Advocates say: Put the brook back in Brook Park

Kids enjoying the greenery at Brook Park

Restoring a stream would bring environmental benefits

Brook Park takes its name from Mill Brook, whose waters once burbled through today’s Webster and Brook Avenues.  Now the environmental organization that helps oversee the park wants to bring the brook back.

“What we are trying to do here is make a green park, and a blue park,” says Aaron Petersohn, manager of the Friends of Brook Park’s Brook Daylighting Restorations Project.

Petersohn is heading an effort to bring the buried stream that once ran through Mott Haven back to the park at Brook Avenue and East 141st Street.  If the plan succeeds, visitors will hear the sound of water trickling into a pond that attracts dragonflies, frogs and migrating birds.

The South Bronx has been shortchanged on green space, said Harry Bubbins, director of Friends of Brook Park. It “needs greater access to nature and restoration of our natural environment.”

Not only will the water make the park more inviting; it will make the neighborhood healthier, Petersohn says.

Wetland plants will perform their function as nature’s filtration system, capturing and cleaning storm water before it reaches the sewers, where it would carry motor oil, antifreeze, litter and other pollutants into the Harlem River.

For most of the 19th century, the Mill Brook River flowed through the South Bronx, following the course of today’s Brook Avenue, before emptying into the Bronx Kill, the narrow stretch of water between the Bronx and Randall’s Island.

When the sewer pipes were laid in the 1890s, the river was diverted into them.

“We want to bring back an old river that disappeared,” said Petersohn. Friends of Brook Park has a $45,000 federal grant to design the project and is hoping to raise $300,000 more to unearth the portion of the historic Bronx waterway beneath the park’s soil. The process of bringing that groundwater to the surface is called “daylighting.”

The Friends group partnered with the environmental engineers at the Bronx-based Gaia Institute to locate a source of water for the pond and surrounding wetlands. They found it at the nearby Nehemiah Homes on 140th Street.

Plans call for diverting to Brook Park the 800,000 gallons of water that now flow into the sewers from the roofs, sidewalks and streets of the housing development. Another 700,000 gallons will be collected from the rainwater and snow that falls on the park itself.

Removing 1.5 million gallons from the sewer system will help clean up the city’s waterways, and will ultimately save money, Petersohn said. When storm water goes into the sewers, New Yorkers pay twice. “As taxpayers we are paying to have rainwater cleaned up when it’s already clean,” said Peterhsohn.

What’s worse, even a short storm can overwhelm the city’s wastewater treatment plants, forcing them to dump untreated waste flushed from toilets into the rivers and bays.

One of the Bloomberg administration’s goals is to improve the quality of the water in New York harbor by capturing and retaining storm water runoff before it enters the sewer system, said Mercedes Padilla, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Environmental Protection.

The Brook Park plan has won applause from elected officials and park users. A spokesman for Rep. Jose Serrano, who secured the federal funds for the project’s design, echoed Bubbins, saying the congressman “wants more green and natural space and places for folks to have room to the outdoors, and not just see concrete.”

“We have actually been vindicated with the fact that there is water found here,” said City Council member Melissa Mark Viverito, who has advocated for the restoration of the brook since she took office in 2005. “That reality is going to be integrated with the design of this park. It reflects and acknowledges the history and reality of this community, that there’s a stream that runs under here.”

“It will be fun for the kids, and something different that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the neighborhood,” said Margarita Herrera, who was strolling in the park with her one year old daughter and two little girls of her friend’s on a recent Sunday.

A version of this story appeared in the June/July 2011 issue of the Mott Haven Herald.