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Gotham Gazette

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Citizens Union

Environment

Wakes, the powerful, fast moving waves generated by the engines of some but not all boats can cause damage and be dangerous to other boats


 

In this densely populated metropolis, the task of getting people to work, home and play is a complex and important undertaking. It is therefore an unfortunate side effect, that transportation on or along New York's waterways is among the biggest deterrents to recreation in and around the water. The shared use ethic that allows for a workable equilibrium in the city's streets, intersections and parks is now missing at the shore.

Wakes, the powerful, fast moving waves generated by the engines of some but not all boats can cause damage and be dangerous to other boats, property and people. This watery scourge has been noted recently as an ongoing, unregulated harbor menace. Ferries, hustling to maintain ever-expanding schedules, have adversely impacted marinas, harbor and dinner-cruise companies, fishermen and small boaters. Wake-caused waves from Hudson River ferries can reach distant Manhattan seawalls with powerful impact long after the vessel has passed. Damage from wakes can be devastating to moored vessels, dangerous to small craft on the water and sufficiently threatening as to preclude waterfront activity in advance.

Damage and inconvenience aside, few wake-sufferers actively oppose ferry traffic, a commuter alternative that helps reduce air pollution and roadway congestion. Still, the question remains, must ferries cause damaging wakes?

Evidence in New York harbor suggests otherwise. For years, ferry companies have operated "fast ferries", boats capable of thirty miles per hour and more, which, by design, generated minimal wakes. Powerful harbor tugboats, cruise ships and other large and industrial vessels operating in the Hudson produce smaller wakes without negative impact. The vessels with the most dangerous wakes, today, are slower, older boats. Their re-design or replacement would largely eliminate the threat.

Recent decisions by the Hudson River Park Trust may reveal "precluded use". The Trust, the very slow builder of the narrow, mostly stone and concrete "park" being developed in "medicine drop" steps along Manhattan's West Side has decided to eliminate "get-downs". Get-downs are waterfront spots, protected by guardrail gates, where city park visitors may descend a few steps to actually reach the water. Safety concerns, wakes included, have led to a park that will likely be built to preclude water access, access that is historic and currently available elsewhere by design.

Ferry wakes are not the only transportation threat to waterfront access. Rail lines are a threat as well. Tracks and accompanying fence parallel the Bronx coast from the Westchester/Riverdale border to Hunts Point at the confluence of the Bronx and East Rivers. South of Riverdale, along a ten-mile stretch of shore, there are only two legal access points where peninsula-dwelling Bronx residents can reach the surrounding waters. Amtrak, Metro-North and freight lines form an iron curtain, denying water access, a basic right to a half million people.

A rising clamor for waterfront access has emerged. The Bronx River is being restored. Fishermen avoid fences and scramble over debris. Teenagers jump into the Harlem River from the rocky cliffs of the Spuyten Duyvil. Hunt's Point residents seek funding and support for a waterfront park. Their proposal needs cooperation from local rail and truck users.

Government holds the key to safe, shared use and access. The City Council has called for an inventory of waterfront uses. Mayor Bloomberg has called for shoreline economic development. Ferry companies rely on city, state and federal support, as do the railroads. Public funding should be linked to behavior that recognizes access and shared use as a New York virtue on land and at sea. For people living on an island, reaching the water should be a birthright not a life risk.

Peter B. Fleischer, currently writing a book on the New York City waterfront, was formerly a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani.

Noise Off


 

On most mornings Christopher Saxe wakes before dawn to the sounds of men hauling trash from the alley beneath his window. He can hear the truck's engine roaring, its radio blasting, the shouts of the men. And when they raise the dumpster and drop it back to the ground, Saxe says, "It sounds like they're throwing air conditioners off the roof."

Saxe lives next to a movie theater in the East Village, and for the last four years he has battled with the company responsible for carting the theater's trash, which is called IESI. He has yelled out his window and called everyone he can think of to complain. The actions sometimes lead to temporary relief, but the problem keeps coming back.

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of New Yorkers, confront similar cacophonies. So, last month Mayor Michael Bloomberg initiated Operation Silent Night, the city's most aggressive attack on noise since 1994, when the police department focused on revelers in Greenwich Village. The initiative, which is designed to quiet unruly neighbors, curb drag racing on city streets and silence freaked-out car alarms, targets 24 neighborhoods considered to be among the city's noisiest.

This month, City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who represents lower Manhattan, announced plans to introduce a package of bills to reduce noise. The measures would allow police to confiscate motorcycles without mufflers, place further limits on construction work and restrict the city's raucous nightlife.

Operation Silent Night may not offer much help to Saxe, who does not live in one of the neighborhoods targeted by the program. Nor will it necessarily aid Queens residents afflicted by airplane noise, neighbors of the city's few heliports or those near large construction sites, like the Time Warner-AOL site on Columbus Circle or the Bloomberg LP site on the Upper East Side. In light of such shortcomings, some critics see the program as another way to get more revenues from city residents without raising taxes, and others say that, for all its pragmatism, the initiative barely scratches the surface of the city's noise pollution problems.

Silence Is Golden

New York already has a noise ordinance that, among other things, prohibits horn honking except in emergencies and restricts the hours for construction work. All car alarms must shut off automatically within three minutes or the owners face fines.

But the mayor's office clearly believes more is needed. Already, Operation Silent Night has intensified police scrutiny in the 24 neighborhoods -- several in each borough, and ranging in size from a single block to several square miles. According to the plan, noise complaints that come into the hotline, police precincts or the city Department of Environmental Protection will now be quickly sent on to each precinct's executive officer, who will work with city agencies to address the complaint. Police officers in the listed neighborhoods will have noise meters and the power to write more summonses levying heftier fines, tow more alarm-blaring cars that will now cost more for their owners to retrieve and, in extreme cases, make arrests.

No one has put a price tag on the program, but with the city facing billions of dollars in budget cuts, should the mayor allocate any money to relieve the stresses of noise?

How to Complain

The city government and the Council on Environment of New York City offer a list of places that handle noise complaints. and ways to complain about noise.

The Quality of Life hotline at 888-677-LIFE or 888-677-5433 handles a variety of noise complaints. But, depending upon the type of noise involved, it may be more effective to go to another city agency.

For construction, nightclubs, outside speakers, private carter's trucks, barking dog, air conditioners and manufacturing machinery, call the Department of Environmental Protection at 718 DEP-HELP (337-4357). If the noisy garbage truck belongs to the city, go to the Department of Sanitation at 212 219-8090.

If the problem arise from noisy neighbors, boom boxes, car alarms, loud passers-by, motorcycles, or noise outside a bar or nightclub, contact the local police precinct.

For persistent difficulties, contact your local Community Board.

If a metal plate in the street is the source of the disturbance, you must first determine who is doing the work -- a government agency, Con Ed, the phone company or Keyspan, to cite a few usual suspects. A nearby truck may offer a clue, as can the plate itself which may be marked.

Ill-fitting gratings or manhole covers should be reported to Department of Transportation at 212 CALL-DOT (225-5368).

In taking on the problem, says John Feinblatt, criminal justice coordinator at City Hall and one of the people in charge of implementing the initiative, Bloomberg is simply responding to his citizenry. Of the 97,000 complaints that come into the Quality of Life hotline each year, about 85 percent are about noise. Already this year, 93,000 people have called with complaints about noise [see box]. "Calls to the Quality of Life Hotline tell us that people in this city are concerned about noise," Feinblatt says. "Operation Silent Night is a response to those concerns."

Art Strickler, district manager of Community Board Two, which covers the West Village, said his office gets more complaints about excessive noise than any other problem. But he is less than totally sympathetic. "This is Greenwich Village," he said. "If they want peace and quiet, they should move to some bedroom community in Brooklyn."

Bloomberg's office has stated that getting tough on noise polluters is similar to former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's cracking down on squeegee men, turnstile jumpers and other very small-time offenders, and the administration hopes that it will produce similar reductions in crime. However, neither the administration nor experts can point to any studies linking crime levels with noise, or criminals with loud behavior.

NOISE DAMAGES HEALTH

Others contend that noise poses a very real public health hazard. Most obviously it can affect hearing, causing something called Noise Induced Hearing Loss. But the World Health Organization has listed an array of other effects, including a higher risk of hypertension and some types of heart disease. Unwanted noise creates tiredness and exhaustion, which in turn results in a lack of productivity on the job and anti-social behavior. People afflicted by excessive exposure to loud noise can become withdrawn and sullen.

Studies have concluded that students in noisy classrooms, such as those near airports or trains, do not learn as well as those in quieter settings. As evidence of the seriousness of the noise problem, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has established guidelines for safe noise levels in the workplace.

Sound levels, are measured in decibels (dB), with a normal conversation usually registering at about 60 decibels. Health problems can result from noises registering above about 75 to 90 decibels. A noisy restaurant or a construction site can be about 90 decibels, while motorcycles, firecrackers and small arms fire may emit sounds from 120 to 140 decibels.

John Dallas has been working since 1994 with the Bronx Campaign for Peace and Quiet, which is affiliated with Christ the King Church, to educate the public about the benefits of peace and quiet and the dangers of noise. "In a lot of neighborhoods you hear music blasting out of apartments," Dallas says, "and then you realize there are kids in there. Their hearing is being impaired. Some people say it's culture, but those kids are being harmed."

The effects of noise pollution can ripple through a neighborhood. "Noise pollution, from our perspective, is connected with impoverishment," Dallas says. "When you foster peace and quiet, when you live in a way that respects other people, you improve community." Noise, he adds, "chases away the middle class. People who want to improve their lives and be creative move away. So noise does not only impair physical health but also economic, social and spiritual."

FLAWS IN OPERATION SILENT NIGHT

According to some people involved with noise issues, Operation Silent Night, though a positive first step, fails to address some major sources of noise pollution in the city.

The targeted neighborhoods were selected on the basis of the number and locations of calls to the Quality of Life Hotline, which only addresses certain kinds of common problems. "The mayor is touching the tip of the iceberg," says Arline Bronzaft, a member of the Council on the Environment of New York City and a nationally recognized expert on noise pollution. "You can't think that you just go and ticket cab drivers [for honking horns] and that that is going to solve the problem." Noise comes from many more sources in addition to those picked by the mayor's program and affects many more areas.

Bronzaft says that the mayor's initiative has left him with the responsibility for quieting the city. "He's going to have to make a difference and lessen the din," she says. But Bronzaft says that will be difficult and points to three major gaps.

First, the Department of Environmental Protection enforces a Noise Code that is 30 years old and no longer addresses the real sources of noise or the latest ways to quiet them. The result is that the department, which is generally regarded as highly responsive to complaints, issues violations in only one out of four responses. "That's a poor batting average," Bronzaft says.

In response, the department has hired the consulting firm of Alle, King, Rosen and Fleming to update the code. "Clearly, it's time," agrees Feinblatt of the mayor's office. The firm's recommendations will eventually be open to public comment and could make it before the City Council. So far, though, no one knows what changes the firm might suggest or when this might happen.

Second, Bronzaft says, noise violations issued by police officers are usually thrown out in court because they are improperly written. Police must state their case objectively and, more often than not, this is almost impossible where noise is concerned. It may be that the noise meters that officers will now carry will help solve some of that problem by quantifying noise levels, though it is unclear how courts will view that information.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, many agencies that receive complaints about noise are not a part of Operation Silent Night. Mediation boards, the Buildings Department, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transit Authority, as well as the Sanitation Department and the Trade Waste Commission, all get calls from New Yorkers fed up with some sound or another. Yet, the new program focuses only on complaints received by the Quality of Life Hotline.

And there is some dispute over whether the targeted neighborhoods are indeed the city's loudest. For example, people in downtown Brooklyn were upset that it was not included as one of the target areas, despite high noise levels and frequent complaints to the Department of Environmental Protection, while certain other areas in Brooklyn, with more complaints to the hotline but fewer to Environmental Protection, were. In Manhattan, according to the Mayor's Report Card, two of the areas with the most complaints are the Upper East Side and Upper West Side. Not coincidentally, the City Council members from those districts had handed out brochures telling people to call the hotline. Yet, it would be hard to claim that those two neighborhoods have more noise problems than many other areas in the city.

The fact is that 93,000 does not represent anywhere near the total number of complaints about noise received by all city agencies. And, further, all the complaints made to every city agency probably do not represent anything approaching all the sleepless nights, interrupted conversations, lost thoughts and other problems created by a noisy city. For one thing, according to Bronzaft, "people in poor neighborhoods probably don't call because they don't think people will be responsive. But noise in this city is an equal opportunity offender."

AIRPORT AND NIGHTCLUBS

While the mayor's office did not respond to requests for a numeric breakdown of complaints to the Quality of Life Hotline -- such numbers may not in fact exist -- the Department of Environmental Protection was able to show the most common complaints it received. According to its figures, air conditioners and ventilation equipment are the most frequent causes of noise complaints. Barking dogs, construction sites and loud music come next, followed by ice cream trucks and private carters. Amy Boyle, acting director of the Noise Center at the League for the Hard of Hearing says, "The problems [with noise] are as diverse as the people in the city, whether it's a person with neighbor noise or noisy motorcycles or cafes or elevated subways."

Or airplanes. Residents of neighborhoods around John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport are overwhelmed by noise from planes. At a press conference in Astoria, Bloomberg mistakenly responded to a question about airplane noise by stating that federal authorities have jurisdiction over the issue.

But Dr. A. Allen Greene, vice president of government affairs for the advocacy group Sane Aviation for Everyone (S.A.F.E.), says that is an easy out for politicians. "Politicians, every time there is an airport expansion plan, hop on the bandwagon," he says. "The city should take an active role in protecting citizens from aircraft noise. The city owns the airports. The Port Authority operates them. It's just not true to say that it's a federal issue."

The city does have the power to control another recurring nuisance: nightclubs. Interestingly, as the result of previous legal actions, New York takes a tougher stand against "unauthorized dancing" -- moving one's body to the beat in a bar or restaurant that does not have a cabaret license -- than it does toward excessive noise.

As part of his anti-noise agenda, Gerson wants the city to do just the opposite: relax the constraints on dancing in return for increased penalties on noise and enforcing soundproofing regulations. "If an establishment is appropriately soundproofed, government should not care if people inside dance. Otherwise, it is an impingement on personal expression," Gerson has said.

Operation Silent Night and Gerson's initiative seem to signal a newfound attention to a long-standing problem. "Consistently, across the board, we're being exposed to dangerously high levels of noise," says Boyle of the Noise Center. "There's a lot of noise out there, and whether or not it's louder than it was 30 years ago, it's too loud."

Links

 

The Elections and New York's Environment


While the 2002 elections are empowering anti-environmental leadership in the United States Senate, they also represent a high water mark for New York's environment, at least in terms of political rhetoric. All three major statewide officials -- Governor George E. Pataki, Comptroller Alan Hevesi and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer -- campaigned as friends of New York's natural resources and actively touted their support from environmental groups.

Of course, there will be tough battles ahead. But here in New York (and in contrast to Washington D.C.), our top elected officials have all demonstrated their interests in conservation and/or environmental health issues. And all three owe a debt to their environmental friends and supporters.

GOVERNOR GEORGE PATAKI

The governor, who has developed a reputation as an avid outdoorsman and strong conservationist, highlighted his environmental support, perhaps to a greater degree than any of his predecessors. He publicized his endorsements from the Sierra Club and the New York League of Conservation Voters. One of his high-visibility campaign ads included comments from the League of Conservation Voters' chairman, Paul Elson, who identified "cleaner air, cleaner water and more open space" as among the governor's environmental accomplishments.

H. Carl McCall, Pataki's opponent, also embraced environmental issues in the campaign. He criticized the governor for failure to advance refinancing of the State Superfund program (for clean-up of toxic waste sites) and for lack of progress on efforts to remediate and redevelop urban "brownfield" properties.

A thoughtful New York Times analysis of Governor Pataki's record on key issues, written by Richard Perez-Pena, credited the governor with keeping hundreds of thousands of acres of upstate lands protected, advancing urban parks, and helping to persuade the Bush Administration to order the clean-up of toxic PCBs from the Hudson River. But the assessment also noted that he reduced monitoring compliance and fines against polluters and sought to ease clean-up standards at toxic waste sites. The Times report concluded that "Mr. Pataki's oratory on environmental issues has exceeded his performance in all areas but conservation, partly because he has promised so much."

COMPTROLLER-ELECT ALAN HEVESI

New York State Comptroller-elect Alan Hevesi also publicized his environmental support in his successful and hotly contested race against Assemblyman John Faso. As City Comptroller until last year, Hevesi proved himself to be a dedicated protector of the New York City water supply. Among other things, he skillfully defeated an ill-advised proposal to sell off the city's reservoirs and water assets for quick cash. And he played a crucial role in strengthening the 1997 city-state watershed agreement.

One ad that the Hevesi team ran frequently in the final weeks before Election Day highlighted his Sierra Club and New York League of Conservation Voters support. And on the campaign trail, Hevesi attacked his opponent for, among other things, his "votes against the environment."

A comparison prepared by the Albany-based group Environmental Advocates of the voting records of Hevesi and Faso covering the six year period (1988-1993) during which they both served in the State Assembly found that Hevesi's overall average score was 85 percent pro-environment, while Faso's was 69 percent. Not surprisingly, Faso did not focus on environmental issues in his losing effort.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ELIOT SPITZER

The third statewide candidate, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who had the easiest contest on Election Day, also featured his unassailable environmental track-record in his low-key campaign. During his first term in office, the Attorney General was a steadfast environmental advocate from the outset. After hiring the respected lawyer Peter Lehner ( a former colleague of mine at the Natural Resources Defense Council) to head his Environmental Protection Bureau, Spitzer and his staff took on polluters big and small.

In campaign appearances, Spitzer frequently mentioned his lawsuits to curb air pollution from mid-west power plants, to force the clean-up of PCBs in the Hudson River and to rescue hundreds of New York City's endangered community gardens.

Spitzer's opponent, Judge Dora Irizarry, shared an interest in environmental issues, although her underfunded campaign was unable to get her message out.

OTHER CONTESTS

The prominence of environmental protection as a campaign issue extended beyond these three statewide contests. In several other races throughout the region, environmental themes played critical roles for winning candidates.

In what was one of the most incendiary Congressional campaigns in the region, Southhampton College provost Tim Bishop squeaked by one term Congressman Felix Grucci in the contest for eastern Long Island's House seat. Bishop was helped over the top by an intensive ad campaign in the closing weeks that focused largely on Grucci's weak positions on toxic waste clean-up and other environmental issues.

And in the U.S. Senate race in New Jersey, former Senator Frank Lautenberg defeated businessman Doug Forrester. Lautenberg's campaign, and ads from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, filled the airways with environmental messages (e.g. Forrester "wants taxpayers to foot the bill for cleaning up SUPERFUND toxic waste sites").

WHAT IT ALL MEANS

The increasingly visible use of the environment as a 2002 campaign theme in the New York region tells us something about the candidates who sponsored these messages and the voters who responded to them. First, it suggests that New York State's three statewide officials all have at least some track record on and commitment to improving environmental quality. Second, it reflects a growing recognition of the importance of environmental issues to New York voters. And third, it is evidence that New York has in fact become something of a "green state" -- a place where environmental health and natural resource protection have become cornerstone values that are widely shared by the electorate.

To be sure, there are many other issues on the minds of New Yorkers, none of the three state-wide office holders were elected primarily for their environmental accomplishments. In addition, it is unrealistic to expect that the governor, the comptroller and the attorney general will always (or even often) be able to act in concert on environmental issues. And the expressed views of these three officials on environmental issues do nothing to resolve the extraordinary problems that continue to plague the legislative process in Albany.

Nevertheless, New York's highest elected officials have all appealed to the voters to support them in their campaigns based in part upon the candidate's environmental interests and sympathies. It is now up to New York's voters to hold their elected officials accountable for insuring cleaner air, cleaner water and more open space.

Eric Goldstein is co-director of the urban program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

New York City's Permanent Food Emergency


Every day, the lines form - more men than women waiting for a soup kitchen, more women than men outside food pantries.

The federal government sponsors half a dozen nutrition programs meant to prevent Americans from going hungry, including senior lunch subsidies, meals for schoolchildren, and food stamps. But emergency food programs report rising demand for their assistance every year.

Since 1995, the number of people receiving food stamps in New York City has sharply declined, and the use of food pantries and soup kitchens has nearly doubled. Opponents of welfare reform believe these changes are connected. They also attribute the growing need for food assistance to the economy: when times were good, the poor gained little; now that times are bad, they are the first to feel the pinch.

BEING ELIGIBLE FOR FOOD STAMPS IS NOT ENOUGH

Food stamps have never been used by everyone who is eligible, partly because of the widespread belief they are only for welfare recipients. Many low-paid workers do not know they might qualify for food stamps. Others are too proud to apply for benefits, or intimidated by the application process.

The recent drop in the food stamp rolls can be traced to two laws passed in 1996. One barred most immigrants from receiving food stamps; the other mandated welfare reform. The Food Stamp Reauthorization Act of 2002 restored eligibility to most immigrants, but those who lost benefits under the 1996 law may not know they can re-apply under the new rules. When immigrants do apply for benefits, they encounter the city's failure to comply with a court order to translate written information into all needed languages, and to provide each client with a caseworker who speaks their language.

Make the Road by Walking, a Brooklyn-based social justice organization, joined the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the New York Legal Assistance Group to sue the Giuliani administration for violating the right of non-English speakers to services in their own language. After losing in court, the Human Resource Administration mailed 500,000 notices, in 17 languages, announcing the right to free translation and interpretation services. The agency also translated paperwork into nine languages, and agreed to assign bilingual caseworkers to clients with limited English skills.

However, the city is still a long way from fulfilling the mandates upheld by the court decision. Make the Road by Walking monitors the city's compliance by reviewing its quarterly reports, and by sending members and staff to inspect application sites.

"Even if a form is translated, it often sits in a folder on peoples' desks," reports Andrew Friedman, executive director of Make the Road by Walking. Computer-generated documents are not yet translated, so some clients are sent notices they cannot read. "The consequences are obscene," says Friedman. If a client misses an appointment or brings the wrong documents to an interview, her benefits can be lost."

The Human Resource Administration currently matches clients with caseworkers speaking their language in 40 percent of cases. Several years ago, it was just five percent. Friedman attributes the success of individual centers to their managers, while the system as a whole is "perfectly content to have people unable to access their services."

The second cause of declining food stamp use in New York City, "welfare to work," is related to the city's incorrect administration of state and federal regulations. Recipients are entitled to get food stamps even if they are sanctioned for failing to meet strict work requirements. Those who find paying jobs can keep food stamps until their salaries rise above the eligibility limit, which was $1,180 a month for a family of three in 2001. However, for years local welfare workers did not tell recipients who were losing cash benefits that food stamps were still available to them. The city automatically cut off food stamps whenever a person's cash benefits were stopped.

Food stamp assistance did not decline equally in all ethnic groups. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that between 1995 and 1998, Latinos were the hardest hit. Eight out of every hundred Latino households in the city stopped receiving food stamps between 1995 and 1998. African-American households saw a smaller change: less than two percent lost food stamps during that time. In contrast, nearly 1% of all White and Asian households were newly eligible for food stamps between 1995 and 1998.

Last August, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum issued a report comparing New York City with 14 other cities in the state and nation. New York was the only one where food stamp rolls continued to drop even while the unemployment rate rose. The state's Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance has accepted recommendations made in the report, although most have not yet been carried out.

"Change takes time," says Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, "but there are fewer problems than there used to be." A shortened application form is in the works, as are an extra two months of food stamps for newly employed recipients. According to Berg, the city is lagging behind the rest of the state in this extension of benefits.

THE PERSISTENT GROCERY GAP

When the city cuts off their food assistance, clients often find out only at the supermarket checkout counter, when their electronic benefits card doesn't work. Facing a stretch of days without meals, they turn to emergency food programs run by private nonprofit organizations. Nearly a thousand people searching for emergency food called the Food for Survival hotline in the six months up to November 2002.

Even if everyone who is entitled to them were getting food stamps, many would still use up their allotment too soon. Food programs see rising demand as each month nears its end; some clients count on them to supplement food stamps year-round.

There are over 1,000 emergency food programs in the city, according to Food for Survival, whose Food Bank is the major local distributor of emergency food. Over 700 food pantries are members, plus 300 soup kitchens, and over a hundred shelters and other service providers. This patchwork feeds about half a million people each week, and a total of 1.5 million people over the course of a year. The Food Bank distributed 61.5 million pounds of food last year, an increase of more than 10 million pounds over the previous year.

WHO USES EMERGENCY FOOD PROGRAMS?

According to a survey of its member programs released by Food for Survival in October 2001, one in four clients reported having recently chosen between buying food and paying their rent or mortgage. About the same number were receiving food stamps, although many more may have been eligible. Slightly fewer lived in a household with at least one working adult member. Very few clients were homeless or on public assistance.

For the majority, their main source of income was Social Security (including disability as well as old age payments), workers' compensation, or a pension. This suggests that more than half were elderly and/or had disabilities. Adults in one in six client households said that in the past year, they had to skip meals nearly every month, or eat smaller portions, because they could not afford enough food.

FILLING THE FOOD BANK

Federal, state, and local governments provide a large part of the Food Bank's supplies; budget deficits threaten this assistance. The city's Emergency Food Assistance Program, the main source of food for over 200 programs, was on the list of contingency budget cuts announced by the Bloomberg administration last spring and is likely to be on the list this year.

The Food Bank also relies on individual donors, corporations, and foundations, who mostly give cash. Nonprofit organizations collect food and funds, and City Harvest brings leftovers from restaurants, caterers, and others. Since the start of 2002, these private donations have fallen sharply.

THE MISSING BILLION DOLLARS

The New York City Coalition Against Hunger estimates that at least 800,000 New Yorkers who are eligible for food stamps are not receiving them. Those who do get assistance receive an average of $104 a month, allowing about a dollar per meal. Not only is this skimpy for individual recipients; it also represents a huge loss to the city's economy. If all eligible New Yorkers were getting food stamps, there would be close to a billion extra dollars, all of them federal, pouring into neighborhood grocery stores and bodegas each year. Economists know there would be a "multiplier effect": for every new dollar spent in New York City, several more are generated as jobs are created, profits are made, and workers and business owners spend the extra dollars.

That doesn't happen when food stamps are replaced by charity. Nearly all of the staff of food pantries and soup kitchens are volunteers. Their work is vital to the people they feed, but they don't earn any new dollars. The programs spend less on food than their customers would if they had money, for two reasons. Their purchases are supplemented by donated goods, and they buy too little to give out the amount of food their clients would buy if they had food stamps.

DEMAND OUTSTRIPS SUPPLY

Many feeding programs now have to turn away clients, reduce their hours, or dole out smaller portions. Meanwhile, nonprofits that never used to feed clients are finding that giving out groceries is faster than getting emergency food stamps from the city. For the United Way report, IN JEOPARDY: THE IMPACT OF WELFARE REFORM ON NONPROFIT HUMAN SERVICE AGENCIES IN NEW YORK CITY, researcher Mimi Abramovitz interviewed a nonprofit executive who told her, "We don't want to be a food pantry. Nonetheless, if someone is literally desperate, we do have emergency food on hand and the requests for it have increased dramatically."

Make the Road by Walking opened a food pantry three years ago to feed members in crisis situations. In contradiction to official policy, "HRA is still telling people they can't get food stamps when they are on SSI or disability payments," says Friedman. Such errors can take weeks to correct. The agency's members may also encounter delays at food pantries, some of which require documents to determine eligibility. "We know our people, so we don't have to screen them," Friedman explains, adding that, "The pantry is empty more often now; it's more heavily used."

Emergency feeding programs are no longer just for emergencies. When they cannot authorize food stamps for clients, the city's own eligibility workers send them to pantries and soup kitchens. Unfortunately, feeding programs are themselves starved for resources, relying on uncertain flows of supplies, donations and volunteers. As charity is stretched thinner, the weak points in the government's nutritional safety net grow more obvious. Too little help is going to too few people.

RESOURCES

Where to find a food pantry or soup kitchen: call the Emergency Food Locator (866-692-3663), or the City Harvest Hunger Hotline (866-888-8777).

How to influence public policy on hunger, visit the New York City Coalition Against Hunger web site

Volunteering at a soup kitchen: call New York Cares (212-228-5000), or visit their web site. Remember that most soup kitchens have extra volunteers at Thanksgiving and Christmas, so your help may be even more welcome during the rest of the year.

Making donations: In November 2002, the NYC Bank-to-Bank Partnership is collecting food at over 100 bank branches. To find the nearest location, see the Food For Survival web site. At other times, call 718-991-4300 to donate or start a food drive.

Changes in the food stamp program as a result of the food stamp reauthorization law

Food stamp statistics from the city's Human Resource Administration: HRA Facts.

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.

 

New York City's Permanent Food Emergency


Every day, the lines form - more men than women waiting for a soup kitchen, more women than men outside food pantries.

The federal government sponsors half a dozen nutrition programs meant to prevent Americans from going hungry, including senior lunch subsidies, meals for schoolchildren, and food stamps. But emergency food programs report rising demand for their assistance every year.

Since 1995, the number of people receiving food stamps in New York City has sharply declined, and the use of food pantries and soup kitchens has nearly doubled. Opponents of welfare reform believe these changes are connected. They also attribute the growing need for food assistance to the economy: when times were good, the poor gained little; now that times are bad, they are the first to feel the pinch.

BEING ELIGIBLE FOR FOOD STAMPS IS NOT ENOUGH

Food stamps have never been used by everyone who is eligible, partly because of the widespread belief they are only for welfare recipients. Many low-paid workers do not know they might qualify for food stamps. Others are too proud to apply for benefits, or intimidated by the application process.

The recent drop in the food stamp rolls can be traced to two laws passed in 1996. One barred most immigrants from receiving food stamps; the other mandated welfare reform. The Food Stamp Reauthorization Act of 2002 restored eligibility to most immigrants, but those who lost benefits under the 1996 law may not know they can re-apply under the new rules. When immigrants do apply for benefits, they encounter the city's failure to comply with a court order to translate written information into all needed languages, and to provide each client with a caseworker who speaks their language.

Make the Road by Walking, a Brooklyn-based social justice organization, joined the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the New York Legal Assistance Group to sue the Giuliani administration for violating the right of non-English speakers to services in their own language. After losing in court, the Human Resource Administration mailed 500,000 notices, in 17 languages, announcing the right to free translation and interpretation services. The agency also translated paperwork into nine languages, and agreed to assign bilingual caseworkers to clients with limited English skills.

However, the city is still a long way from fulfilling the mandates upheld by the court decision. Make the Road by Walking monitors the city's compliance by reviewing its quarterly reports, and by sending members and staff to inspect application sites.

"Even if a form is translated, it often sits in a folder on peoples' desks," reports Andrew Friedman, executive director of Make the Road by Walking. Computer-generated documents are not yet translated, so some clients are sent notices they cannot read. "The consequences are obscene," says Friedman. If a client misses an appointment or brings the wrong documents to an interview, her benefits can be lost."

The Human Resource Administration currently matches clients with caseworkers speaking their language in 40 percent of cases. Several years ago, it was just five percent. Friedman attributes the success of individual centers to their managers, while the system as a whole is "perfectly content to have people unable to access their services."

The second cause of declining food stamp use in New York City, "welfare to work," is related to the city's incorrect administration of state and federal regulations. Recipients are entitled to get food stamps even if they are sanctioned for failing to meet strict work requirements. Those who find paying jobs can keep food stamps until their salaries rise above the eligibility limit, which was $1,180 a month for a family of three in 2001. However, for years local welfare workers did not tell recipients who were losing cash benefits that food stamps were still available to them. The city automatically cut off food stamps whenever a person's cash benefits were stopped.

Food stamp assistance did not decline equally in all ethnic groups. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that between 1995 and 1998, Latinos were the hardest hit. Eight out of every hundred Latino households in the city stopped receiving food stamps between 1995 and 1998. African-American households saw a smaller change: less than two percent lost food stamps during that time. In contrast, nearly 1% of all White and Asian households were newly eligible for food stamps between 1995 and 1998.

Last August, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum issued a report comparing New York City with 14 other cities in the state and nation. New York was the only one where food stamp rolls continued to drop even while the unemployment rate rose. The state's Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance has accepted recommendations made in the report, although most have not yet been carried out.

"Change takes time," says Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, "but there are fewer problems than there used to be." A shortened application form is in the works, as are an extra two months of food stamps for newly employed recipients. According to Berg, the city is lagging behind the rest of the state in this extension of benefits.

THE PERSISTENT GROCERY GAP

When the city cuts off their food assistance, clients often find out only at the supermarket checkout counter, when their electronic benefits card doesn't work. Facing a stretch of days without meals, they turn to emergency food programs run by private nonprofit organizations. Nearly a thousand people searching for emergency food called the Food for Survival hotline in the six months up to November 2002.

Even if everyone who is entitled to them were getting food stamps, many would still use up their allotment too soon. Food programs see rising demand as each month nears its end; some clients count on them to supplement food stamps year-round.

There are over 1,000 emergency food programs in the city, according to Food for Survival, whose Food Bank is the major local distributor of emergency food. Over 700 food pantries are members, plus 300 soup kitchens, and over a hundred shelters and other service providers. This patchwork feeds about half a million people each week, and a total of 1.5 million people over the course of a year. The Food Bank distributed 61.5 million pounds of food last year, an increase of more than 10 million pounds over the previous year.

WHO USES EMERGENCY FOOD PROGRAMS?

According to a survey of its member programs released by Food for Survival in October 2001, one in four clients reported having recently chosen between buying food and paying their rent or mortgage. About the same number were receiving food stamps, although many more may have been eligible. Slightly fewer lived in a household with at least one working adult member. Very few clients were homeless or on public assistance.

For the majority, their main source of income was Social Security (including disability as well as old age payments), workers' compensation, or a pension. This suggests that more than half were elderly and/or had disabilities. Adults in one in six client households said that in the past year, they had to skip meals nearly every month, or eat smaller portions, because they could not afford enough food.

FILLING THE FOOD BANK

Federal, state, and local governments provide a large part of the Food Bank's supplies; budget deficits threaten this assistance. The city's Emergency Food Assistance Program, the main source of food for over 200 programs, was on the list of contingency budget cuts announced by the Bloomberg administration last spring and is likely to be on the list this year.

The Food Bank also relies on individual donors, corporations, and foundations, who mostly give cash. Nonprofit organizations collect food and funds, and City Harvest brings leftovers from restaurants, caterers, and others. Since the start of 2002, these private donations have fallen sharply.

THE MISSING BILLION DOLLARS

The New York City Coalition Against Hunger estimates that at least 800,000 New Yorkers who are eligible for food stamps are not receiving them. Those who do get assistance receive an average of $104 a month, allowing about a dollar per meal. Not only is this skimpy for individual recipients; it also represents a huge loss to the city's economy. If all eligible New Yorkers were getting food stamps, there would be close to a billion extra dollars, all of them federal, pouring into neighborhood grocery stores and bodegas each year. Economists know there would be a "multiplier effect": for every new dollar spent in New York City, several more are generated as jobs are created, profits are made, and workers and business owners spend the extra dollars.

That doesn't happen when food stamps are replaced by charity. Nearly all of the staff of food pantries and soup kitchens are volunteers. Their work is vital to the people they feed, but they don't earn any new dollars. The programs spend less on food than their customers would if they had money, for two reasons. Their purchases are supplemented by donated goods, and they buy too little to give out the amount of food their clients would buy if they had food stamps.

DEMAND OUTSTRIPS SUPPLY

Many feeding programs now have to turn away clients, reduce their hours, or dole out smaller portions. Meanwhile, nonprofits that never used to feed clients are finding that giving out groceries is faster than getting emergency food stamps from the city. For the United Way report, IN JEOPARDY: THE IMPACT OF WELFARE REFORM ON NONPROFIT HUMAN SERVICE AGENCIES IN NEW YORK CITY, researcher Mimi Abramovitz interviewed a nonprofit executive who told her, "We don't want to be a food pantry. Nonetheless, if someone is literally desperate, we do have emergency food on hand and the requests for it have increased dramatically."

Make the Road by Walking opened a food pantry three years ago to feed members in crisis situations. In contradiction to official policy, "HRA is still telling people they can't get food stamps when they are on SSI or disability payments," says Friedman. Such errors can take weeks to correct. The agency's members may also encounter delays at food pantries, some of which require documents to determine eligibility. "We know our people, so we don't have to screen them," Friedman explains, adding that, "The pantry is empty more often now; it's more heavily used."

Emergency feeding programs are no longer just for emergencies. When they cannot authorize food stamps for clients, the city's own eligibility workers send them to pantries and soup kitchens. Unfortunately, feeding programs are themselves starved for resources, relying on uncertain flows of supplies, donations and volunteers. As charity is stretched thinner, the weak points in the government's nutritional safety net grow more obvious. Too little help is going to too few people.

RESOURCES

Where to find a food pantry or soup kitchen: call the Emergency Food Locator (866-692-3663), or the City Harvest Hunger Hotline (866-888-8777).

How to influence public policy on hunger, visit the New York City Coalition Against Hunger web site

Volunteering at a soup kitchen: call New York Cares (212-228-5000), or visit their web site. Remember that most soup kitchens have extra volunteers at Thanksgiving and Christmas, so your help may be even more welcome during the rest of the year.

Making donations: In November 2002, the NYC Bank-to-Bank Partnership is collecting food at over 100 bank branches. To find the nearest location, see the Food For Survival web site. At other times, call 718-991-4300 to donate or start a food drive.

Changes in the food stamp program as a result of the food stamp reauthorization law

Food stamp statistics from the city's Human Resource Administration: HRA Facts.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.

 

9/11/01-02: Charity Began At Ground Zero, But Where Will It Wind Up?


The American public responded more generously than ever before when the World Trade Center was destroyed on September 11. As of September 5, 2002, over $2.2 billion was raised, according to New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

One unintended effect of these gifts has been controversy over their distribution among victims of the attack and their families. If the nation had applied free-market philosophy to this situation, no charitable assistance would have been necessary. Victims' involvement in the attack would be attributed to bad luck and individual choice. Employees of businesses in the trade center buildings would be seen as having chosen to take their chances in a building complex bombed by terrorists in 1993. Police officers and firefighters would be seen as having chosen dangerous careers, with extra financial rewards in return for the risks. Even airline passengers could be seen as having chosen a form of transportation in which there is little hope of survival if the vehicle suffers damage.

Fortunately, people across the nation applied a different standard to this tragedy, one of mutual aid. According to a poll by the Independent Sector taken in October 2001, about 70 percent of Americans gave blood, donated money, volunteered their time, or in some other way tried to help the victims of the attack and their families.

However, the unity expressed by these donations does not extend to how they should be used. The resulting dissension reveals the diversity of meanings attached to words like "fairness," "victim," "family," and "need".

WHO QUALIFIES AS A "VICTIM"?

It was understood at the start that "victims" were people killed or injured in the attack, and that their "families" were their wives, husbands and children. The public was also eager to see help given to workers involved in the rescue and cleanup efforts.

Other relatives of the deceased soon made their claims on assistance clear. Parents, siblings, and domestic partners were added to a broadened definition of "family". Some charities gave help to anyone financially dependent on the victim, including former wives and their children.

Because so much money was collected, charities were able to stretch the meaning of "victim" still further, to cover others harmed by direct results of the tragedy: the 70,000 people who lost their jobs, the 6,000 downtown residents who had to leave their homes, and neighboring small businesses and nonprofits whose offices were thrown into physical or functional disorder by the event.

For some purposes, the definition of the disaster itself was extended to include anthrax attacks and post 9/11 hate crimes. The Uniformed Firefighters Association extended payments from its relief fund to families of all firefighters killed in the line of duty since 1980, and in the future.

TO EACH ACCORDING TO HIS OR HER NEED?

"Fairness" is another ambiguous term; its interpretation goes to the heart of our inconsistent convictions about how people should treat one another. There are many methods for dividing up September 11 funds, and each has been championed by one or another constituency.

Distributing funds according to financial need would give more money to a family that was poor before the disaster, and less to one whose breadwinner earned a high income and maintained life insurance. According to Shawn Pattison of the Robin Hood Foundation, their September 11-related relief fund follows this principle. "Robin Hood wants to make sure no one falls through the cracks, particularly low-income people," he says. Robin Hood targets its relief efforts toward groups like immigrant communities isolated by language barriers and fear of deportation, and low-income people with mental illness. "There were Central Americans working as day laborers cleaning up the site," he explains, "and they were not given proper protective equipment. A number are quite ill now." Robin Hood supports the Latin American Workers Project, which provides health services and financial help to these victims.

Other cases inspire more disagreement as to what constitutes need. Does it include making monthly mortgage payments on a million-dollar house? Families of the victims expect donations to enable them to maintain the standard of living they had before the disaster. However, the Internal Revenue Service has explicitly barred charities from distributing money to families of victims based on their living expenses before September 11. The large nonprofits that control most of the September 11 donations have decided not only how much cash to give victims for paying bills, but also what kinds of services victims need. The major ones turned out to be mental health counseling and employment services, which are not what might be expected by viewers of news coverage of relief efforts in response to earlier man-made and natural disasters.

EQUAL SHARES FOR EQUAL DISASTER

In the most literal interpretation of a distribution of aid based on equality, you would give the same amount to each victim. This would mean giving the same amount to a person whose store was closed for a week due to roadblocks, as to a widow with young children.

A more nuanced interpretation of "equality" gives equal shares to all people in the same situation. The Uniformed Firefighters Association gave $50,000 to the family of each married firefighter who was killed, but did not initially extend this policy to beneficiaries of single firefighters. After protest by the excluded relatives, the firefighters' union gave $50,000 to domestic partners, parents and other beneficiaries of deceased unmarried firefighters. The Robin Hood fund did not distinguish between levels of need when it sent $5,000 one-time payments to each family of the victims killed on September 11. "By late November, it was clear from talking to many of our families that the money was just not getting through," says Pattison. In this situation, all families were subject to the same bureaucratic delays in releasing aid; later and larger distributions could be expected to adjust the total aid to each family according to a yardstick of need.

The September 11th Fund, a joint project of the United Way of New York City and the Fund for the City of New York, collected $501 million, more than any charity other than the Red Cross' Liberty Fund. The September 11th Fund set the value of emergency cash assistance at two levels, depending on the degree of loss. Injured survivors and victims' families would get $10,000 each; people who lost jobs or homes as a direct result of the attack received $2,500 each. The same amounts were given in a second round of cash assistance.

COMPENSATION FOR FINANCIAL LOSS: THE TORT-BASED MODEL

The court system calculates the value of human lives as it goes about its everyday business. The wrongful death of a young person counts as a greater loss than the death of a retiree, because of the years of future work that are lost. Higher salaries at the time of death mean more lost income. Higher levels of education imply the possibility of career advancement leading to higher salaries. This method of determining the amount of assistance is favored by many of the victims' families. Those whose deceased relatives would have earned the most have the greatest incentive to call for this model of assistance, and it forms one element in the federal government's calculation of awards from the Victims Compensation Fund.

Financial loss also decides the size of loans and grants being given to businesses and nonprofits in the vicinity of Ground Zero, many of whom were unable to function normally for weeks or months. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation is offering both nonprofit and for-profit enterprises federally-funded grants and loans based on their annual revenues.

RECOGNITION OF EMOTIONAL LOSS

Most of the help being offered in recognition of emotional loss takes the form of mental health services or tangible gifts. The web site of the Twin Towers Fund "recognizes the importance of families spending time together in a fun and relaxing environment," and offers a variety of special events to the relatives of uniformed officers killed on September 11. They include sleepaway camp for children, golf camp for adults, free tickets to Mets games, sailing lessons, and sightseeing cruises from New York Waterways. Both the Uniformed Firefighters Association and the Twin Towers Fund are planning holiday parties in December for the families they serve.

MEASURING A PERSON'S VALUE TO THE COMMUNITY

The sacrifices made by police officers and firefighters inspired intense sympathy in the general public, which gives extra weight to the death of a member of these forces even in normal times. A study of 37 relief funds serving September 11 victims showed that nearly half of the cash paid directly to victims and their families went to relatives of police officers, firefighters, and court officers.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation is offering payments to downtown residents, implying that people who remain in the neighborhood for the long term are more valued than those who leave or have recently arrived. Their web site offers a minimum grant of $1,000 to households, within specific boundaries, whose residents who lived at their present address last September 11. At least $750 more will be given to families who commit to staying in the area for at least one year, if they have one or more children younger than 18.

WHAT DO DONORS WANT DONE?

According to Barbara Bryan, president of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers, many charities were "overcome by the size of the generosity and by the size of the need, and all the different levels of need." At the end of October 2001, the Red Cross announced it had collected more than enough to meet the needs of the victims -- so much more that its Liberty Fund could start underwriting some of the agency's more routine costs for services to American troops on active duty; community outreach to encourage neutrality, unity and tolerance; and telecommunications equipment, computer systems and accounting services. It also intended to set aside about half of the Liberty Fund for future needs of the WTC victims or for victims of future terrorist attacks.

This plan made the Red Cross the target of a growing sense of frustration and distrust among donors, victims' families and Ground Zero workers. Chief Executive Bernadine Healy was forced to resign; the organization was questioned by the United States Congress. The Red Cross had to revise its plan, promising to give out about half of the Liberty Fund by the first anniversary of the World Trade Center attack.

The September 11th Fund chose a different route. It conducted surveys of the general public in October and November of 2001, polling both donors and non-donors to September 11-related charities. The results supported the fund's decisions to expand services to the broad range of victims described above, and to provide a variety of short-term and long-term services in addition to cash assistance.

UNDERLYING ASSUMPTIONS OF CHARITABLE DISTRIBUTION METHODS

Even with public opinion polls, it is not possible to aid disaster victims in a way that pleases everyone. Each method of dividing up disaster relief funds reflects a conviction about what makes a good society; the subject stirs up almost as much passion as the idea of the World Trade Center disaster itself.

Distributing charitable aid based on financial need implies that charity should even out economic differences between recipients. Giving equal shares to all implies that charity does not have to take into account the different situations of recipients before the event that created their shared need. Giving charitable aid in proportion to the recipient's economic loss implies that charity should honor victims' property rights by preserving the existing hierarchy of wealth. Using non-monetary aid to compensate victims for emotional losses suggests that such suffering cannot be measured and is best addressed symbolically. Basing levels of aid on the victim's value to society implies that charity's purpose is to benefit society as a whole. And leaving the decision of how to use donations up to the donor means that their right to control their money trumps the greater experience of charitable professionals in determining the best use of assistance.

Barbara Bryan believes that charities will have to change in response to the disputes over disaster relief for the victims of September 11. "You have to be very clear about what you're asking for, " she says, but she is not sure of the specific steps that will have to be taken. "People are still trying to take lessons from all of this."

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.

Change and Conflict on the Brooklyn Waterfront


Change is coming along the heavily industrialized East River shores of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn streets with lovely names like Metropolitan and Grand once linked Manhattan's teeming Lower East Side to the city's largest borough via ferries. They retain magnificent skyline views, as do the unused piers and wharves off of Huron, India and Java Streets, that via freighter linked these neighborhoods to markets and goods worldwide. These once busy waterfronts now house the Newtown Creek wastewater treatment plant, the hulking remains of abandoned industrial structures, dilapidated piers.

Today, a thriving club and residential scene has emerged on Bedford Avenue, one stop from Manhattan by the "L" Train and a short walk from the river. Waterfront that was once the exclusive preserve of power plants, oil storage facilities, lumber yards, ferry slips and working piers, is being transformed into parkland, housing and a focus for a community returning to its maritime roots. The existence of large, underutilized, relatively inexpensive, waterfront parcels, easy access to Manhattan and superb views of the Manhattan skyline fuel the transformation.

Change comes to these neighborhoods, much as it comes throughout the city, in fits and starts. In recent years, residents have opposed municipal uses such as solid waste transfer stations and power plants. Today, the locals are advocating for public access to both the East River waterfront and the banks of polluted and much-maligned Newtown Creek while continuing to oppose power plants.

Conflict has come to this corner of Brooklyn as large empty spaces have been discovered by groups as diverse as power plant proponents, waterfront recreationists, housing developers and open space advocates. The neighborhood's lack of open space and waterfront access combined with a long history of having noxious municipal uses sited in the community makes today 's clash interesting even by New York City standards. A City Planning Commission zoning review, that promises to be contentious, is under way.

In Williamsburg, NAG, a community organization originally founded to fight waste transfer stations, has called for improved public waterfront access, open space and mixed-use development. In Greenpoint, 41 local, civic and non-profit community groups joined to form the Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning, GWAPP, an umbrella advocacy group. Again, the association's original focus was opposition to power plants. Both organizations now focus on the challenge posed by development --residential, commercial and industrial.

Joe Vance, co-chair of the Greenpoint association, described his role as one of the many watch dogs for the community. He hopes to "shepherd the neighborhood through the rezoning, open space and development processes" now unfolding.

At Brooklyn Borough Hall on June 13th, Governor Pataki announced grants to study and plan for public access to these Brooklyn waterfronts and for joint city and state development of open space at the WNYC transmitter site by the Greenpoint piers. These grants follow the recent $9.3 million purchase of more than six acres at Kent Avenue between North 7th and North 9th Streets for New York University sports fields, a waterfront esplanade and community open space.

Private sector forces are in the mix too. Two proposed waterfront developments in Greenpoint, comprising 38 acres, would, in Joe Vance's estimate add 15,000 new residents to a community of perhaps 75,000 people, dramatically inundating the ara.

And then, there is the power plant. To help meet the city's estimated future electricity demand, the TransGas Energy (TGE) System has proposed a 1,100-megawatt facility for the Bushwick Creek Inlet at the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The energy company favors the site because of its proximity to electric transmission lines, oil pipelines, Con Ed steam and the river. The neighborhood groups have banded together to oppose the project. According to Vance, "this is the first power plant of this size proposed for a waterfront site without a power plant."

TGE is expected to submit its application late this summer.

Peter B. Fleischer, currently writing a book on the New York City waterfront, was formerly a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani.

Change is coming along the heavily industrialized East River shores of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn.


Change is coming along the heavily industrialized East River shores of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn streets with lovely names like Metropolitan and Grand once linked Manhattan's teeming Lower East Side to the city's largest borough via ferries. They retain magnificent skyline views, as do the unused piers and wharves off of Huron, India and Java Streets, that via freighter linked these neighborhoods to markets and goods worldwide. These once busy waterfronts now house the Newtown Creek wastewater treatment plant, the hulking remains of abandoned industrial structures, dilapidated piers.

Today, a thriving club and residential scene has emerged on Bedford Avenue, one stop from Manhattan by the "L" Train and a short walk from the river. Waterfront that was once the exclusive preserve of power plants, oil storage facilities, lumber yards, ferry slips and working piers, is being transformed into parkland, housing and a focus for a community returning to its maritime roots. The existence of large, underutilized, relatively inexpensive, waterfront parcels, easy access to Manhattan and superb views of the Manhattan skyline fuel the transformation.

Change comes to these neighborhoods, much as it comes throughout the city, in fits and starts. In recent years, residents have opposed municipal uses such as solid waste transfer stations and power plants. Today, the locals are advocating for public access to both the East River waterfront and the banks of polluted and much-maligned Newtown Creek while continuing to oppose power plants.

Conflict has come to this corner of Brooklyn as large empty spaces have been discovered by groups as diverse as power plant proponents, waterfront recreationists, housing developers and open space advocates. The neighborhood's lack of open space and waterfront access combined with a long history of having noxious municipal uses sited in the community makes today 's clash interesting even by New York City standards. A City Planning Commission zoning review, that promises to be contentious, is under way.

In Williamsburg, NAG, a community organization originally founded to fight waste transfer stations, has called for improved public waterfront access, open space and mixed-use development. In Greenpoint, 41 local, civic and non-profit community groups joined to form the Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning, GWAPP, an umbrella advocacy group. Again, the association's original focus was opposition to power plants. Both organizations now focus on the challenge posed by development --residential, commercial and industrial.

Joe Vance, co-chair of the Greenpoint association, described his role as one of the many watch dogs for the community. He hopes to "shepherd the neighborhood through the rezoning, open space and development processes" now unfolding.

At Brooklyn Borough Hall on June 13th, Governor Pataki announced grants to study and plan for public access to these Brooklyn waterfronts and for joint city and state development of open space at the WNYC transmitter site by the Greenpoint piers. These grants follow the recent $9.3 million purchase of more than six acres at Kent Avenue between North 7th and North 9th Streets for New York University sports fields, a waterfront esplanade and community open space.

Private sector forces are in the mix too. Two proposed waterfront developments in Greenpoint, comprising 38 acres, would, in Joe Vance's estimate add 15,000 new residents to a community of perhaps 75,000 people, dramatically inundating the ara.

And then, there is the power plant. To help meet the city's estimated future electricity demand, the TransGas Energy (TGE) System has proposed a 1,100-megawatt facility for the Bushwick Creek Inlet at the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The energy company favors the site because of its proximity to electric transmission lines, oil pipelines, Con Ed steam and the river. The neighborhood groups have banded together to oppose the project. According to Vance, "this is the first power plant of this size proposed for a waterfront site without a power plant."

TGE is expected to submit its application late this summer.

Peter B. Fleischer, currently writing a book on the New York City waterfront, was formerly a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani.

Harbor (in)Security. Also: Harbor Events.


In recent weeks, New York's elected officials, including Senator Charles Schumer and Congressman Anthony Weiner, have identified harbor security as an essential piece of the region's post-9/11 response. New York harbor has numerous strategic and potentially vulnerable waterfront sites such as oil depots, airports, docks and bridges. Citing the risk of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction arriving on ships or in containers through the port of New York and New Jersey, the officials have called for much more security.

The Coast Guard, already involved and stretched thin, has been recruited to augment these efforts. Inspections of freighters bound for New York will occur out at sea. The Coast Guard reports that boardings have increased seven-fold. FBI inspection of cargo manifests and ship personnel will begin four days prior to a ship's arrival in the harbor (compared to the one day that it is currently).

Technological methods to efficiently detect people and dangerous materials within containers entering the port are being developed on an expedited basis. Ironically, the globalization process that spurred increased use of container transport, moving ever faster from ship to truck and rail and then on to the nation's interior, now brings the threat of global terror to all parts of the U.S.

Coast Guard security provisions put in place after September 11th continue to constrain recreational water users including jet skiers, kayakers, and boaters. The Coast Guard enforces strict off-limit zones near bridge supports, power plants and port facilities.

Fleet Week

The U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and naval vessels from Canada and Denmark will make their annual entry into the Port of New York for the period of May 22 to May 29th. Amphibious Assault craft, guided missile cruisers and anti-mine vessels will highlight the visit. Since 1984, this annual rite is the Navy's way of showing appreciation to New York and other port towns around the country. Fleet Week also serves to build and rally the Navy's constituencies. Typically, over 200,000 New Yorkers visit the ships and view the Parade of Ships. The naval vessels will be berthed along West Street on the Hudson River near Pier 86. Some exhibits will take place in Staten Island.

Waterfront Conference

On May 15th, the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance's Waterfront Conference convened in the cavernous and once grand Hoboken terminal on the New Jersey waterfront and in the damaged but still impressive World Financial Center in Battery Park City. Those morning and afternoon locations were linked by a lunch cruise on the river on a New York Waterway ferry.

Dennis Suszkowski of the Hudson River Foundation presented research detailing the declining levels of pollutants and heavy metals in the harbor' s water and sediments. He noted twenty-five years of improvements from 1974 to 1998. The conference keynote speaker was New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, who talked about "improving access to the waterfront, enhancing parks and waterfront facilities, and making the eighteen-mile. Hudson River Waterfront Walkway a reality."

Led by its president Kent Barwick, the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance has, over the last two years (since the last conference) assembled a diverse group of commercial, environmental, governmental and recreational interests concerned with the ongoing development and use of the city's waterfront. It0 has prominently proposed the Harbor Loop Ferry as a means to bring New Yorkers and tourists to the harbor's reaches and possibly trigger development in underused harbor niches.

The Flotilla

On June 2nd, an ad hoc flotilla of hundreds of watercraft ranging from historic sailboats to powerboats to locally built rowboats and kayaks will meet in the waters off the Battery and from there descend upon Governors Island. The Flotilla, the brainchild of Al Butzel and Carter Craft, and sponsored by www.ReclaimGovernorsIsland.org seeks to focus attention on Governors Island, arguably the most valuable, underutilized parcel of land on the metropolitan area waterfront. Organizers hope to make the point that the 175-acre, mid-harbor island should be made available for public use, open space, historical and cultural awareness as well as educational pursuits. The island has been virtually unused since the Coast Guard left New York.

Peter B. Fleischer, currently writing a book on the New York City waterfront, was formerly a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani.

A Super Model for New York Harbor


For almost three decades, Ruth Anderberg was a leader in the struggle to clean up and restore the Bronx River, the city's only true free flowing river. Inspired by Earth Day and variously aided by Boy Scout troops, the National Guard Auxiliary, and the Bronx Chief of Police, Anderberg oversaw efforts that removed refrigerators and washing machines, planted trees and educated local children about the river.

Then, Anderberg retired. Last year, in her place, the Bronx River Alliance was created to lead the 60 corporate, governmental and community groups involved with the river's restoration. The river these groups focus on runs for roughly twenty miles, from a spring-fed marsh near Valhalla, New York through pristine parkland in Westchester before it meets up with the East River near Hunts Point.

Alexie Torres-Fleming, the chairperson for the Bronx River Alliance, notes how the river and the Bronx communities along its banks have been neglected, if not abused, for years, and cites as an example a cement plant on the riverĂŞs western shore, that is representative of what happens when a community lacks political heft.

The hulking, abandoned plant is the focus of a campaign by the Youth Ministry for Peace and Justice, an organization that Torres-Fleming also directs. It calls for demolition of the cement plant, expansion of nearby Starlight Park and the construction of a bike and walking path that will literally and figuratively bridge three communities divided by the crisscrossing highways. Torres-Fleming sees the "blazed" but not yet officially opened trail between these communities as a connection to the water, a recreational resource and a link among people with shared aspirations and similar problems. She wants the shared enterprise of trail and park building to simultaneously empower the community's youth by giving them a stake and a rallying point.

And the river seems to be doing just that. Hernan Melara, 19, has volunteered for four years for the Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, knocking on doors, passing out leaflets, typing notes and pushing bureaucrats to do more, sooner for the river that runs through his community.

His waterfront involvement began when he traveled to the Westchester section of the Bronx River where he saw a "clean river with turtles and ducks". "Why can't we have this?" he asked himself. Soon thereafter, he was knocking on neighbor's doors. The response from some older citizens was "great idea, I used to swim or fish there". From younger residents, the response was all too often "There is a river there?"

Melara wanted to experience the river. He joined a canoe trip that led him down the river from 219th Street to its confluence with the East River. He describes a journey through forests, the Bronx Botanical Garden, the buffalo park in the Bronx Zoo, portaging around dams and waterfalls, passing under city streets and alongside derelict industry before reaching the waves, tides and sandbars that are nature's markers between natural places. "It was a great journey and we got something accomplished. I learned never to limit myself".

Ruth Anderberg should be very pleased.

Peter B. Fleischer, currently writing a book on the New York City waterfront, was formerly a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani.

Remembering 9/11. Governors Island. The Beetles.


REMEMBERING 9/11


In gritty, industrial Long Island City, more than 150 people crowded the side walk and street adjoining a community garden to watch the planting of a street tree dedicated to Michael E. Brennan, a firefighter lost in the World Trade Center attacks. Among the participants that day, six months after September 11th, were administrators, teachers and students from Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Secondary School for Arts & Technology. Michael Brennan was the son of their school's secretary, Eileen Walsh. "As they tried to express the sorrow and grief we all feel, the idea came forward to plant a tree and put a memorial plaque in," said Noah Kaufman, one of several people working in the area who have been slowly putting together the community garden during their lunch hours. The desire for a memorial inspired a broader effort by the school to help in the garden and join with other high schools and business people to work for outdoor space in an area completely devoid of green.

The project in Queens is but one of numerous green remembrances of 9/ll that have sprouted as if from seeds spread in the wind. In addition to the parks and groves being planned at the sites of the terrorist attacks, living memorials in parks, gardens, and streets are taking root in New York and all over the country. Trees and flowers are age-old symbols of the resilience of life. People searching for a way to cope with the pain and loss have found a sense of renewal and hope in growing things, even a single tree. There is solace to be found in the labor of gardening, as well as in the process of working together with neighbors to make the city a better place to live.

The impulse can be seen in the daffodils that have been blooming at 600 parks and other sites around the city. Ten thousand volunteers planted more than a million bulbs, donated by bulb companies and Dutch cities, in a project organized by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation with help from 583 groups. Similar motivations led residents of a block in Brooklyn to raise money to plant two trees in Prospect Park to remember a neighbor who died in the World Trade Center attacks.

To encourage these efforts, the U.S. Forest Service has established a Living Memorial Project to assist local governments and groups in planning public groves in New York City, the Pentagon area, and in southwest Pennsylvania. The Forest Service is providing technical assistance and matching grants (the deadline for grant proposals is May 21.) The agency will also compile an inventory of memorial plantings around the country and feature them on the project's web site. New York City plantings will be mapped on OASIS, an interactive web-based map of New York City open space resources.

Some of the larger New York City memorials that have already been planted or are in the works:

In December, Trees New York planted 18 street trees in lower Manhattan in honor of specific individuals who lost their lives at the World Trade Center. The urban forestry organization, which promotes the planting and maintenance of street and park trees and trains citizen pruners, also has a Living Legacy Program for those who want to sponsor the planting of a commemorative tree.

At Battery Park, where many people fled after the attack and which was used as a staging area for the recovery effort, the Battery Conservancy dedicated a 10,000-square-foot flower border as the "Garden of Remembrance" for September 11. The border runs along the waterfront near the ferry for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Students from nearby high schools who escaped through the park on September 11 returned to plant bulbs in the garden, and participated in the dedication on December 11. "We wanted many people who had a traumatic experience in the park that day to build new positive memories," said Warrie Price, the park administrator and Conservancy president. The Conservancy recently received $1 million from Verizon toward its goal of a $4 million endowment to support the planting and maintenance of year-round flower and plant displays at the garden.

The National Tree Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based group that works with local volunteer organizations to plant and maintain trees in urban and rural areas and along highways, planted a dozen ash trees in a Memorial Treeway at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, where 11 of those who died on September 11 were buried. The trust plants what it calls "champion trees," which are clones of the largest and healthiest native trees in the country.

American Forests, a 125-year-old national conservation group that focuses on environmental restoration, urban forestry and education, has teamed up with Eddie Bauer to plant at least one tree for every victim of the September 11 attacks. The group will plant saplings at sites in New York, Washington, D.C., Arlington, Virginia, and Somerset County, Pennsylvania, as well as in other communities in the United States. About half of the 3,000 saplings destined for New York City will be planted in the Hudson River Park.

GOVERNORS ISLAND APRIL SURPRISE, NOT JOKE
With Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg at his side, President Bush announced on April 1st that the U.S. government would give Governors Island back to New York city and state for educational purposes. The president's announcement has given momentum to longstanding efforts to open the historic military base to public use, but with a new twist: The plan now calls for using the island for programs of the City University of New York, freeing up space at other CUNY campuses for New York City public high schools.

There was no mention of Governor Pataki's earlier plan, which was widely supported, to create a self-supporting "grand civic space" on the island, including a convention center, museum, hotel, and public park. President Clinton declared the two historic forts on the island a National Monument in his final days in office.

Civic groups and members of Congress who have been working for years to turn Governors Island into a new public space for the city reacted positively to the idea of moving CUNY programs to the island, part of which has brick buildings, lawns, and trees that feel like a college campus already. But they didn't want the idea of public uses, including open space and ballfields, forgotten. "What about the plan we all signed on to?" said Robert Pirani, environmental director of the Regional Plan Association. He noted that many elements of the previous plan were totally compatible with CUNY, including parkland, a tourist attraction like a museum to complement the historic forts, and revenue-generating uses like a conference or special events center. "One of the things that would make it a success is to have a variety of things out there."

Representative Carolyn Maloney, who, along with Rep. Jerrold Nader, sponsored legislation to return the island to New York for public use, cautioned that there needs to be a realistic way to cover the estimated $15 to $35 million cost of maintaining the island, as well as the cost of converting the buildings to educational use. In an editorial in the Daily News, she argued for federal assistance as well as the inclusion of enough revenue-producing activities to make the island self-sufficient, in addition to the green space that the original plan included.

Financing, as well as legal and legislative issues, would have to be addressed before the plan could go through. But even before the details are worked out, the National Monument area could be opened for visitors, according to Robert Pirani. "The Parks Service could be running tours this summer," he said, noting that number of people going to Ground Zero had increased visitation to the other historic attractions in New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

On June 2, a flotilla of a thousand boats will converge near the island to advance the cause of opening the island to the public.

BEETLE BUSTERS
Anyone who detects evidence of the Asian long-horned beetle is urged to call the beetle hotline, 1-877-STOPALB, operated by the nonprofit group Trees New York. The group immediately forwards the information to the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and a forester will come to check out the sighting. Barbara Eber-Schmid, the executive director of Trees New York, says that people shouldn't be reluctant to report a sighting because they don't want their tree taken down. The tree will die anyway, and there is government funding to replace the trees cut down. Leaving an infested tree will allow the beetle to spread.

Since the Asian long-horned beetle was first discovered in Greenpoint in 1996, it has become a serious threat to the city's five million park, street, and backyard trees. The tree-killing insect chews holes into the bark of trees to lay its eggs, which hatch into white, worm-like larvae. The larvae burrow into the tree to live and feed during the colder months, emerging as adults in the spring to mate and start the process all over again. The only way to stop the beetle from spreading is to cut down and destroy every infested tree.

The beetle is about one to one-and-a-half inches long, with a shiny black body, white spots and very long, black-and-white striped antennae. Signs of the beetle are dime or pencil-sized holes, usually in the upper trunk or branches, and piles of frass -- sawdust and insect waste -- where branches meet the trunk or at the base of the tree.


Sites For Beginners:

  • Neighborhood Open Space Coalition's Treebranch Network -- Among the areas covered by this longtime advocate for New York City open space are greenways, community gardens, parks, the waterfront, and Gateway National Park. Subscribe here free to the electronic version of Urban Outdoors Bulletin, an excellent source of news about parks and related issues.
  • NYC Department of Parks and Recreation -- It's easy to look up any park location, facility, program, or event at this site. You can also take a "virtual tour" (actually, more words than pictures) of several important parks in each borough, or design your own park by playing the NYC planner game. The "Daily Plant," circulated within the department, offers an inside look at park programs and events. Various park permits and applications, including a request for a street tree, can be printed and submitted through the site.
  • OASIS -- An interactive site that lets you view NYC land use maps or aerial photos by borough, neighborhood, community board, or zip code, then zoom in on details like parks, community gardens, or vacant lots and obtain zoning and ownership information. There are some inaccuracies, but users can help update the information.
  • Partnership for Parks -- A joint initiative of the City Parks Foundation and the NYC parks department. Under "What We Do," there is information about the Bronx River and other projects, citywide volunteer events, small grants programs, and many other efforts that help communities support and build constituencies for their parks.
  • Trust for Public Land -- This national open space group has increased its focus on urban areas in recent years. It has helped save community gardens and negotiated the purchase of several new state parks in the city recently. The site provides frequently updated information on the trust's projects and open space issues nationwide. Look under "Research Room" for urban land conservation and federal and state funding.
  • Urban Parks online -- An electronic toolbox for people working on city parks issues, from the Urban Parks Institute (part of the Project for Public Spaces, a NYC non-profit that aims to build community life through public spaces). The site brings together ideas from all over for creating, funding, and maintaining urban parks, and highlights park places and park news from around the country.

Other Recommendations:

  • Americans for Our Heritage and Recreation -- AHR is dedicated to strengthening the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, an important source of funding for urban parks and recreation. The site also has links to the House and Senate web sites, and a listing of all the projects, by state and by county, that have received money from the fund.
  • Brooklyn Botanic Garden -- Visiting this site is the next best thing to visiting the garden: Exhaustive but well organized, it offers virtual tours and everything you would ever want to know about the garden, as well as gardening information and access to the resource center and library.
  • Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation -- The organization that is creating the Brooklyn Bridge Park posts the park's master plan, as well as an overview of the planning process and a trove of background material.
  • Brooklyn Bridge Park Coalition -- More information from a coalition of community groups that is working to create a Brooklyn waterfront park. The list of links is an excellent resource.
  • Car-Free Central Park Campaign -- This site for a campaign by the pedestrian and bicyclist advocate Transportation Alternatives lays out arguments for banning cars from Central Park's loop drive and provides the latest news on the issue.
  • Central Park Conservancy -- The official web site of Central Park, with news, events, tours, programs, and more.
  • Green Guerillas -- An organizer of grassroots activism to protect community gardens, this group also offers generous hands-on help: plants, supplies, advice, and volunteers.
  • GreenThumb -- New York City's GreenThumb program has been supporting community gardens for more than 20 years with information, technical assistance, materials, and funding. Check the site for grants, events, information, and links to gardening organization and individual community garden web sites.
  • More Gardens! Coalition -- This site has information on efforts to protect community gardens and a list of NYC gardens with links.
  • New York City Audubon -- Focuses on the city's wilder open spaces: Look here for wetlands and wildlife habitat protection, volunteering, and, of course, birding.
  • New York City Environmental Justice Alliance -- A network of grassroots groups working for healthier environments in low-income areas and in communities of color. Its Open Space Equity Campaign helps community-based groups with land use planning, organizing and advocacy to green their neighborhoods. Download a draft of its Green Cities proposal for a state urban environmental investment program.
  • New York Restoration Project -- A lively site from Bette Midler's group, which has been restoring parks in upper Manhattan and has helped save community gardens.
  • Prospect Park Alliance -- Park visitors can look here for park history, destinations, and recreation information.
  • Take a walk, New York -- Sign up here for free one-hour guided walks in some of the city's great and far-flung parks and greenways, sponsored by the New York City Department of Health and the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition.
  • Waterfront Park Coalition -- A project of the New York Conservation Education Fund, the coalition has created an inventory of waterfront park opportunities, assists local groups, and develops funding strategies.


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