In one of New York’s most polluted districts, a 29-year-old with bold visions for environmental justice hopes to unseat a 26-year incumbent.
By Audrey Carleton
A South Bronx community activist with ideas for more green jobs, free public transit, and waterfronts prepared for climate change, is making her third try in four years for a seat in the New York State Assembly.
Amanda Septimo, a 29-year-old South Bronx native, is running as a Democrat against three-decade incumbent Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo, a longtime figure in New York’s Democratic Party machine who, environmental justice activists contend, has made little meaningful progress on solving the South Bronx’s long-term environmental and economic problems.
This story is part of DRILLED Local's 2020 election coverage.
The neighborhoods of the South Bronx, which are nestled among four major highways and more than a dozen waste transfer stations, have grappled for decades with the health impacts of extreme air pollution. Between 13% and 17% of adults in the South Bronx suffer from some degree of asthma, compared to around 7% in most other city neighborhoods, and around 7.7% nationwide. South Bronx children show up in hospital emergency departments with asthma problems at much higher rates than children in other parts of New York City.
Despite this, many New York politicians supported the online grocer FreshDirect when it sited a new, multi-million-dollar, 400,000-square-foot distribution center in the South Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood, bringing with it a huge new fleet of diesel trucks and promises of more jobs for local workers.
According to a recent public health study by researchers at Columbia University, traffic in the area’s residential neighborhoods has grown by 10% to 40% since the depot opened in 2018, with corresponding increases in noise and soot pollution.
The FreshDirect depot is just the kind of economic development that the South Bronx doesn’t need, says Septimo, who feels that most of those promised jobs have not materialized.
Septimo’s platform features pro-worker and environmental justice proposals. She advocates state funding for the creation of local manufacturing jobs in solar panel construction and building retrofitting, as well as making a just transition away from cars via free travel on New York’s mass transit system for all city residents. These sorts of programs would reduce the district’s air pollution, including its share of the city's climate-heating carbon emissions, while also lowering basic expenses for locals, she believes.
Prominent progressive organizations including the Working Families Party and Citizen Action of New York have endorsed Septimo.
Septimo also envisions creating wetlands and other stormwater management mechanisms along the South Bronx waterfront, which despite decades of local activist efforts remains dominated by industrial facilities and offers little in the way of pedestrian access. Rising seas, largely due to climate change, are projected to cause unprecedented coastal flooding across New York City by 2100, with severe impacts to city’s poorest and majority Black and Hispanic waterfront neighborhoods like those in the South Bronx.
“I'm always a little on edge that we'll get the wrong storm and it'll just be disastrous,” says Septimo. She recalls feeling shocked at the devastation caused by flooding during and after 2012’s Superstorm Sandy hit New York City. The storm destroyed hundreds of homes and damaged an estimated 69,000 houses or apartments, including in South Bronx neighborhoods. Septimo says that the potential for being hit by another devastating storm is one of the worries that keeps her up at night.
Septimo first tried to unseat Arroyo in 2016 as an independent on the “Democratic Values” party line, but was struck from the ballot over a technicality. She ran again in 2018, but fell short in the primary.
This year, Septimo ran uncontested in the 84th District's Democratic primary, after she successfully charged Arroyo’s campaign with fraud for illegally backdating petition signatures. So on Election Day, Arroyo will be on the ballot as an independent under the “Proven Leader Party,” a designation that outrages Cesar Yoc, a Port Morris resident and founder of the Bronx Institute for Urban Studies.
Arroyo has become a “career politician,” he says, who is complacent to the injustices taking place in her district. “‘Proven leader’ nothing,” says Yoc. “She’s just there to get a paycheck. She shouldn’t be on the ballot.”
Assemblywoman Arroyo did not respond to a request for comment.
According to Mychal Johnson, co-founder of the environmental justice group South Bronx United (which opposed the FreshDirect distribution center), Arroyo represents “the establishment” that has never meaningfully served residents of the South Bronx.
Arroyo has “had plenty of time to show us advocacy on the side of cleaner air, cleaner homes,” says Johnson. “We haven't seen any real change in the environment situation here in result of her supposed representation.”
Meanwhile, Johnson says, Septimo’s been putting in the work on the streets for years.
While South Bronx United does not make political endorsements, Johnson says he personally supports Septimo, and believes she will be an effective leader in the South Bronx’s ongoing fight for clean air and climate resilience if she wins.
“We need change,” Johnson says “We need folks who are going to really hear to hear the concerns of the community and move forward on it.”
Audrey Carleton is a freelance environmental journalist based in Brooklyn. Twitter: @audreyjcarleton