Cancer diagnosis threatens future of Bronx bird sanctuary

Troy Lancaster, 69, inspects some weeds that have taken over a gravel path that runs through Dred Scott Bird Sanctuary in Mount Eden.

As Troy Lancaster opened a gate to the Dred Scott Bird Sanctuary in Mount Eden, he bent down to pick at some weeds that had begun taking over the gravel path that cuts through this oasis in the south Bronx. Though it feels like a lifetime ago, he said, the city-owned lot used to be a dumping ground for junk and snow from the rest of the city—and he’s worried it’s headed there again.

Lancaster, the man who built Dred Scott from the ground up 22 years ago and has spent much of his time since then acting as director and caretaker for the park, was diagnosed with leukemia last year and began treatment in early September. With nobody to immediately take over those duties, the park is just beginning to fall into disrepair and ultimately faces an uncertain future.

“I don’t see anyone doing what I did for this many years,” Lancaster, 69, said. “And I’m too sick to fight it.”

Though it’s designated as part of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the vast majority of the money for general upkeep is raised painstakingly by Lancaster and his wife, Patricia Grant. They also perform much of the landscaping and other manual labor themselves, originally learning the basics by taking classes at the Bronx Botanical Gardens.

Without the promise of financial security for whoever comes next, it’s been difficult to find someone with the expertise—and willingness—to take over. The Parks Department said it plans to hold information sessions this fall in an attempt to recruit a new caretaker, but Lancaster is anything but optimistic.

He’s quick to point out that years of unpaid labor inspired the park’s name: Dred Scott was a slave who tried, unsuccessfully, to sue his owner for freedom in what would become a landmark Supreme Court case. It began as a joke Lancaster’s daughter told, but the name eventually stuck.

“This is a modern-day slave story,” Lancaster said. “I started the bird sanctuary in the first place because I felt my government failed me … We were just trying to make a decent space for kids that live in the community.”

Looking at Grant Avenue now, it’s hard to imagine the way it was back when Lancaster first moved to the neighborhood in the 1980s. There were still apartment fires burning every few days or so, he said, and only one or two buildings we would now consider livable. Most of the block Lancaster lives on was an open-air drug market.

Starting in the 1990s, it took more than two years to clear the lot of debris and create what would soon become a community garden. After learning songbird migration routes lay directly over The Bronx, Lancaster set out planting native plant species that would attract the birds. His wife then designed a curriculum for after-school nature programs that would serve neighborhood children, but it was hard to elicit the same sort of buy-in from the community at large.

“People were never going to go for a bird sanctuary in the Bronx,” Grant said. “They would say, ’What kind of crackpots are up there on Grant Avenue talking about a bird sanctuary?’ … They just didn’t get it.”

Once the vacant lot—and the neighborhood at large—was cleaned up, everyone assumed developers and their bulldozers wouldn’t be far behind. That was the story behind numerous other community gardens and similar plots across the city, a phenomenon outlined in a 2002 paper published by the social science journal GeoJournal.

Except that didn’t happen. The Lancasters won a $500,000 grant from Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, then an EPA Environmental Champion Award, and the park that nobody seemed to want suddenly became a cornerstone of the community.

“In the end we made a lot of people happy with that space,” Lancaster said. “A lot of people got to do family reunions who had never had one before, people had weddings done there—people who couldn’t afford to have a wedding at the botanical gardens.”

Last August while Lancaster was working in the park, he began to feel dizzy and passed out. Grant found her husband a short time later and rushed him to the hospital, but bad news was already on the way.

After the cancer diagnosis, Lancaster began reflecting on his life’s work. He still plans to put in as much time as possible during treatment to ensure the park’s continued success, but is slowly coming to terms with the future—with or without the sound of songbirds brightening up his little corner of New York City.

It was the people, after all, who made Dred Scott Bird Sanctuary a success—and not the other way around.

“We didn’t create that community,” Lancaster said. “The space and the people did. Even when we didn’t have the tools to properly take care of this place, the neighborhood used it for what they felt they could use it for.”

“We just opened the gate, and they came in.”