Point of No Return

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Almost every day in summer, 14-year-old Michael Gonzalez and his friends come to fish on a small stretch of reedy waterfront in Hunts Point. The few hundred yards of beach and ruined piers are an unexpected quiet patch of sunshine, green sea grass and river breezes, hidden behind ranks of industrial buildings and a sewage treatment plant in this industry-clogged Bronx neighborhood. “We usually come together, like five or six of us, just to sit down, make jokes,” Gonzalez says. “All the fish are coming in now because it’s summer.” The boys eat or give away to friends the crabs and sea bass they catch on sunny afternoons.

On July 20, Gonzalez was fishing for a larger purpose, as part of a protest organized by The Point Community Development Corporation against a proposal to build a new waste transfer station on the exact site where the teens spend their summer days. While Gonzalez cast his line to demonstrate that the water is teeming with life, little girls danced as the Hunts Point Fishettes. As a refrigerator box festooned with trash and a sign reading “Garbage Barge” cruised by, the Fishettes cried “Don’t dump on us!” and fell down in make-believe death. “Hunts Point, not Dumps Point!” agreed a sign in the crowd.

With its planned garbage-processing plant, the New Jersey-based company American Marine Rail is hoping to win a deal to help handle the city’s garbage after the Fresh Kills landfill closes in 2002. The facility would accept up to 5,000 tons a day of household trash and then send it to out-of-town dumps. While AMR plans to move garbage by barge and rail only, minimizing the inland impact of the plant, a Department of Sanitation environmental report contends that trucks will also be necessary to transport the large volume of garbage the plant intends to process.

Hunts Point already gets dumped on disproportionately. Although the area has almost four miles of waterfront on the East and Bronx rivers, residents say that the sunny patch of waterfront they staked out with The Point CDC is the only bit of river left accessible to the public in a neighborhood that has virtually no open spaces. The waterfront is eaten up by a freight yard where trains arrive bearing industrial chemicals and garbage, a huge sewage pelletization plant, various industrial operations, garbage transfer stations and the enormous Hunts Point food wholesale market.

Several demonstrators expressed outrage at the prospect of being cut off entirely from their waterfront while the city pours support into the Hudson River Park planned for Manhattan. “The river in Manhattan is great,” says Marlyn Matias, the Fishettes’ grown-up dance coach. “Why can’t it be great for us too?”