic spreading, worry for those that have compromised immune systems and other health difficulties rose. For the residents of Mott Haven, it simply added to the reality of having been subjugated to unfair conditions being forced on them. Having pushed with the publics voice against politicians shoving through deals, a grim precedent was set showing that it would never be enough. South Bronx United continues to spread awareness on the matter, as well as other projects that have been planned for Mott Haven and its neighbors, with the hope that eventually a victory would sound for its residents.

Keywords: Emissions, Air, Diesel

[1]Rodriguez, Astrid. Rep. Demographic, Economic, and Social Transformations in the South Bronx: Changes in the NYC Community Districts Comprising Mott Haven, Port Morris, Melrose, Longwood, and Hunts Point. New York, NY: Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies, 2007.

[2]-Cohen, Ariel, Lung Chi Chen, Michaela Kendall, Ramona Lall, and George D. Thurston. “Personal Exposures to Traffic-Related Air Pollution and Acute Respiratory Health among Bronx Schoolchildren with Asthma.” Environmental Health Perspectives 119, no. 4 (2011): 559–65.

[3]Sooyoung , Kim, Zafar Zafari, Martine Bellange Bellanger, and Peter Alexander Muennig. “AJPH Global News.” American Journal of Public Health 108, no. 10 (2017): 379–84.

[4]Spira-Cohen, Ariel, Lung Chi Chen, Michaela Kendall, Ramona Lall, and George D. Thurston. “Personal Exposures to Traffic-Related Air Pollution and Acute Respiratory Health among Bronx Schoolchildren with Asthma.” Environmental Health Perspectives 119, no. 4 (2011): 559–65.

[5]“Asthma.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, December 7, 2020.

[6]Maantay, Juliana. “Asthma and Air Pollution in the Bronx: Methodological and Data Considerations in Using GIS for Environmental Justice and Health Research.” Health & Place 13, no. 1 (2007): 32–56.

[7]Southbronxunite. “Why We Fight FreshDirect.” South Bronx Unite™, May 30, 2013.

[8]Southbronxunite. “Mychal’s NYMTC Testimony.” South Bronx Unite™, May 6, 2015.