NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his "One On 1" series with a profile of a woman who has proven that you can go home again, and have quite an effect on your neighborhood - Majora Carter.
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Majora Carter has always been smart: Bronx Science, then Wesleyan University, and a master’s from NYU. But a genius? Apparently so. Last year Carter received the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the so called "Genius Award."
Can Carter ever play the genius card? If her fiancŽ asks her to take out the trash, can she say, “Hey, genius here?”
“No. It's usually along the lines of I’ll get something really right and [I’ll be like], ÎWell, of course — who's the genius? Thank you very much,’” she jokes. “But I try not to use it.”
Majora Carter has received many awards, like a recent honor from the Municipal Art Society for her work as founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, a community organization designed to implement environmental programs in the area.
Carter believes the path to improving her Hunts Point neighborhood and the lives of the people living there starts with improving the environment.
"You come up here and you can literally see all the reasons why I do what I do," she says.
She calls it environmental justice - keeping an eye out for any company or potential city plan which she deems harmful to the health of Hunts Point. Along with that comes restoring parks bringing life to the neighborhood's Bronx River waterfront, which she initially didn't even know was there.
“[I used to say] you can't get to the river from here. I know. I lived here all my life, I think I know my neighborhood,” she says. “Fortunately, I thank my dog, who proved me absolutely wrong. She took me running that day at the end of this, what I thought was just a lot, [and] that was the river. And I was like, ÎOh my gosh.’”
She uses the expression “green the ghetto.” Carter has tried to change not only the landscape, but also a mentality.
“There was a general feeling among the population here that this is the South Bronx and of course everything bad happened here,” she says. “That was just the feeling that everybody had, and it was with good reason."
Carter wasn't always an environmental activist. She originally wanted to make her mark through the arts.
But in 1997 the city announced plans for a new waste treatment facility on the waterfront.
"We already at that time handled 40 percent of the entire city's commercial waste stream. And it was like, ÎWait a second guys, how much more can we take?’" she says.
So began Carter's fight to have the neighborhood's health and environmental concerns taken seriously.
A few years later, the Environmental Protection Agency invited her to come to a press conference with then EPA head Christie Todd Whitman to promote a project involving trucks at the Hunts Point Market, a project Carter liked.
Her initial response? Don't invite me to be a guest in my own neighborhood.
“I’m not going to be your little brown face at your press conference just so you guys can feel better about yourselves,” she says. “If you really want to come here, you need to come here and listen to what we want to tell you in our own community, and you come on our own terms, and you come to my office. She came to my office."
Now, everyone comes to Majora Carter. She receives invitations from around the country to speak about her belief that the poorer or darker you are, the more environmental, and thus economic and social burdens, you'll face in your neighborhood.
"We have the will to make things better for everybody, and that includes poor people and communities of color,” she says.
From the green roof of the building that houses her program Sustainable South Bronx, Majora Carter can look out and see much of the history of her neighborhood.
“People lived where the Bruckner [Expressway] was right now,” she says. “It was a small boulevard, actually. When you think about the highway system in general and the fact in the Bronx alone about 600,000 people were displaced, it just kind of makes me go, ÎWhat price
But Carter doesn't need a history lesson about the South Bronx - she grew up there.
“I was absolutely forbidden to go anywhere near that park because on the inside of it basically everybody was shooting up and prostitutes were hanging out and doing all their stuff," she says.
She loved to read and write stories, and she loved solitude. Understandable, because she was the youngest of 10 children. And she says her folks brought in other people's kids as well.
“We had a house, but there were so many friggin' people in it it wasn't even funny,” she says. “That's why I'm the misanthrope that I am."
But there was nothing funny about the fate of her big brother Lenny. In the early 70's he survived Vietnam, but not the neighborhood.
“He was killed when I was about 7, which was really a pretty big year for me,” she says. “The buildings at either end of my block burned down and Lenny was killed, just another casualty of the drug wars here. That my brother was taken away at such a young age definitely left this little piece of me that didn't really get repaired until much later."
Carter attended Bronx Science, and then Wesleyan, an esteemed liberal arts university in Connecticut.
"The older folks were just pleased as punch and super proud that I was in college, period, that I didn't become a statistic, that I wasn't pregnant at 14 the way many of my friends were,” she says.
When she was in college she used to lie about where she was from, never mentioning the South Bronx.
"I was always deathly afraid of being outed for being from a place like this,” she says. “Because you like to think of places like Wesleyan as being super, super liberal, but people were not always kind to folks from neighborhoods like mine."
Carter graduated with a degree in film, and there was clearly no going home again.
"I had no intention of living here ever again. No. I hated it here,” she says.
She tried the film business, and got a master’s in it from NYU in 1997. But something was missing.
"I didn't have the kind of passion and the kind of feeling that I get every morning when I wake up now to know that my life serves a much bigger purpose,” she says.
Carter eventually moved back home. She says she realized that many of its problems were brought on the community from the outside.
This fall, her personal and professional lives will come full circle. She is getting married at a site she found with her dog while jogging many years ago, and then helped develop into the Hunts Point Riverside Park.
“Unlike many folks from this neighborhood who get an education and leave - and I was one of those people for a while - I actually came back,” she says. “And I see my coming back as the reason why I was put in this situation.”
- Budd Mishkin
|ONE ON 1 EXTRA|
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