Birthdays are a time to reflect on the past–to chart how far you’ve come. So it was no surprise when community activists who gathered for the 10th birthday celebration of the Bronx River Alliance described what the Bronx River looked like the first time they saw it.

As a girl growing up in the Bronx, recalled Sonia Marzano—Sesame Street’s Maria–she got a glimpse once of a muddy stream behind some garages, so fleeting that it was years before she realized it must have been the river that runs for eight miles through the center of the borough.

Majora Carter—the founder of Sustainable South Bronx—was an adult before she first stumbled upon the river, even though it was just seven blocks from the Manida Street home where she’d spent her childhood.

Factories, warehouses and garbage dumps concealed the river then and poured oil, solvents and garbage into it. Westchester cities and villages used the river as a sewer.

When Bronx River Restoration, the grassroots organization that evolved into the Alliance, began cleanup efforts in 1974, its volunteers pulled enough shopping carts out of the water to equip a supermarket, and enough washing machines and refrigerators to stock a Best Buy.

In its 10 years of work, the Alliance has removed 21 cars and 15,000 tires from the river, Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, the chair of the Alliance’s board, told the crowd assembled at the New York Botanical Garden on Sept. 27 to celebrate the anniversary.

In addition, she boasted, the Alliance has planted 85,000 trees and shrubs, used the river as a science lab to teach 6,500 students, helped to create two new parks—Concrete Plant and Hunts Point Riverside—for a Hunts Point starved for open space, and brought thousands to the river for bike trips, hikes and canoe paddles.

The river, which was once so foul that most fish could not survive in it, is now teeming with life. Egrets and osprey hunt it. The famous Bronx beaver lodges in it.

The transformation of the river is a testament to the unshakeable optimism of New Yorkers. Who else would start trying to revive a dying river while their city was going broke and their neighborhoods were in flames?

Their success contradicts the too-widespread notion that government can do nothing good. Without the $120 million in federal funds—much of it obtained by Rep. Jose Serrano–for the Bronx River Greenway and the river’s restoration, the river might still be a polluted backwater.

The four visionaries who were honored as key founders of the Bronx River Alliance, Carter, Alexis Torres-Fleming, Jenny Hoffner and Dart Westphal, showed their pride in the organization’s accomplishments. As she speaks to audiences around the world, Carter said, she proclaims the Bronx River “the living manifestation of hope and possibility.”

The people who revived the Bronx River had the ability to “see our community not as it is, but as it can be,” said Torres-Fleming, the founder of Youth Ministries for Peace and justice.

Employing that vision, Linda Cox, the executive director of the Bronx River Alliance, looked ahead 10 years.

What she saw was a completed greenway, running from Hunts Point Riverside Park to Kensico Reservoir in Westchester, 23 miles away, inviting walkers and cyclists to the shore, where some would pause to buy a picnic from a riverside food cart. She saw still more abundant fish, bird and animal life.

She saw canoes and kayaks and, yes, swimmers in water finally clean enough to take a dip in.

And, she predicted, when she told people elsewhere that she came from the Bronx, they would say, “Isn’t that where they brought a river back to life?”

This editorial was published in The Hunts Point Express on September 28, 2011.

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