When a neighborhood is rife with poverty and ethnic tension, and is widely known as the gang capital of New York City, the environment is usually not first on the list of concerns.
But that was what Luis Garden Acosta was up against when he founded the community group El Puente in 1982 at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn.
“You know how we all say, ‘Thank God it’s Friday,’” he asked a packed classroom on Sept. 17 at Fordham Law. “I used to say, ‘Thank God it’s Monday.’
“Nobody died in the emergency room on Monday. No gang killings back then in 1981. Tuesday was OK, Wednesday was all right, and Thursday it started. By Friday, it was on, and by Saturday it was a blood bath.”
Acosta described a Williamsburg very different from the one where hipsters now live in “Community Health and Environmental Justice,” a presentation sponsored by the Feerick Center for Social Justice. Although the north end of the neighborhood has seen major demographic shifts as luxury condominiums have been built, Acosta said his side of town is still plagued by poverty and toxicity.
“Health is not just having access to a clinic. Health is the physical, mental and social well being of an individual and community, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” he said.
Like the South Bronx and East Harlem, rates of asthma in Williamsburg are three times higher, on average, than the rest of New York City.
Still, what Acosta said his group discovered when it began surveying the families who lived there was surprising: Dominicans fare better than Puerto Ricans who lived in similar circumstances, for similar amounts of time, even though the latter group has better access to health care.
In a first for a community group, El Puente published the findings of its survey in the American Journal of Public Health. What it found was that the more assimilated an immigrant population becomes in America, the more sick it becomes.
Acosta cited his own family as an example. His mother, who had once insisted on eating fresh vegetables, began serving canned, processed vegetables after she bought the family’s first television.
“The more a group is rooted in traditional ways of healing in its family structure, the healthier it is,” Acosta said.
In addition to detailing his group’s fight against Radiac Research Corp., a radioactive and hazardous waste storage plant on Kent Avenue, Acosta talked about El Puente’s plan to create a “green light district” with the aid of volunteers.
“We found that most people do not understand the toxic level of some of the cleansers that they’re using. They do not understand that they are sick as a result of them,” he said. “We want to come up with a home and family wellness assessment, anchored by environmental issues, but also covering physical, mental and social health, as well as the family’s connection to the community.”
Acosta also noted that the fight against Radiac could not have been won were it not for a partnership with the Hasidic Jewish community, which had been at odds with local African Americans.
Only at the suggestion of a young member of El Puente did the group reach out to Rabbi David Niederman, then the new president of United Jewish Organizations, to ask his group to join a protest at Radiac.
“When he walked through our doors, it was like the president of Egypt coming to Israel, or Nixon going to China. I can still feel the goose bumps. We all knew life would never be the same again,” Acosta said. “We had to find common ground in the ground itself. Cancer doesn’t prefer one group over the other.”