Low-income waterfront communities, particularly those of color such as The South Bronx, Red Hook, and the Brooklyn Navy Yards, are disproportionately at risk during threats of climate change than other communities according to a report released yesterday by the Environmental Justice Alliance.
“Even though climate change will affect everyone, its impacts will not be evenly distributed,” said Eddie Bautista, executive director for NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, a network that links grassroots organizations from low-income neighborhoods and communities of color to create environmental justice.
“Our communities live at the nexus of so many inequities, all climate change does is add even more intense disproportionality in terms of our burdens,” said Bautista.
The report outlines the shortcomings of Mayor de Blasio’s OneNYC Plan just before a scheduled update, which will be released by the Mayor’s office on Earth Day.
The NYC-EJA created recommendations on how the OneNYC Plan can assure the safety of residents that live in Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas, or SMIAS for short. These are communities that have become the concentrated hosts of the city’s infrastructure, such as waste transfer stations, power plants and industrial facilities, and climate-based damage to that infrastructure could mean disastrous consequences to those who live in these areas.
“We have the heaviest clusters of the city’s toxic chemical uses and heavy infrastructure all cited in waterfront neighborhoods in the path of storm surges,” said Bautista. “Not only do you have storm surges to worry about and flooding but dislodging of chemicals and the potential for communities to be exposed to toxic stews in the event of severe weather.”
The report also highlights the range of climate change impacts that are to be expected. Beyond incremental storms and rising sea levels, the increasing temperatures are also a concern for the NYC-EJA.
“Heat kills more people than storm surges or hurricanes every year,” said Bautista. “We’re expecting the average summer day to increase anywhere from 4 to 6 degrees, the number of heat waves are expected to either triple or quadruple. There’s no strategy to deal with that in the OneNYC Plan.”
Bautista says the rising temperatures are markedly problematic in low-income neighborhoods like Brownsville, where communities lack enough trees to keep the asphalt cool or have residents that cannot afford air-conditioners.
The report also sites that there are vast vulnerabilities in industrial neighborhoods that have regional implications. One example, Bautista says, is that most of New York City’s food goes through the Hunt’s Point Distribution Center, which is an SMIA. Over 60% of New York City’s produce, fish, and meat comes through the center.
“The mayor’s office has confirmed, that had Sandy landed when it was high tide for Long Island Sound – either 12 hours before or after when it actually landed – that means a storm surge would have wiped out the food supply for the entire city and no one knows how long.”
Community outreach programs, like El Puente in South Williamsburg, are taking the NYC-EJAs recommendations of creating community-based planning and preparedness.
“These major weather events made us realize how unprepared we were and still are,” said Ana Traverso-Krejcarek, Green Jobs-Green New York Program Associate at El Puente. “We have to start from scratch. There has not been enough awareness or information on the community level.”
A big part of that is educating mothers in the predominately Latino community on environmental justice and how they can protect their families by providing classes and services in Spanish. Through these programs, El Puente addresses not only concerns for climate-based infrastructure, but for the potentially hazardous risks that come with living in one of Brooklyn’s most toxic neighborhoods, the home to companies like RADIAC, which stores radioactive materials just one block away from the East River.
“For years we’ve been fighting to get RADIAC to close, but it’s privately owned,” said Traverso-Krejcarek. “If the water level rose, say from a hurricane, we don’t know the impact of radioactive material being spread through the community. It’s right here. The latino population that lives in the neighborhood still knows about it, but the huge new influx of residents don’t.”
Angela Terrero, 36, is one such resident that remembers the early days of fighting for RADIAC to close. Now a mother of two who brings her children to El Puente for after-school activities, she fears that the decade long battle will not come to a close quickly enough.
“If the wind had been blowing the other way,” said Terrero. “It would have been us and not the Lower East Side who received most of the impact.”
About half of the shootings in NYC are gang related. Because the majority of gangs and street crews are made up of young teens and adults in their early twenties, several organizations have launched efforts to stop the violence. The groups NEXT Steps and Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets (Y.O. S.O.S) are two in the city that regularly host programs designed to help young people channel their frustrations without resorting to violence.
The remains of Pier 6, Cromwell Center, Tompkinsville Staten Island. Photo by Dale Isip
As grey clouds drifted rapidly outside on a cool spring afternoon, Robert Honor sat and stared outside of his wine shop. With jazz music playing in the background, he looked as students, workers, and others passed by on a busy neighborhood street leading to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.
“We needed Cromwell Center before,” said Honor, a resident of the Staten Island neighborhood of St. George. “We need it more than ever.”
Staten Island’s Cromwell Recreation Center was a public park and sports facility that had been demolished in the years following its unexpected collapse in 2010. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is currently looking into three sites to rebuild the center. Now, neighborhood residents will finally have a chance to see the center, a staple of the neighborhood for decades, be rebuilt near their waterfront – the result of community efforts paralleling that of other neighborhoods in New York City.
“As a kid I’d occasionally come to Cromwell Center. Even as late as 10 years ago I was playing basketball there” said Honor, a co-owner of the wine store Honor Wines. “I also was aware that it was also a place that had programs for youth … my children, when they were younger, took advantage of some of the programs at Cromwell Center.”
Named after Staten Island’s first borough president George Cromwell, Cromwell Recreation Center was built on an existing pier in the Staten Island neighborhood of Tompkinsville starting in 1934. It was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), a program that promoted public works construction during the Great Depression. After it opened in 1936 – and a visit from Roosevelt himself in 1939 – it was home to galas, dances, and numerous sports activities and events. In more recent years, the facility housed a weight room, a computer room, and a basketball court.
The center was closed infrequently over the last two decades for repairs. Wood borer worms had eaten away at Pier 6, the structural foundation of the center. In 2000, the weight room was temporarily removed from Cromwell to nearby Lyons Pool, and in April 2010, the center was closed for further repairs to its roof and lobby. In May 2010 the roof collapsed unexpectedly, rendering the facility unusable. In January 2012 the Department of Parks and Recreation announced the center would be demolished.
Efforts by community organizations and elected officials since then have prompted the Parks Department to investigate ways to reinstate the facility in the surrounding area. The Department recommended three sites for the new center: the Staten Island Sanitation Department on nearby Victory Boulevard, the Children’s Aid Society’s Goodhue Center further inland, and finally Lyons Pool, right across the street (Murray Hulbert Avenue) from the original Cromwell Center.
“[City officials] were looking at three different sites, two of those sites – in our opinion as a coalition – are just not viable,” said Kelly Vilar, founder of the neighborhood group Let’s Rebuild Cromwell Recreation Center. “The only site that makes sense is Lyons Pool … it would reach out to the same population and would be able to serve everybody.”
Let’s Rebuild Cromwell, as well as other local residents, are now awaiting the results of a feasibility study, which will be taken into account in addition to a community survey that was distributed in late 2014. The funding for the study was the result of a competitive sealed bid process – a process that allows the city to hire contractors from the private sector – resulting in a two-year contract that began in July 2014 and will end in July of this year.
“We expect to have a report and final recommendations this fall,” said New York City Department of Parks and Recreation press officer Mario Lopez, in a statement, “[this] will help inform the City’s decision making.”
According to the city, the estimated amount of money needed for this study is $678,000, although local media reports put the figure at $700,000. Elected officials such as City Councilwoman Debi Rose, Borough President James Oddo and Richmond County District Attorney Michael McMahon have all expressed their support for a new center. After the study is released, the project will need to undergo a fund raising process of an undetermined length.
“We do not currently have funding for implementation,” said Lopez. “But [we] are actively working to secure funding.”
Bill de Blasio’s push for affordable housing in New York – and the land rezoning to come with it – is one reason why locals are concerned about accessible park and recreation spaces. In an effort to bring 200,000 units of affordable housing to the city, a total of 15 neighborhoods are proposed to be rezoned by the mayor, including some on Staten Island. This has brought concern about over-development among residents.
“People on the North Shore are concerned that the development down here is not just done for tourists,” said Honor. “If this project is not developed properly, we’ll essentially have created a gated community.”
The community push for park development in the face of rezoning on the waterfront parallels that of the Williamsburg-Greenpoint area of Brooklyn. When neighborhood was rezoned in 2005, residents there were promised an expanded Bushwick Inlet Park by then-mayor Michael Bloomberg. The city did not fulfill this promise, and has only responded in the face of extensive activism, including live protests and videos.
“The videos … helped strengthen and grow community support both in our area, but to like minded groups of people in different parts of the city,” said Steven Chelser, activist and co-chair of Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park. “We also engaged the press to hook into our story and run with it, and then most importantly, imposing our issue on the city, and it’s been continual and relentless.”
Though activism on Staten Island has been on a smaller scale, residents are similarly expressing concerns about building park and recreation facilities by the waterfront, ones that could accommodate residents both old and new.
“With all the nearly a billion dollars of development going into this area, it would be nice to see some amenities for the people who live here, and all the new people who will be coming here,” ” said Steven Joseph, a Tompkinsville resident and a supporter of Let’s Rebuild Cromwell.
The New York City Department of City Planning’s model of the proposed rezoned Bay Street Corridor. The buildings on the left are intended to be taller-scale residential units with a percentage of units set aside for affordable housing. Photo by Dale Isip
Wearing glasses and a fitted cap, Ephraim Diggs sat relaxed at a table in a busy Staten Island presentation hall waiting to hear about the rezoning plans that would bring big changes to his borough.
“I’m giving it another year,” Diggs of Staten Island said. “If I see that it’s getting overcrowded, I’m moving, I’m getting out.”
But New York’s current rezoning plans for affordable housing extends far beyond the borough. Staten Island is just one part.
On February 18th and 20th, residents of Staten Island’s North Shore – those of the Tompkinsville, St. George, and Stapleton neighborhoods – listened to presentations on the area by the Department of City Planning (DCP) and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) and participated in question-and-answer sessions for a zoning area one-half mile south of the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, what city agencies refer to as the “Bay Street Corridor”.
“There is a billion dollars worth of public and private investment coming to this neighborhood now,” said Len Garcia-Duran, director of DCP’s Staten Island office, “We’ve got an opportunity for new residential within walking distances of the ferry terminal in downtown Manhattan, that would attract a lot of folks who are being priced out of Manhattan.”
The area extends from Victory Boulevard in Tompkinsville to Sands Street in Stapleton. The area has a significant width, as it spans between Bay Street and Van Duzer Streets, two thoroughfares on Staten Island’s North Shore. It is currently a manufacturing district, and has been since 1961. City agencies including the DCP and the NYCEDC have held several meetings with the public in regards to proposed changes to the area’s development zone status.
A key issue around the rezoning is the conflict between what residents see as a potential for gentrification and over-development, combined with the city’s insistence that the rezoning would provide required affordable housing in the area.
“In Williamsburg and other areas, they all have affordable housing components voluntarily,” said Garcia-Duran. “What we’re trying to do is demonstrate how we can get new private development done here on Staten Island, with a required affordable housing component.”
In 2005, the neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint faced a similar proposed rezoning. Residents of those neighborhoods negotiated a residential neighborhood and park zone, out of a proposed power plant. But according to some residents, the city has not held to its agreement to set aside adequate park space for the area. Those neighborhoods have since been a place of residential development, albeit with a significant population increase.
“The Williamsburg-Greenpoint rezoning is now held up as what not to do, how not to rezone a community.” said Jens Rasmussen, a community activist and resident of Greenpoint. “If the rezoning is anything like what’s happened here, it will irrevocably change the character of your neighborhood.”
Under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan, developers building in rezoned areas would be required to set aside a certain percentage of new units for affordable housing. Because of a community-level resistance to high-density developments, the plan has been rejected at the borough board level on Staten Island. It is also currently facing opposition in the New York City Council for similar, though not entirely identical reasons.
The rezoning phenomenon is currently city-wide, to accommodate for Mayor de Blasio’s proposed 200,000 units of affordable housing. The recent rezoning of East Harlem, for example, is indicative of a process that took months to accomplish.
Back in Staten Island, some residents fear development will affect rent and the nature of businesses in the area.
“At the moment [the Bay Street Corridor] is underutilized, so I think it would be nice to see that strip be more active,” said DB Lampman, artist and co-founder of Staten Island MakerSpace in Stapleton. “We just don’t want to see all the manufacturing being lost.”
In conjunction with projects such as the currently developing New York Wheel and Urby Staten Island, other residents saw the potential for traffic and population density issues along a rezoned Bay Street Corridor.
“I live over there by the ferris wheel – they’re renovating our lot, and they’re renovating the ferry,” said Diggs, a St. George resident. “There’s a lot of building going on. I understand what they are trying to do, to build and upgrade, but in the long run there is going to be overcrowding.”
Some residents don’t want to see this happen on Staten Island.
“I think this Mayor wants more affordable housing,” said Ed Pollio, co-founder of the 5050 Skatepark in Stapleton. “My concern is, if he’s reelected, is he going to push this through without community support? … I don’t think Staten Island is ready for what’s going to happen on the North Shore.”
The corner of 5th Avenue and 55th Street is the intersection of luxury watch and jewelry stores. The St. Regis Hotel, one building over on 55th, brings an affluent clientele to the Rolex and Des Beers shops at this corner, and on this mid-December evening, they are out shopping for the holidays, bundled in Canada Goose parkas.
Since 1875, this corner has also been the home for the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. This time of year, it is the only building on 5th Avenue that isn’t decorated in twinkling lights or garlands. In fact, the majority of the building’s Victorian Gothic façade is almost entirely obscured by scaffolding, the red sandstone clock tower and steeple just barely peek out of the top. The only seasonal additions to the building are a simple wreath hanging from a cross above the front entrance, and a homeless woman sitting by the edge of the building, wrapped in a thin wool blanket against the cold, holding a sign that pleads for assistance.
The homeless have become a common sight in New York City, with the Coalition for the Homeless reporting a swell of nearly 60,000 homeless individuals in it’s shelters this past season. That’s as high as it was during the Great Depression, and it’s an 86 percent increase from ten years ago. Those are just the numbers of people who take refuge in city shelters, no one has a head count on those who would rather freeze to death than go into the system.
The Department of Homeless Services believes that houses of worship have the ability to influence individuals on the street who are fearful or resistant to city shelters. To reach them, the de Blasio administration will funnel $19.5 million beginning January 1, 2016, in order to incentivize churches to make space for homeless during the coldest months of the year. The new project, called the Opening Doors Initiative, hopes to double the amount of beds made available in churches by adding an additional 500. This year Fifth Avenue Presbyterian hopes to use those funds to make space for 10 homeless women.
A view of Brownsville from the Broadway Junction subway stop. Photo by Elizabeth Arakelian
The Brownsville, Brooklyn of David Alexander’s youth was a vibrant one. He remembers movie theaters every few blocks and the Belmont Avenue open air market teeming with people eager to buy their groceries.
Alexander said those were glory days in his eyes, when there was “vigor” in the Brownsville community that has since escaped the neighborhood.
“Everything else has been changed, closed down, and nothing has been put there to bring back that vibrancy that was once there,” said Alexander, 64, of the collapse of Belmont Avenue. “It really was a thriving community until it just imploded.”
As a resident of Brownsville for 53 years, Alexander has seen Brownsville evolve over the years and he can name several things he believes contributed to what he calls the community’s “demise.” But perhaps was most crystallizes life in Brownsville today is it’s life expectancy rate.
Seventy-four is the average age that residents of Brownsville live to be and it is the lowest rate of life expectancy in New York City according to the City’s Health Department. For comparison, residents of the Financial District live on average to be 85 years old — that’s 11 more years. Brownsville also sets the record of the highest rate of premature deaths, or deaths before 65, and the infant mortality rate is the fourth highest in New York City.
It is not exactly clear, however, why residents of Brownsville are passing away so much earlier than their fellow New Yorkers. Brownsville is certainly grittier than its neighbors — it is the poorest neighborhood in Brooklyn with 37 percent of residents living below the federal poverty line — but the leading causes of death in Brownsville are the exact same as other, more affluent areas of New York City: heart disease and cancer.
“I was surprised, but I was also happy because you can prevent heart disease,” said Eva Gordon, a Brooklyn native who now serves as a coordinator for the Community Partnership Program, a nonprofit that serves to connect local residents with life improving resources.
Gordon was surprised to learn that crime related deaths were not more common and homicide was the sixth leading cause of death in Brownsville, to her relief.
“Homicide is hard because there is no name on the bullet,” said Gordon.
Gordon grew up in the communities adjacent to Brownsville, namely the Flatbush and Crown Heights neighborhoods, and has seen first hand the inner workings of life in Brownsville as a caseworker in previous years.
“I’ve been going to Brownsville all of my life. It’s not a foreign neighborhood to me,” said Gordon, noting that the community has had a bad reputation for a long time. “It kind of has that reputation that ‘nothing good ever comes from Brownsville’.”
Even amongst Brooklynites, “Brownsville has had a negative connotation of being the murder capital of Brooklyn,” acknowledged Community Board 16’s District Manager Viola Greene-Walker.
Unlike other Brooklyn neighborhoods, Brownsville has yet to gentrify and in turn experience the revitalization that has made neighborhoods like Greenpoint trendy and pricey. Instead of the $5 lattes found at craft coffee shops in Williamsburg, Brownsville hosts 99 Cents stores and unhealthy, but cheap, food options.
“It’s more living out of cans and the produce that they do sell is not of quality so these are things that I have to fight to improve which would help for us to be more physically healthy than where we are,” said Alexander, who sits on a number of boards through the community district.
While access to healthy food is certainly an aspect that affects longevity, stress of daily life in Brownsville is another factor. Brownsville has the highest rate of public housing in America meaning financial stability is rare among residents.
“I think a lot of its unemployment. If you’re not able to help yourself financially, how is your stress level? How is your blood pressure? How do you provide for yourself?” said Gordon. “If you’re in public housing and not your own house, how does that affect your stress levels too?”
These stressors have contributed to an overall lower quality of life compared with other New York City neighborhoods said Green-Walker.
“I attribute that to access, or lack of access, to health care,” said Greene-Walker. “Often times residents have other factors such as… being uninsured or under-insured. Just different stresses in life living in the community that their health care might take a back seat to other issues that they’re faced with.”
One of the services that Gordon’s nonprofit offers is to connect individuals to life improving services, be that financial or health oriented, but convincing Brownsville residents to take advantage of these services is often difficult.
“The one thing I must say is that those who want to come out will come out, but you have to fight tooth and nail to get them to come out sometimes,” said Gordon.
Alexander is one Brownsville resident who does not need encouragement to get out and participate in life in Brownsville as he has made it his mission to return a glimmer of his glory days to the community.
“I had an opportunity to move out of Brownsville and I elected to remain to ensure that Brownsville gets back its vigor that it had when I was first here,” said Alexander.
One way he is doing that is by reaching out to the next generation. As the chairperson of the Brownsville Youth Committee Alexander hopes to provide current youth with the “more substantial” programs he enjoyed as a child.
“We had Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, — we don’t have that anymore,” he said. “We had different types of clubs. They weren’t gangs, they were clubs, where we would attend and pay due and go on trips and go on things like that and I’m trying to get that back.”
Alexander hopes that providing the youth more support may in turn lead to less crime and more involved adults, something that is lacking in the community.
“Right now the community is starting to pull itself back up. It’s a slow process but we’re starting to be more sustaining,” said Alexander. “We’re a work in progress is guess is best thing I could say.”
Most New Yorkers find Stuyvesant Town to be easily recognizable. Nestled away in Manhattan, with Gramercy to the west, The Lower east side to the south and the East River, well to the east, this post WWII complex serves as workplace and home for many, like David Smith an electrician, and Dana, Marcia, and Jessica old and new residents.
The busy, but quiet neighborhood is abuzz with recent news of the 65-year-old complex receiving a new owner. The Blackstone Group purchased the 80 acres of property for $5.3 billion backed by Fannie Mae in the form of a $2.7 billion credit. The news brings up memories and desired changes since Tishman Speyer gained ownership 9 years prior.
Mayor Deblasio guaranteed 5000 affordable units. 500 of the 5000 will be reserved to families making under $62,000 annually. The other 4,500 units will be for families making up to $128,000 a year. An additional 1,400 units now have their rents regulated until 2025. Dana, Marcia, and Jessica all qualify for these types of apartments. And according to StuyTown they shouldn’t expect to see any increases due to Rent Stabilization Laws agreed to in their leases.
On June 29th, 2015, Alejandro Garcia, the governor of Puerto Rico, announced that Puerto Rico could not pay their $73 billion dollar debt.
The failure to pay this debt has negatively impacted the citizen’s living on the island, and those living in the states that may have family members or relatives living there. Jobs and food are scarce, and schools and hospitals are being shut down due to the lack of finances to sustain these institutions. As a result, many Puerto Ricans are fleeing the island, and migrating to America’s major cities like Florida and New York, to escape the hardships of the economic crisis.
Though the migration to America from Puerto Rico adds more complications to the economic crisis, the biggest complication is the migration of Puerto Rico’s young population. Students who see no hope in continuing their education in Puerto Rico, are leaving their original universities and colleges, and transferring to study in American institutions instead. Many believe that their chances of obtaining a quality job with their degree are much greater in America.
The Puerto Ricans living in America, are not only raising awareness to the conditions that many Puerto Ricans on the island are being subjected to, but also raising awareness to the American government’s involvement in the crisis as well. Groups like A Call To Action Puerto Rico and the New York Community for Change (NYCC), have rallied and protested on Wall Street. These groups also plan community meetings to inform Puerto Ricans of what is going on in Puerto Rico, and to find ways to evoke change in the economic crisis.