A visionary and a pragmatist in equal parts, Majora Carter was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2005. She's also one of the most compelling speakers ever. Just ask anyone on the IIDA Leaders Breakfast circuit.
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 6/1/2010 12:00:00 AM
How's this for a life story? A teenage girl, the youngest of 10 in a family living in New York's impoverished South Bronx, attends Wesleyan University in Connecticut. After she earns a degree in film studies, she returns home to live rent-free while going to New York University for an MFA in creative writing. She then chooses to stay in the South Bronx, a choice that most would never have made. But most are not Majora Carter, who has parlayed her passion and communication skills into a career as an environmental advocate in both the nonprofit and the for-profit realms. Her first efforts centered on her own neighborhood, with its disproportionate concentration of waste facilities, power plants, and dilapidated buildings and corresponding shortage of parks. Now, under the aegis of her eco-economic consultancy, the Majora Carter Group, she's tackling projects with a national scope.
A visionary and a pragmatist in equal parts, she was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2005. She's also one of the most compelling speakers ever. Just ask anyone on the IIDA Leaders Breakfast circuit. Last year at the San Francisco event, she served as the presenter. This year in New York, she was the honoree.
Tell us about Hunts Point Riverside Park, your most visible project to date.
It's visible only because of one loudmouth who said we needed it. The community was suffering from having only ugly things to look at. That affected morale and public health. I wanted to concentrate on creating beautiful places.
Looks like you did that. How did you discover the site?
I was out jogging with Xena, my 80-pound rescue mutt, and she dragged me to an illegal dump on the Bronx River. I knew there was a federal grant available for waterfront restoration, and I designed the whole park on a scrap of notebook paper.
Then what happened?
Con Ed donated equipment and a crew to help clear the area. The department of transportation put in Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant walkways. A concrete contractor made seating. It was an eight-year project. I got married there in 2006.
What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome?
One was the self-defeating attitude of local people. But the worst was the city telling us we couldn't build, since there was no funding for maintenance.
How did you react?
I had to convince the city that, because we don't have a wealthy base, we shouldn't be responsible for maintaining the park. They had to see it was not an "amenity" but an integral public service, eventually saving the city money. Studies show that access to green space results in lower crime rates and less mental stress, social problems that the city ultimately pays to handle.
What does your nonprofit Sustainable South Bronx do?
Its mandate is: Green the ghetto.
What are its achievements, and how are they funded?
The green-collar job-training program received initial funding from a congressional appropriation for restoring riverfronts. Then I formed SmartRoofs. New York City's first green roof is on the SSBx headquarters in the historic American Banknote building.
What are you working on now?
The South Bronx Greenway, which will be a bicycle path connecting neighborhoods to the river and one another. I wrote a proposal for $1.25 million of federal transportation funding-and got it! Construction starts this summer.
You left Sustainable South Bronx to start an eco-economic consulting firm. What's that?
At the Majora Carter Group, we promote private-public partnerships across sectors. Government, NGOs, corporations.
What's in play right now?
We're working on a WPA-type jobs program for the Gulf Coast. Destruction of the wetlands damaged fishing, tourism, and the economy even before this latest disaster. Another project is American City Farm. Its goal is to grow food hydroponically in shipping containers. Ultimately, we hope to aggregate the produce grown by small farmers and sell it under a national brand. We're looking for seed capital, investors not donors.
Where were you when you got the call about your MacArthur "genius" grant?
I was walking to work, checking my messages. I thought they were calling about someone else. When I called back from my office, I cried. I asked them if this was a joke. Then I cried again.