Making A Difference

"You want me to do what?"

The Bronx Community Solutions community service crew was about to embark on its toughest challenge yet: helping the Mount Hope Housing Corporation haul a dumpster's worth of garbage out of an heavily overgrown, formerly abandoned lot.

In a few weeks the Mount Hope Housing Corporation is breaking ground on a community center that will offer space for youth recreation, computer labs, classrooms, employment and financial literacy programs, gardens and community events. They asked us to prepare the site for the ground breaking ceremony.

While Mount Hope was excited to get our help, we were equally excited to have the opportunity to experiment with a different model of community service. For the first time in the Bronx, we were partnering with a local non-profit to assist in visible and tangible efforts to improve safety and neighborhood quality of life. It's one of our ideas for adapting strategies that have been successful at the Red Hook Community Justice Center to an entire borough.

But to our clients, this was a day of court-ordered community service. They weren't sure what to expect, and mostly they were just hoping to get their mandate done. A typical day of community service is light work: mostly sweeping and picking up litter in public parks, sidewalks, and streets. Today, we would be cleaning a formerly abandoned lot piled high with trash.

Gunnar Frederickson from the Mount Hope Housing Corporation was at the site to meet us, and he took a few minutes to describe the history and mission of the organization and plans for this site. They’ve been working in the neighborhood for over 20 years to develop and manage safe, decent affordable housing, as well as promoting economic development and providing human services.

After bagging a huge amount of trash and hauling it off the site, it was obvious to everyone that we had really accomplished something. Although they'd been skeptical at first, our clients were saying things like, "I'm going to come back a year from now and make sure they finish this project." "This is my neighborhood. I can't believe how much trash people dump here. It doesn't feel right."

Many of the clients who worked the hardest also sought information about job training and job placement programs like Urban Youth Alliance and FEGS and we made sure to escort them to our clinic after the day was over. We’ve learned that clients who show up and take their mandate seriously are often good candidates for these programs.

Rejuvenating neglected and abandoned public space in the Bronx has a special history. In the aftermath of wholesale disinvestment, the Bronx has been rebuilt lot-by-lot and block-by-block, often by small community-based organizations and groups of neighbors. Around us, we saw visible signs of that history. Right across the street was a vibrant community garden (see below picture).

Can the courts have a meaningful role in strengthening and enhancing efforts like these that improve safety and quality of life for neighborhoods and communities? We're interested to find out.


Anonymous said…
Great project and sounds like a great initiative!
Ben Smith said…
Here's an article from yesterday's New York Times that gives a nuanced view of the abandoned lots (like the one we've been working on in Mount Hope) that are a dominant feature in the Bronx. It also shows how much new construction is changing the Bronx.

Vacant Lot Was Their Paradise
Published: July 24, 2006

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Ben Smith said…
Here's a link to an article about the community garden across the street from our clean-up site in Mount Hope.

"Community Garden Thrives in Mount Hope"

This article was published in the West Bronx News Network a new online newspaper covering local news in Community Board 5 and surrounding areas in both English and Spanish. Here's a link to the front page:
Anonymous said…
Loving what I'm seeing in this blog. Really looking forward to becoming involved.

Concerned Bronx citizen - Yvette