Don’t be fooled by the Hudson River (the New York City stretch is actually a tidal estuary), or by the East River or the Harlem River (which are actually straits and not rivers at all). The Bronx River is the only true freshwater river in New York City.

Only, for over a hundred years, the water hasn’t been so fresh.

Once an important source of drinking water and irrigation, as years turned into decades that faded into centuries, the Bronx River fell prey along the way to waste from farming and then from manufacturing companies and to an explosive growth in population among its banks. Historians believe the river was already severely polluted by the beginning of the 20th century. For most, even the thought of cleaning up a polluted river centuries in the making would be an impossible challenge.

But for Linda Cox, executive director of the Bronx River Alliance, “It’s not so much the scope of the challenge that we’re addressing; it’s the scope of the opportunity that is so broad. The Bronx River is a base for people to make life improvements in so many different ways; recreationally, educationally, economically and environmentally.”

Telling stories was something that The Center for Leadership Innovation stressed that I had never really thought about before, but that left a strong impression on me…

The Bronx River Alliance views itself as a coordinated voice for the river. Since 2001, the Alliance has worked with public and private partners to protect, improve and restore the Bronx River, and create a continuous Greenway through the 8 miles of the river that stretch through the heart of the Bronx. The organization involves and relies on the surrounding community for its work, counting on 100 community organizations, public agencies, schools and other public institutions to pitch in and support its efforts to improve the ecological, recreational, educational and economic benefits of the river for Bronx communities.

The efforts of the Bronx River Alliance are paying off. As the organization describes on its Web site: underneath the highways and elevated tracks, behind the ware-houses and guardrails and fences, the river still rushes along, providing a necessary slice of nature for ducks and bike-riders, turtles and toddlers, perch, tuliptrees, great blue heron, and fathers and daughters with fishing poles.

Crew members working on the Oyster Installation project.
Crew members working on the Oyster Installation project.

“The river has come into its own in the last decade to become a significant resource to virtually every resident of the Bronx and other New Yorkers who can reach it; it is coming into its own as a natural resource to be enjoyed,” said Cox, citing 35 schools and after school programs who used the river as a living classroom in 2008, 900 volunteers who worked on river restoration and 1,500 people who joined Bronx River Alliance guides for canoe trips on the river.

The shores of the Bronx River are home to many working class, low-income, and immigrant communities. Over 25 percent of individuals and families along the river live in poverty and in some neighborhoods the poverty rate nears 50 percent. The organization is doing more than restoring a river; it is reclaiming and reinventing the community that lives along the Bronx River banks.

Cox described the story of Gerry Segal, who grew up next to the Bronx River in the 1950s. He found the Bronx River Alliance because of their efforts to restore the river, appreciative of the fact that in reclaiming the river and green spaces around it, they were reaching back to a place with so many memories for him. He encountered an old friend that he hadn’t seen in over 30 years on Facebook and pulled that friend in to volunteer activities, all on the power of their shared story.

The two were active in the 1960s folk music scene, which was popular in the Bronx at the time and today are channeling their creative efforts into a benefit for the Bronx River Alliance. Online, anyone can listen to a full version of Gerry’s song, “A Kid on the River” for free; proceeds from downloads of the song are given to Bronx River Alliance.

“Telling stories was something that The Center for Leadership Innovation stressed that I had never really thought about before, but that left a strong impression on me,” said Cox. “Since leaving their workshop, my organization is really finally beginning to capture stories like Gerry’s, and we want more. We now collect stories at board meetings, staff gatherings, and at some of our public gatherings. We feature them on our Web site and in our materials.”

“Through stories, we are allowing people to reclaim their own memories and stories and bring them forward into the future to make the experiences they loved an experience for newer generations,” said Cox. “These stories are helping us to demonstrate just how meaningful and impactful a clean Bronx River can be to those who make the time to enjoy all that a healthy Bronx River has to offer.”