Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Parks & Re-Creation: A Group of Young People in the Bronx Finds That by Beautifying an Old Eyesore, They've Unleashed a Desire to Serve Their Community

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Parks & Re-Creation: A Group of Young People in the Bronx Finds That by Beautifying an Old Eyesore, They've Unleashed a Desire to Serve Their Community

Article excerpt

David Shuffler walks through the park that he helped build in the South Bronx on his way to work.

Grass and young trees line his path through Concrete Plant Park, named after the factory that was once on the site. Some of the old factory structures remain--but they've been transformed into public art.

On a sunny September afternoon, a young family sits in the grass, a boy casts a fishing line into the Bronx River below the promenade, and a few teens lounge in a reading circle, as Shuffler tours the park with part of his team from Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ). Two of the teen workers, Shanay Sneed and Andre Rivera, approach their peers in the reading circle to tell them about YMPJ, the force behind the park.

"My greatest joy is to see people using this park," says Shuffler, director of YMPJ. "That's a reward. The environment definitely transforms and connects people just because of its beauty and what it does for your soul, and I think we see it right here."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Concrete Plant Park is the result of 10 years of learning, planning, and organizing by Shuffler and Bronx-area youth. YMPJ and many other organizations around the country are turning their attention to environmental justice, the concern that environmental issues--air and water pollution, lack of access to food or nature--disproportionately harm minority and low-income communities.

"The urban setting is just another place for us to explore environmental possibility and activities," Shuffler says. "In communities of color, these things weren't a tradition, weren't a norm, [but now] we have seen these projects bubbling up all over the place."

This work lines up with the Catholic approach to environmental concerns, which gives priority to the poor. "We're using faith as the rationale of why we're doing our work," Shuffler says.

Planting the seeds

Shuffler was a founding member of YMPJ, which was started in the basement of his parish, St. Joan of Arc Church, in 1994. "My mom actually forced me to go to the program. I didn't want to go to no silly summer camp," he laughs, recalling that he thought he was a "grown man" at age 14.

Shuffler would work there after school and throughout college. He returned to the organization as executive director in 2010, after six years at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development on Wall Street, where at age 24 he was responsible for distributing $2 million a year in grants.

Like YMPJ's founder, Alexie Torres-Fleming, he returned home to a neighborhood in decay. The South Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the country, the New York Daily News reported last fall. Thirty-eight percent of its residents--and 49 percent of its children--live in poverty.

YMPJ conducted a needs assessment survey in 1997, determining park space to be one of residents' top concerns, along with education, employment, and policing.

In cities such as New York, there is often a disparity in park space per capita based on a neighborhood's income level, says Andy Stone, director of the New York City Program for the Trust for Public Land. "There's a lot of focus on environmental hazards in low-income neighborhoods, but the other [side] is the lack of access to nature and other environmental amenities," Stone says.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Advocates are working to foster stronger connections between both the city and nature, and kids and nature. "Put it together with common sense, and inner-city kids are very disconnected [from] nature," Stone says. Outdoor activity, meanwhile, helps children's mental and physical development.

"There are not a lot of street trees, not a lot of backyards, not a lot of greenery in general, so something like the Bronx River is a pretty unique resource," Stone says of VMPJ's neighborhood.

Still, Concrete Plant Park is the only access point to the river. …

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