El Puente’s comprehensive Green Light District initiative (GLD) to improve South Williamsburg took a stride forward on Friday, April 20th with Floresta—an afternoon of walking tours and workshops that championed the neighborhood’s environmental awareness and prospects. Floresta, which welcomed local leaders, students, and residents, represented the ambitious GLD plan’s first foray into environmentalism, which is one of many causes the initiative will take on over the next ten years.
“Green Light District is a big and bold idea,” said Brenda Torres-Barretto, director of the GLD project. “Today, we are making it reality.”
Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez has been a stalwart supporter of GLD since it launched last September, when she kick-started the initiative with a $500,000 donation to El Puente. Using that donation and a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Cultural Innovation Fund, El Puente implemented the GLD to rehabilitate the Southside by 2020. The project aims to address the neighborhood’s education, health, culture, and environment over the next decade.
Floresta was the first checkpoint on the GLD’s environmental front. The central focus of the event was the Southside’s dearth of green space. Floresta was designed to allow attendees to witness this problem firsthand. Instead of discussing the issue in a dank auditorium, participants walked the beat and assessed the situation firsthand.
“We are in the bottom three in terms of park space per resident,” said Antonio Reynoso, Chief of Staff to Council member Diana Reyna.
Tour routes, which were dotted by high school volunteer-manned stations, embarked from the Espiritu Tierra Community Garden on South 2nd Street.“They were thinking about making [the garden] affordable housing,” said Reynoso. “El Puente took a stand.”
The garden was filled with young volunteers prepping for the afternoon of tours. One picnic table was transformed into a workshop on retrofitting homes to economize energy use and lower Con Edison bills.
Destinations on the walking tours alternated between vacant lots and grassy garden playgrounds. The effect was stark before-and-after sensation.
“Vacant lots are part of tours for conducting visioning workshops,” said Torres-Barretto. “[Visioning] is as simple as: what do you see happening here?”
Many vacant lots around the city sit in the frozen grip of the Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD). Many of these spaces fester, accumulating refuse and rodents while the agency decides what to do with them, often delaying for years until the right proposal presents itself. A Brooklyn organization, 596 Acres (named after the total amount of public unused space in the borough) came to Floresta to host a workshop and present a sobering map of the bureaucratic labyrinth that stands between envisioning a new space and implementing it.
The tour stopped at Nuestros Ninos’ year-old playground, which sits alongside the daycare center. Miriam Cruz, executive director of the daycare and park steward, recalled how in one day, 200 volunteers turned a busted blacktop into a garden and playground for the daycare and the rest of the neighborhood. “There were volunteers from the Let’s Play initiative from Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, parents, a youth group—every age did something,” said Cruz. “[It was] real community cooperation.”