by Howard Brandstein
As the tenth anniversary of Occupy Wall Street on September 17, we are inspired by the millions of activists across the country who continue to challenge the reigning ideology of capitalism and endless growth that threatens to destroy the social and environmental fabric of our city.
What’s happening at East River Park?
In a brazen act of municipal vandalism on a scale unseen since the days of Robert Moses, the de Blasio administration is moving forward with its East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) plan to destroy East River Park in its entirety. At a time when our community is faced with multiple threats unfolding daily from the climate emergency, it is delusional to believe that building a wall will save us.
Despite its billion+ dollar price tag, the administration’s outdated 19th century conception of flood control provides zero protection from torrential rains, like those that have just inundated New York and Southeast cities in the US and throughout Europe and China. Furthermore, the ESCR plan offers no protection to our neighborhoods from flooding from water tables and underground streams that rise with rising sea levels nor from soaring temperatures and humidity. For at least the next five years, the ESCR will not even protect us from storm water surge from the East River- its only stated function–as the city has refused to provide even temporary barriers for this purpose.
To borrow from the exterminist language of US war planners, nature is already exercising its “full spectrum dominance” over the planet and no one approach to combat climate change will be sufficient, much less an ESCR plan that does nothing to decrease carbon emissions nor expand green space, the only two strategies that can reduce the risk of climate change. Instead, this so-called “resiliency” plan does the opposite: It destroys green space and all of the park’s 1,000 trees and solidifies the existing source of health-destroying climate-wrecking greenhouse gas emissions from traffic on the FDR Drive.
A Remarkable Achievement
According to NYS Traffic Data 136,000 cars travel north and south on the FDR Drive every day. During the course of the ESCR’s projected five-year construction timetable, 248 million cars will have traversed the Drive. The city initially rejected the community’s far less destructive plan, which called for a berm along the edge of the park bordering the Drive, on the grounds that it would disrupt the flow of traffic by requiring the closure of one lane of traffic (watch Sixth Street’s Save East River Park video).
Given the extreme care the de Blasio administration is taking to protect this six-lane highway for unimpeded car travel (responsible for the fastest growing increase in carbon emissions from all sources), not a single driver will now be delayed or in any way inconvenienced by its ESCR plan. On the other hand, an entire park and ecosystem serving tens of thousands of New Yorkers will be obliterated with all its plants and most animals exterminated. So we must give Mayor de Blasio his rightful due: accomplishing all this, and even going over the project’s projected $1.45 billion budget to do so, will, without question, be a remarkable achievement.
The New Park
In order to protect motorists from the emotional stress of traffic delays during ESCR construction, a million tons of fill will be floated in by barge, rather than trucked in by highway, to create a new East River Park 8-10 feet higher than the old one. Unfortunately, with temperatures regularly climbing over 100 degrees, it’s hard to imagine the restoration of nature atop this dirt pile. More likely we’ll see a new park with lots of concrete and artificial turf. The promised new trees to be planted will likely be cooked as well, and if they survive, unable to provide shade for many years if not decades.
Widening the Gap for Environmental Justice
The de Blasio ESCR plan, in stark opposition to a life-affirming vision for East River Park and the broader community, is the embodiment of environmental injustice and racism. Most of those living closest to the park are lower income people of color residing in New York City Housing Authority developments. The simple truth is that a destructive plan on this scale would never be approved for an upscale white neighborhood.
It is instructive to examine the recent case of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade situated in a wealthy largely white community. Originally the de Blasio administration proposed demolition of the Promenade because of deterioration to the underlying structure that also serves as the north and south cantilevered roadways of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE). Catering to that community’s financial and political elite and its opposition to the Promenade’s demolition, in 2020 de Blasio reversed his position. The Promenade will now be preserved and, further, the city will reduce the number of lanes on the BQE from six to four to lessen the stress from vehicles on its physical structure (see https://www.amny.com/transit/city-to-reduce-lanes-at-bqe-on-brooklyn-waterfront-starting-monday).
In contrast, the prospect of closing just one lane of the FDR Drive- even on a temporary basis- was enough justification for de Blasio to cancel entirely the community’s original plan for East River Park. The future of the Drive is not subject to discussion and Robert Moses car-centric vision for New York is still the official dogma- at least for low-income communities of color.
Fight for a Green New Deal for the LES
It is past time to cancel the ESCR and return to a plan that truly serves the community. A Green New Deal for the LES will not only save East River Park but provide a responsible and comprehensive approach to the climate crisis. A Green New Deal for our community is
Resilient- Flood wall or berm constructed in or along FDR Drive
Sustainable- Real grass/absorbable natural materials – no artificial turf. Expanded green space with decking over FDR Drive
Equitable- Clean electric buses/light rail replace cars in FDR and serve NYCHA and other residents far from subways
So let’s Occupy East River Park now and fight for a plan that makes environmental sense, that can serve as a model for other shoreline communities and that offers some hope for an enduring livable planet.
Howard Brandstein is Executive Director of Sixth Street Community Center and is a long-time environmental activist.