Activists in New York City’s storied South Bronx are turning their attention to critical issues facing their neighborhood: environmental justice and gentrification. Last November, responding to a real estate developer’s attempt to rebrand Mott Haven “the Piano District,” South Bronx Unite members joined fellow Bronx residents for a rally at Borough President Ruben Diaz’s hearing on housing. They blasted Diaz for attending the real estate developer’s “Bronx is Burning” party, as well as for his backing of the FreshDirect relocation.
South Bronx Unite’s involvement in battles over environmental justice as well as over housing and gentrification points back to the deeper question of who controls public land, and to what end. To this twofold problem, the group has presented a novel solution: a community land trust. In 2015, the group joined with fellow community groups such as Friends of Brook Park to form the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Trust, as well as to release a statement of principles for private developers looking to build in the neighborhood. Johnson explains that the campaign against FreshDirect and the community land trust are “related because we’ve seen what’s going on with public land and it’s not really benefiting the public. . . . The leasing of that land [twenty-five] years ago to a private entity for ninety-nine years, the mass purchasing of land in our community by private developers to build with our public moneys and without zoning changes. That’s all related to the needs of our community and our efforts to control our own public land.”