Story and photos by Jhaneel Lockhart
A new middle school. A renovated library. A growing community center. These are some of the small victories that Highbridge residents can finally celebrate, as their community begins to rebound from years of poverty and an overall lack of essential resources.
Highbridge, on the western edge of the Bronx between 161st Street and the Cross-Bronx Expressway, is what Jose Rodriguez, the Community Board 4 district manager, describes as “an isolated neighborhood.” Its biggest problems include the lack of even a single middle school, poor public transportation and a drug use that makes the area unsafe.
An annual report from the 32-year-old Highbridge Community Life Center paints an even bleaker portrait.
“Highbridge is a tough, distressed, yet resilient neighborhood that struggles daily with deteriorating housing, domestic abuse, double digit illiteracy rates, the poorest performing schools and a death rate from AIDS, cancer, violence and heart disease that makes it the least healthy community in New York City,” according to the document, found on the organization’s website.
Now high levels of community involvement, spurred, in part, by an overwhelming sense of frustration, are helping Highbridge make slow but significant improvements.
Take the planned middle school, for example. For most sixth to eighth graders in Highbridge, the average commute to school involves at least an hour of travel and three different buses, leaving children tired when they return home and parents concerned about their kids’ safety.
“Highbridge is unique in that a child going into middle school currently would have to wake up extra early to traverse by either bus or train, and probably both, to go to a middle school totally outside of their neighborhood,” says Rodriguez.
According to the community center, the neighborhood fell into decline in the 1970s, when many residents mowed away and a citywide financial downturn left the community unstable.
Over the last several years, parents and community organizers have been frustrated by the lack of educational resources for their kids. But their efforts to push for change were blocked for a long time by city budget cuts and Department of Education officials, who argued that Highbridge didn’t need a school, before finally agreeing, in 2008, to create one.
Tentatively called the Highbridge Green School, the middle school will be one of the first in the Bronx to focus on sustainable energy; it will have solar panels and a greenhouse on the roof, with the aim of obtaining Platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. It is expected to be completed by 2013.
Despite this small victory, community officials say the actual need in Highbridge is at least three times the 391 seats promised. The community has a population of about 40,000 people, by some estimates, and mirrors the growth in Community District 4, where the population increased 16.3 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to the latest Census data.
“We were looking at something minimum, maybe 1,000,” said Chauncy Young, of United Parents of Highbridge. To get 391 seats “is very, very small.”
But, for now, the community is excited to finally have a school and is trying to make the best of it. “If it was going to be small, then we wanted it to be an excellent school for our community, so we’re focusing on being a green school,” says Young.
The new school follows the renovation of the Highbridge Public Library, a building that is vital to the community. “We are the cultural resource center for the entire neighborhood,” says Margaret Fleesak, who has been the library manager for more than 30 years. “This is the place where everyone can meet.”
Community members of all ages and affiliations rely on the library’s services, according to Fleesak. Organizations like the Sacred Heart Church across the street use the community room for meetings and events. Many adults visit the library to take advantage of the computers and free Internet access. And for the younger children and teens, who don’t often go to school with each other because they travel outside of Highbridge, the library makes a difference.
“There’s no high school and no middle school in this neighborhood, so the one place where they can hang out together is the library,” says Fleesak.
With this in mind, Fleesak and the library staff have created a Young Adult Room, where teens can fraternize without being told to keep it down. The colorful Children’s Room, where a large rendering of historical Highbridge covers the walls, quickly fills up after school.
The library, which used to be a tall building with no windows, a leaking roof and termite infestation was revamped after three years of delays and a $7.4 million price tag; the project was sponsored by Councilmember Helen Foster.
Now, its airy, modern feel, floor-to-ceiling windows and rows of computers are a symbol of how Highbridge is improving and the pride the residents have in their community.
“I was telling someone that people always say this library looks like it belongs in Manhattan, and she turned to me and said, ‘No, it belongs right here.’ And that’s how they feel about the library, I think,” says Fleesak.
The sense of pride is common among those fighting for Highbridge.
“Although there are so many social ills, at the same time,” says Rodriguez, the district manager. Highbridge is “a community that has actually organized itself and really been savvy in trying to address a lot of those social problems.”
Indeed, he says, the community, participates in the community board process “more than the average neighborhood.”