When Nilka Martell, a local Bronx resident and founder of Loving The Bronx, first mentioned to people that the Cross Bronx Expressway should be capped to create more parkland and re-stitch the communities it severed so long ago, people said she was crazy for thinking it could ever happen.
She, like thousands of Bronxites who live near the expressway have witnessed first hand the deadly consequences that the intense pollution from one of America’s busiest highways brings with it.
Residents of The Bronx suffer from some of the highest rates of asthma in the nation and some of the highest hospitalization rates in the city and many such residents live in close proximity to the Cross Bronx.
Add to that, when the highway was constructed, it ripped apart and separated communities across the borough leaving a scar that would never quite heal leaving The Bronx susceptible to greater issues.
Despite the fact that capping the expressway and create parkland over it to help remedy these issues, people still thought Nilka was crazy.
But not everyone thought so.
New York State Assemblywoman Karina Reyes, who represents the area, was the first elected official Martell discussed her vision with and Reyes immediately threw her support behind the idea.
Even with support from local elected officials and community leaders and despite a study conducted by Peter Muennig, MD, MPH at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in 2018 that identified 2.4 miles of the expressway that could be capped over and thus creating more greenspace, the idea still remained a pipe dream for many.
However, now with the passage of the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill, there is hope that what seemed impossible will indeed become possible.
To that end, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer came to the Bronx and was joined with Congressman Ritchie Torres to announce that they have been in conversations with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to provide funding for the first phase of capping parts of the expressway which would be a study to determine feasibility.
The Cross Bronx Expressway, built by Robert Moses, is both literally and metaphorically a structure of racism, with diesel truck traffic polluting the air black and brown kids breathe everyday. @SecretaryPete: Cap the Cross Bronx! https://t.co/etb4r3qyqj— Ritchie Torres (@RitchieTorres) November 8, 2021
In the infrastructure bill there is a fund called the “Reconnecting Communities” fund which according to the White House will be the, “…first-ever program to reconnect communities divided by transportation infrastructure. The program will fund planning, design, demolition, and reconstruction of street grids, parks, or other infrastructure through $1 billion of dedicated funding.”
Up to $2 million from the grant will be awarded which is where the feasibility study comes in to determine what can be one in the 2.4 mile stretches of the Cross Bronx that have been identified where a platform can be constructed across the highway and creating open spaces and re-stitching the communities it tore apart.
When the initial study by Columbia University came out several years ago, the estimated price tag of the project was $757 million dollars and according to Congressman Torres could be as high as $1 billion.
There is hope that the project can be funded by the federal government or in combination with state and local funds.
For The Bronx and its residents, this is a moment on the verge of history if funding is indeed provided to push this project forward to rectify the damages that for far too long have impacted the borough.
The study by Columbia University stated in 2018 that creation of such deck parks over a highway would positively impact the lives of over 200,000 Bronx residents and adding up to 2 months to their life expectancy not to mention the improvements of the overall health of area residents which would far outweigh the cost of implementing such a plan in the long run.
Our community deserve to breathe clean air, this isn’t a luxury but a right. It is no surprise why The Bronx became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic as the virus greatly impacts those with upper respiratory conditions such as asthma thus proving what the initial study found.
Still, with all the recent headlines this year surrounding the capping of the Cross Bronx, many residents have voiced their skepticism across social media platforms that the project will get done.
But at the towards the end of the press conference, Nilka Martell had words for the skeptics who told her no and that it was a crazy idea.
She ended her speech by quoting Margaret Mead who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.