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Environmental Justice Activist Catalina Hunter is Back and Ready to Fight For Hunting Park
Philly

Environmental Justice Activist Catalina Hunter is Back and Ready to Fight For Hunting Park

Quick with a warm smile and a hug, 68-year-old Catalina Hunter may not seem like someone to fear. But the powerful polluters of Philly should be afraid—very afraid.

For the nearly three decades she’s lived in Hunting Park, Hunter has been a fixture of the neighborhood, pushing for positive environmental change. She participated in the revitalization of the area’s namesake park and has created three community gardens. But her biggest feat: blocking a nearby waste processing plant from expanding its hours of operations.

It was a lengthy legal battle, and even though she won, Hunter isn’t satisfied. After taking a break from activism to focus on her grandchildren, she’s back and more committed than ever to holding pollution-producing businesses to account and making Hunting Park a better place to live.

Catalina Hunter hunting Park

This is story is part of a Broke in Philly series about green changemakers in Hunting Park. Read our overview of the project here.

From the DR to HP: Staying true to her roots

Born and raised in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, Hunter moved to the United States in the 70’s. She lived in New York City and Hoboken until her cousin promised her a factory job in Philadelphia, which she gladly took. Eventually, though, she decided to strike out on her own and opened a corner store, Alba Grocery, near her home on Cayuga Street in Hunting Park.

She’s since retired, but that doesn’t mean she stopped working. Over the years, she’s dedicated her spare time to civic organizations and nonprofits like Esperanza and Aspira, both of which serve North Philadelphia’s Hispanic community. It’s the perfect way to support her second home, while still paying homage to the one she left.

During this time, she’s seen the neighborhood transform. Though it’s long struggled with high crime rates and was hit hard by the 80’s crack cocaine epidemic, more and more residents have taken a stand against drugs and violence and worked to improve and unite Hunting Park.

“It was like a movement at that time. It felt like everything came together, all the organizations in Hunting Park. There were a lot of people, a lot more than now.”

Catalina Hunter

“Hunting Park is under the supervision of many good citizens,” she said. “People that care. We still work and we still struggle. But what makes Hunting Park fascinating is the change.”

That change, according to Hunter, began in 2009, when residents began pushing for a drastic revitalization of Hunting Park itself, the 87 acres of green space at the center of the community. As a member of the stewardship group Hunting Park United, Hunter was there from the start, eager to offer her feedback and a helping hand.

“It was like a movement at that time,” Hunter said of the revitalization efforts. “It felt like everything came together, all the organizations in Hunting Park. There were a lot of people, a lot more than now.”

Catalina Hunter Hunting Park United
Hunter during the holiday season.

In the Dominican Republic, Hunter’s family made their living by farming. She grew up helping her parents cultivate crops, so when it was time for her to contribute to the new park, she decided to lend her green thumb. She founded and still runs Hunting Park Community Garden, which—combined with a new football field, playground, recreation center, and more—transformed the park from a center of crime and neglect into an invaluable community resource. She also runs a garden near her house, on a lot behind residences on West Cayuga and North Lawrence Streets. Hunter said the neighbors support the garden and one of them even helps her tend to it. They donate a portion of the produce to a hospice care center nearby.

PHS Hunting Park garden
2013 PHS City Garden Contest award for the 3rd & Wingohocking Streets Community Garden.

And though she no longer lives there, Hunter still finds ways to give back to the country that raised her. North Philadelphia Madrugadores Rotary Club, of which Hunter is a member, is currently raising awareness and funds to help increase access to safe drinking water in the Dominican Republic. She’s also helped organize mission trips, attended by engineering students at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, to the country.

Fighting environmental injustice: an uphill battle

And while Hunter gets things done, her efforts haven’t gone without resistance. Hunting Park is home to several industrial sites that contribute to pollution, traffic, dumping, and other environmental abuses in the community. About ten years ago, residents caught wind that one of them, Richard S. Burns waste processing plant at 4300 Rising Sun Ave., submitted a zoning request to extend its operations to 24 hours. It was the final straw after years of grievances.

Since Hunter has lived in the neighborhood, the plant has grown from a small business to a massive operation, becoming an eyesore and public health hazard for the community. Noisy trucks drove to and from the plant through residential streets, honking their horns at all hours of the night. A massive pile of materials awaiting processing, nicknamed “Mount Cayuga,” rose above the fence line. Rodents were attracted to the surrounding area, and dust accumulated in people’s homes. Residents also suspected that the neighborhood’s high asthma rates could be attributed to air pollution produced by the plant.

To ensure the facility couldn’t grow even more, Hunter rallied concerned residents who joined forces to form Hunting Park Stakeholders Group (HPSG). They held public meetings to air their concerns, and secured support from the Public Interest Law Center, which provided legal consultation and resources. Hunter also asked Drexel University students to take air quality samples to provide evidence of the facility’s adverse environmental and health impacts. And to combat the traffic-related issues, she alerted Philadelphia Police’s Highway Patrol Division (PPHPD) that trucks were parked illegally on residential streets, prompting PPHPD to administer tickets.

In the end, Hunter and her colleagues won the battle: Richard S. Burns, in the face of public opposition, withdrew its zoning request. The facility also rerouted its trucks, so they no longer speed down and clog residential streets. And while this result was certainly a victory, Hunter maintains that the problem has only been contained, not solved.

“Don’t have a company like that. That for me is enough,” she said. “Because the problem is still there. They say they give jobs to people, but for me it’s not good to have this type of company in the community, especially when it’s surrounded by so many children.”

Several schools operate near Richard S. Burns, including Cayuga School, Esperanza Charter School, Alexander K. McClure Elementary School, and more. And while her concern for children motivated Hunter’s fight against the facility, it was also the reason for her short hiatus from environmental activism. With her husband George, Hunter has one daughter and two grandchildren, aged 3 and 5, and has been helping raise them.

But now that they’re older, Hunter has more time to care for her community. That means meeting with other like-minded activists and discussing ways to relocate or shut down Richard S. Burns permanently, as well as petition the owners of a former junkyard to turn the site into a public park. (To learn more about that effort, stay tuned for the next story in this series.)

But combating pollution-producing businesses, forging the way for green spaces and upkeeping community gardens is an exhausting battle that sometimes feels uphill. Hunter has established other community gardens in the neighborhood, including one behind a store at Third and Wingohocking Streets that won her a second-place prize in the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s 2013 City Gardens Contest. However, it was ultimately destroyed by the lot owners and turned into a parking lot.

“People, when they see beauty, they want to take it,” Hunter said. “The lady next door to [the garden], she cried. It broke my heart to have to tell her.”

Another one of Hunter’s gardens, on a lot on West Lawrence St., met a similar fate. The lot is now empty, save for a small collection of trash. 

As reported by WHYY in 2018, it’s a common problem in Philadelphia, a city with over 40,000 vacant lots. Community groups in disadvantaged communities reclaim empty, trash-ridden land with absent owners and turn it into gardens or other public green spaces. But often, the original owners object, or sell the land to developers who dismantle the gardens.

According to Hunter, the problem is that communities like Hunting Park—one with a history of economic neglect and racial injustice—don’t receive the government support that they need. And it’s a problem that extends beyond environmental issues.

“The City needs to be more collaborative with us,” she said. “That’s what’s made it hard to bring development, and funding for our schools.”

But even though it’s difficult, Hunter isn’t giving up yet.

Jose Ferran and Catalina Hunter
Hunting Park changemakers Jose Ferran Jr. and Catalina Hunter. Read our story about Ferran here.

“When you love where you are and your surroundings, you have to do something,” Hunter said. “You cannot sit around and cover your eyes and do nothing.”

Photos by Liyiran (Shelly) Xia

Broke in Philly
This project is a part of our reporting for Broke in Philly. Green Philly is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow at @BrokeInPhilly

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Brianna Baker
Brianna is a Philly-based journalist and Baltimore native with a passion for reporting on urban sustainability and environmental justice. In her free time, she's an amateur vegetarian chef, Harry Potter trivia champion and occasional world traveler. View all posts by Brianna Baker

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