Covering Climate Now

The sinking class: The New Yorkers left to fight the climate crisis alone

The city is taking action to protect lower Manhattan’s waterfront while low-income residents in other boroughs must fend for themselves.

New York's mayor as proposed a $13.8 billion plan to extend the shoreline of Lower Manhattan to fight sea level rise. But other vulnerable New York communities say they are struggling for funding.
New York's mayor as proposed a $13.8 billion plan to extend the shoreline of Lower Manhattan to fight sea level rise. But other vulnerable New York communities say they are struggling for funding.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
In a photo taken on Oct 30, 2012, people survey destruction in South Street Seaport as New Yorkers clean up the morning after Hurricane Sandy made landfall.
In a photo taken on Oct 30, 2012, people survey destruction in South Street Seaport as New Yorkers clean up the morning after Hurricane Sandy made landfall.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK - Jainey Bavishi is all business as she takes off from Battery Park to walk the perimeter of lower Manhattan. It's a muggy afternoon, a breeze barely lifting off of the New York harbour, after days of heavy rain. She manoeuvres through throngs of tourists, construction workers and suits streaming out of office towers for lunch as she walks north from the waterfront park towards the Brooklyn Bridge.

In a skirt suit and flats, Ms Bavishi fits in among lower Manhattan's workday hustle. But there's no one else with a job like hers: director of the New York City mayor's office of resiliency. She is tasked with protecting all 930km of New York City's shoreline from more frequent and extreme storms and expected sea rise due to the climate crisis.

"We have got a chance to really re-imagine the waterfront," she says, heading underneath FDR Drive past interim flood barriers erected by the city following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. There's an air of promise and forward-thinking in her stride. "I think that's really exciting," she exhales.

This walk with Ms Bavishi is, in fact, an exercise in imagining: In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an ambitious US$10 billion (S$13.8 billion) proposal to extend Manhattan's southern coastline into the East River as far as 152m.

Ms Bavishi's walk from Battery Park almost to the Brooklyn Bridge is the roughly 1.6km span proposed for expansion. It includes the financial district, sparkling residential towers and the luxury mixed-use community Battery Park City, where a one-bedroom condo is about US$1 million.

Twenty kilometres north, in Hunts Point in the South Bronx, the waterfront outlines a much different scene. A stench rises from the pavement in the summer heat, open garages reveal heaps of auto body parts, and cyclists swerve between box trucks that dominate the streets. About 13,000 people live in ageing apartment buildings at the centre of this peninsula, lined on either site by heavily industrialised waterfront.

Hunts Point residents and activists fought for years to increase access to the waterfront as well as address longstanding environmental issues. More recently, they have engaged with the mayor's office of resiliency, formed in 2014 to oversee New York City's US$20 billion portfolio of programmes to make the city more resilient to the climate crisis. In Hunts Point, residents re-imagined a waterfront that addressed longstanding environmental injustices and poverty that persists in the area.

The Hunts Point community spent five years developing a plan for protective waterfront infrastructure doubling as public green space, a "Levee Lab" to study resiliency efforts and create local jobs, and a tri-generation plant creating low-carbon cooling and a micro-grid to supply backup power in emergencies. But around the same time Mr De Blasio introduced his US$10 billion proposal, the office of resiliency decided it would not fund that plan due to high cost and because Hunts Points residents do not live in the floodplain.

That decision hit this community hard. It is one of several in New York City finding that it can't face a future of climate change without quality of life issues being addressed first. In preparing for its future, the city would have to confront injustices of its past, and some environmental activists fear the city is not up to the task.

The mayor's office of resiliency set a goal for holistic resiliency planning across the five boroughs, but there's a lingering question: How does the city enforce waterfront protection for all, when some of it is home to billions of dollars of real estate, infrastructure and investment, and others have been neglected for decades?

As the climate crisis promises to lay bare the stark disparities of New York City, the answer has never been more pressing.

POVERTY AND ENVIRONMENTAL INJUSTICE

For the past five years, environmental activist Angela Tovar has posted fliers, maps, renderings, artwork and a rally poster that reads "Pollution Isn't the Solution" all over the South Bronx Community Resiliency Agenda Lab at the cavernous Hunts Point community hub called the Point.

As director of community development at the lab, Ms Tovar is constantly hustling about, running late on this occasion because a discussion about the Point's community-led resiliency plan with New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran long.

"Our work on climate justice started a long time ago," she says. "And it came from an understanding that there is a high volume of toxic substances in this area, which is also vulnerable to storm surge."

Ms Tovar points to a large map with about 20 red dots marking the peninsula's waterfront - they represent businesses with high volumes of toxic substances. She identifies the residential blocks between the waterfront as an "environmental justice community where about half the community lives below the poverty line, and there are really serious public health issues we know will be compounded by climate change".

 
 

She then points to a chunk of the peninsula, the entire north-eastern half, occupied by the Hunts Point Food Distribution Centre, which spans 24ha and supplies food to the entire north-eastern corridor. "Not only are we talking about a potential threat of storm surge hitting an environmental justice community, and hitting businesses with toxic chemicals, we are talking about how that would impact the food distribution centre," she says.

Hurricane Sandy prompted the office of resiliency to focus its attention on protecting the food distribution centre.

Meanwhile, community organisers like Ms Tovar had already been advocating for the city to also take stock of the poverty, isolation and longstanding environmental injustices across the peninsula. The office of resiliency ultimately decided to focus on strengthening buildings inside the food distribution centre instead of moving ahead on a comprehensive waterfront resiliency plan.

Ms Tovar's voice strains and her head shakes, recalling how that news came around the same time Mr De Blasio announced his US$10 billion investment in building new land in lower Manhattan. "It felt like a tremendous slap in the face, to be honest," she says.

She acknowledges that the US$10 billion is far from secured, but points out that the South Bronx lacks even a promise of funding.

"All we're saying is make that same commitment to the most vulnerable communities in New York City," she says. "Get up on stage, make that commitment and say: 'Low-income communities and communities of colour are disproportionately burdened by climate change.'"

Instead of relying on the city, local activists have moved ahead on smaller projects without the city, such as launching a community Wi-Fi network resistant to power and Internet outages. The Point also runs the Be a Buddy programme, which is building a network of local volunteers who learn how to provide resources, aid and immediate support during climate emergencies like heatwaves or storms. "We just have to continue to move on our own," Ms Tovar says, with a hint of defeat in her voice.

MISSING VOICES

In another borough on another waterfront, another under-served community has come up with their own programme to train residents to help one another. It's called Local Leaders and is a 10-week emergency preparedness training run by the not-for-profit Red Hook Initiative (RHI) out of a converted warehouse a few blocks from the Gowanus Expressway, in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Unlike the South Bronx, Hurricane Sandy devastated Red Hook, transforming RHI into de facto recovery headquarters. The thousands of residents seeking help were primarily public housing residents - this neighbourhood has the second-highest concentration in the city. Red Hook embodies perhaps the greatest challenge facing New York as it braces for the climate crisis: nearly one-fifth of all housing units within New York's floodplain are public housing, and the city's public housing agency struggles to provide even basic services to residents.

Ms Tevina Willis moved into the sprawling public housing complex about a decade ago. During Sandy, she and her neighbours ran up and down stairs, hauling water and spreading information about available resources. She was one of the first graduates of Local Leaders after RHI initiated it in 2013 to empower residents with emergency preparedness tactics such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation and conflict resolution; now she facilitates incoming groups. "Local Leaders further connected me to my neighbours," Ms Willis says, "And it took off from there."

During an August block party hosted by RHI, a conversation with Ms Willis about resiliency kept returning to housing. "Our electricity constantly goes out, every other day there's an electrical fire in someone's apartment," she details over pop and rap music blasting from the DJ booth. "A lot of our tenants experience gas outages." She points to a resident who recently went without gas for six months.

Ms Willis is helping spearhead the next phase for trained Local Leaders: "A social justice and community organising campaign to fight for policy change" with a focus on improving public housing. "We need resiliency inside our apartments," she says.

 
 

On a quieter day, RHI's chief strategy officer, Mr Javier Lopez, spoke about the larger resiliency vision for the neighbourhood. While the city has installed some interim flood protections since Sandy, a larger plan to install floodwalls, raise streets and improve drainage to protect housing has yet to be implemented. Like Ms Willis, Mr Lopez struggles to reconcile the planning process with glaring needs of public housing residents. "It's hard to project the future when the present hasn't been addressed," he says.

He spoke of a divide between low-income, marginalised residents and the scientific, architectural and urban planning community advancing resiliency plans. "Sometimes we walk into these meetings and the architects and scientists are coming in at a 10, and we're at a two," he says.

"No one from the resiliency world has had the awareness to take into account that neighbourhoods have faced structural racism and various forms of disinvestment," he continues. "There are voices missing, there are areas of concern, there hasn't been a restoration of what was lost since Sandy."

LINGERING TRAUMA

Along our lower Manhattan walk, and again in a quick telephone conversation, I ask Ms Bavishi how she weighs the needs of different waterfront communities in resiliency planning.

"An incredible amount of community engagement," she says. "Our goal is to be thoughtful and inclusive, recognising there is no silver bullet and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We have to work with communities to figure out the right solutions for particular neighbourhoods."

She points to an inter-agency plan developed in Edgemere, in Rockaway, Queens. Edgemere has been called one of the most neglected neighbourhoods in New York City and is particularly vulnerable to the climate crisis because it's sandwiched between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. During Sandy, flooding from both waterfronts - one lined with a defunct landfill, the other a city-owned wasteland - debilitated the neighbourhood.

"We were able to engage communities in thinking holistically about what would make their neighbourhood more resilient," Ms Bavishi says. The resulting plan includes buying hurricane-destroyed houses to turn into parks, transit upgrades, raising homes and the shoreline, building a new mixed-use complex and improving the public housing lining the bay.

Ms Sonia Moise watched the calm waters of the bay meet the fierce waves of the ocean from her bedroom window in Edgemere the night of Sandy. The promise of Edgemere as a more resilient neighbourhood is overshadowed by her seven-year struggle to recover from that day.

"There's no amount of people who complain like we do about (recovery) work not being done the right way," she says. "I honestly believe we were treated the absolute worst because of location."

Outside of her three-storey home hoisted atop a slab of concrete, she mentioned how long it took to grow backyard grass because the property was built atop rocks and sand. This spring, she wrapped up a storm-proofing renovation, funded by her savings as well as the city's post-Sandy rebuilding programme, Build It Back. But the saga isn't over: She recently hired a lawyer to dispute the quality of work from Build It Back, which she feels will not sufficiently protect her from the next storm.

"We need to feel we're safe," she says of her community's lingering trauma recovering from Sandy. But there's a larger threat beyond the next storm: Edgemere will be one of the first New York neighbourhoods made uninhabitable by the climate crisis. There's already a division emerging on Ms Moise's block: homes with raised elevation - like her own - and those still at ground level. "The people who haven't raised their houses know they won't be able to stay," she says.

The city offered to buy Ms Moise's property following Sandy, but she declined. "I don't trust the city, that they'd give the money you want for your house," she says. Would she consider selling if she knew she would get a fair payment? "Probably not," she says, considering the grievances built up during the recovery process. "I have a disdain for the city."

So Ms Moise will stay, as her neighbourhood is both transformed by the climate crisis and the city's efforts to protect it. On the cusp of such transformation, there's a quiet, almost eerie atmosphere walking the streets - even a level of disbelief that Edgemere does, in fact, belong to the same city as lower Manhattan.

LACK OF CAPABILITY

When Mr De Blasio announced his ambitious proposal to expand lower Manhattan, he listed the reasons why it was worth saving: home to a half-million jobs, 90,000 residents, the nexus of nearly all the city's subway lines. He left out that the city and private sector have heavily invested in this neighbourhood since the early 1700s, when it emerged as a financial hub, as other waterfronts became places to house poor New Yorkers, often alongside toxic industrial sites.

 
 

Ms Bavishi's goal to holistically address it all is daunting, if not impossible. Funding sources to implement many of the city's resiliency plans - including lower Manhattan's - are uncertain. Plans in neighbourhoods such as Red Hook have stalled. Crucial city agencies such as the New York City housing authority, which oversees public housing along the floodplain, lack their own vision and funding for resiliency. And, as Ms Tovar mentioned in the resiliency lab, Mr De Blasio still has yet to get on a stage and acknowledge low-income communities are disproportionately burdened by the climate crisis.

Ms Bavishi ultimately acknowledges the office of resiliency does not have the capability to address all the longstanding concerns of marginalised communities. "There's an urgency to climate challenges we're facing and we want to take that seriously," she tells me over the phone. "We also want to make sure we're not raising expectations for other solutions that are out of sync with the resources we have."

So New York is left to see how its most vulnerable residents will survive as the city's shorelines are transformed - when the ambitious resiliency plans fall through, when storm-proofing can't address day-to-day needs like safer housing.

"Having an exciting, bold vision is not enough," Ms Tovar says of the Hunts Point resiliency plan, though she could be talking about the rest of the city. "I hope the city comes back to the table to think big and do something unprecedented, because we're New York City. But how do we encourage them to do that?"

This story originally appeared in The Guardian. It is republished here as part of The Straits Times' partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.