By Gary Tilzer
After the debacle of the police blocking protesters trying to stop the cutting down of 1000 trees; after the community plan received federal funding to use proven natural ecological methods to prevent Sandy type storms flooding in their neighborhood to save the park and its trees; the former mayor’s plan to use failed 19th century walls to stop flooding to deliver more contracts to his developer friends, defeated the Eastside community’s plan with the muscle of the NYPD, not because his plan was better. To understand how to prevent flooding all over the city, we have to go back to the past to understand how the bioregional ecology of the coastal lands of NY Harbor acted as a sponge to prevent flooding and how the first environmental movement in the city led to cleaner air and safer city from flooding, as a model for our future.
The Little-Known First NYC Great Park Movement in the 1800’s Protected the City’ Fresh Water Supply and Provided New Yorkers with Clean Air was the City’s First Environmental Movement
Teddy Roosevelt who believed in the need for land management for clean air and water was one of the first to see the battle between urbanization of air and water, started the Great Parks Movement. He was instrumental in convincing the Van Cortlandt family to donate land to create the Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx Botanical Garden, and Bronx Zoo. Roosevelt, suffering from asthma, understood that urbanization would cause problems in the future. These parks and others created by Frederick Law Olmstead in Manhattan and Brooklyn were set aside and designed to follow natural topography to improve the dirty environment in NYC that sprang up during the Industrial Revolution, ripe with open sewers, horses-waste and particulate fumes from wood and coal burning. The accomplishments of the City’s first environmental movement have been forgotten or ignored for over a century, serves as a good lesson to begin understanding the real reason for water pollution and flooding in NYC today.
In the 1960’s, environmentalist Dr. Theodore Kazimiroff, founder of the Bronx County Historical Society, fought the mayor’s plans to expand a landfill in Pelham Bay Park, which would have created NYC’s second-largest refuse disposal site next to Fresh Kills in Staten Island. Kazimiroff worked with Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and Supreme Court Justice William O Douglas to create Gateway National Park and save coastal lands in the Rockaways, Brooklyn, and Staten Island at the Gateway to NY Harbor
A long history of urbanization, poor water management, not climate change causes storm flooding on NYC’s coastal lands and pollutes our rivers. NYC development has enabled the ocean stormwater to force itself past the city’s coastal shorelines. Land mismanagement causes unknown covered-up underground brooks like Tibbetts Brook in the Bronx, to rage during storms, flooding highways and neighborhood roads.
Tidal wetlands, trees and estuaries are the best weapons the city has to fight flooding. They contain oysters, muscles, barnacles, and importantly in the northeast, Spartina Grasses, that act as a sponge absorbing coastal wave energy and water overflow from land. Submersed oyster beds act as natural water blockers and clean the city’s harbor. If the banks of the rivers, brook and creeks surrounding NYC functioned like a sponge as they did in the 1600s in their natural role to purify water and absorb tidal surges, we will be protected in coastal storms today.
We Need a Great Parks Environmental Movement 2.0 Using History and Scientists to Manage NYC’s Harbor, Coastal Lands and Polluted Rivers
We need to look at NY Harbor and the ocean that feeds it, as the “heart” with urbanization, landfill cover-ups of the naturally occurring 17th century tributaries, brooks, creeks, river shorelines, wetlands, and estuaries as the cause of our heart attack or coastal flooding and our polluted rivers.
During the city’s first environmental movement in the 1880-90’s thousands of acres of lands were acquired by the city in the outer reaches north of NYC by philanthropists, who were thinking about the future of NYC fresh air and water supply. The problem is today nobody is thinking about the big picture of what is needed for the future safety of New Yorkers
During the last 300 years, urbanization disrupted the city’s land and water interdependencies to support the development of a megacity. These modifications have affected the shorelines, water flow, water quality, habitats and living resources of the harbor and the ocean that feeds it. Besides flooding, torrential rains like Tropical Storm Ida and Hurricane Sandy also result in the release of a sewerage mix into the city’s already polluted rivers, from rain water dumped into the sewers, overloading the sewerage treatment plants.
Lower Manhattan in the 1600’s was 25% water, with brooks, lakes and extensive wetlands that acted as a sponge when the ocean and rivers rose during storms. It is clear from looking at the early computer-generated maps from the Mannahatta Project showing New York Harbor as much narrower in the past, surrounded by wetlands, tree lined shorelines, sand bars, and dozens of connected brooks, and lakes. The present-day harbor with hardened shorelines, dredged shipping channels, sandbars removed or dammed-up and tributaries covered-up by landfill, no longer can absorb tidal surges.
Where wetlands, streams and lakes were located along the coastlines of NYC, housing and business have been built, right up to the waterline on the shores of Staten Island, Coney Island and NJ along the entrance to NY Harbor. The shores of Brooklyn following the Belt Parkway, Battery Park City, the Westside walk, and bikeways all have a cement wall with no trees or wetlands to soak up storm water. Even the Barry Diller Island built on pilings plays no role in acting as a sponge to stop the surging storm waters. The Staten Island sandbar located at the entrance to the harbor, known as Great Kills, contains radioactive radium, from the medical waste that was dumped there for years.
As de Blasio Use of NYPD Muscle Proved, NYC Did Not Use Science or History to Cure Flooding and Water Pollution
de Blasio does what he always did, used the Sandy flooding to split the Eastside community apart and used the Parks Department as a bag man to deliver billion-dollar contracts to developer friends, just like Tammany Hall did. We had a mayor that muscled and smeared community leaders who worked hard to win federal funding, for a community produced plan to prevent flooding. The mayor even ignored a court order to stop cutting down 1000 trees and used the NYPD to block the community from stopping a “Terracide.”
Before the Eastside park’s trees were cut down the community plan went through years of public workshops, town hall meetings and open houses attended by more than 1,000 members of the neighborhood. Their plan used proven ecological Dutch flood fighting techniques, even won federal funding in a competition sponsored by Secretary of Urban Development Shaun Donovan,
The community plan included: A grassy, reinforced hill, or berm, on the western edge of the park abutting east river shoreline and the F.D.R. Drive. The community’s plan would use the park as a barrier, holding back floodwaters from the East River and protecting the surrounding public housing developments, while keeping all of its existing park’s oak trees. It’s estimated price tag was $760 million. The city’s Parks Department experts said, “they could not maintain the park as a gigantic sponge.”
Former Mayor de Blasio was hell bent on a multibillion-dollar un-environmental ineffective outdated 19th century mechanical plan, requiring the razing of the entire park, and cutting down its trees. The mayor’s plan that he forced on the community will use his developer friends to build a 10 feet wall, and then cover nearly all of its 50 acres with eight to ten feet of landfill. Braced by a 1.2-mile flood wall, at a cost of $1.45 billion and would not include the federal contest funding that the community plan won. Anyone who believes that the replacement park will not cause more or that developers won’t try to build some building on that chosen real estate, should learn the history of the Central Park Ice Rink, formally known as Trump. As usual the de Blasio team split the community and the NY Times focused his B Roll games.
NY Times Avoids History and Science to Carry the Ex-Mayor’s Water for Their Developer Friends
The Times in the article “What Does It Mean to Save a Neighborhood” covered the struggle between the community who worked hard to find a solution to flooding and the mayoral takeover, made their story about flood prevention, into a third remake of “Westside Story.” The mayor even used Officer Krupke type police to remove protesters, some chained to trees that were promptly cut down by the city’s developers.
The paper of record was correct with one sentence in their story. “For a moment Superstorm Sandy restored Manhattan’s early 17th-century coastline.” The Times ignored the bigger environmental explanation on how to stop the flooding, which they have offered piecemeal in the past. “Let Water Go Where It Wants to Go” article. Their current article wrongly inferred flooding could be fixed locally amid the politics of manipulation and community participation?
The Times, addicted to the race card narrative, focused on a community organizer who originally supported the community plan, who became a frequently cited supporter of the mayor’s plan. In January, after stepping down as NYC Public Housing Vladeck’s tenant president, the community organizer started working as a special assistant at the NYCHA. She and others began to zero in on how many of the most outspoken opponents seemed to them to be white interlopers not living in public housing, which they described as the front lines.
The sad fact is both the Eastside activists trying to save trees and their park by using Dutch proven methods and the mayor’s developer plan will not fix the city’s coastal flooding problems, not even where the ten-foot wall is being built, and the city admits it. Fixing the Eastside Park coast line from flooding is like fixing the pain in the left arm while someone is having a heart attack. NYC has ignored for decades how it abused our city’s living shorelines, harbor, and brooks, the real cause of NYC’s coastal flooding.
Environmental Activists Only See the Flooding Problem in Their Neighborhoods When a Citywide Plan Is Needed to Fix the Problem
There are environmental activists working in their neighborhoods around the city who understand what to do to stop the flooding in their community, but they are a small group that lacks the power to get the media to pay attention, the public to understand, and to lobby City Hall to approve and fund their environmentally sound plans. The lack of accurate media coverage has disconnected the majority of New Yorkers who support the Green New Deal from these important groups of neighborhood environmentalists who understand how the City has abused its water system. However, the activist environmentalists only focused on their local areas, a kind of reverse NIMBY, resulting in the lack of understanding of how the entire city’s water system works and how long-lasting solutions to the flooding and pollution will need a citywide strategy and plan.
The Coney Island Environmental Activists are Right, Their Creek has been Turned into a Toilet Bowl, Need to Focus on Whole City
What the Coney Island Creek Activists need to know is how to build a citywide environmental powerful movement to get City Hall to pay attention, by understanding their creek in the 1700’s flowed into Sheepshead Bay, Jamaica Bay and other creeks long ago separated by landfill to construct tens of thousands of apartments. The Creek at one time diverted tidal surges out of NY Harbor and Manhattan. Land and water mismanagement in one area affects other communities facing storm flooding, our polluted rivers are a problem for all New Yorkers.
YouTube film maker Charles Denson understands that Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed solution to Sandy flooding in 2013, of erecting bulkheads along Coney Island Creek Estuary and damming up or building mechanical gates at the harbor entrance of the creek, was a failed 19th century solution to the flooding, that de Blasio is also using on the Eastside Park. Dennis Hrehowsik, a Brooklyn Bird Club leader, believes that only salt water grassy marshes, trees, Horseshoe Crabs, Oyster Bed Reefs, and sand dunes can offer a safety net for the surrounding Coney Island neighborhood, from tidal surges. The Coney Island activists believe the ferries will stir up toxic waste long buried in the creek and are ignored. Even now at least 15 buildings are sending their sewer waste into the creek, where people fish and swim.
NYC Needs a New Environmental Movement That Restores Human and Ecological Understanding of the City’ Water System to Get Media Attention and City Hall Action
Environmentalists need to learn and teach that there is more than the Green New Deal to fix our city and planet. They need to educate themselves and all of NYC about how bad land management during urbanization in the NYC past, caused much of today’s flooding and water pollution. They must teach that the NY Harbor and Atlantic Ocean are the “heart” of NYC’s interconnected living shorelines, its rivers, brooks, and creeks, even those areas that have been covered up for decades by landfill, are still causing flooding during storms.
Local environmentalists who are trying to fix the NYC water emergency, will never have the power without the support of the Green New Deal to fight cops, construction workers and City Hall. It is useless to support the Green New Deal if you lack the understanding of the human and ecological interactions and the interrelationships of bioregions, organisms like Oysters and Spartina Grasses interacting with the city’s water system, to fight flooding and pollution.
There are neighborhood activists fighting to clean up the Coney Island Creek, the Eastside Park resiliency plan and the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn flooding and pollution who need to organize a citywide movement to fix the City’s broken water system. Local Environmentalists working with City Hall must develop plans using 21st century technology to restore nature’s proven methods of rebuilding coastal wetlands to control flooding and unpollute the city’s rivers.
Without a citywide new environmental movement, local activists trying to save an Eastside Park are no match for the developers who are looking to put up luxury tall buildings in the Eastside Park. After decades of trying, activists alone in the Bronx do not have the power to win funding to daylight Tibbetts Brook that overflows during rainstorms on the highways and city streets, overloading the city’s sewers, dumping billions of gallons of water mixed with sewage into the city’s rivers during rainstorms. Activists trying to un-pollute Coney Island Creek are no match for the new Coney Island developers who need a ferry connection to attract buyers for their new luxury apartments.
The public must understand that building a ferry stop in Coney Island Creek will disrupt the ability to control flooding in Manhattan. The activists must make City Hall understand that cutting 1000 trees in an eastside park will make flooding worse. For every mature tree the city removes 100,000 gallons of water enters runoff into our sewer system. Environmentalists must understand that the flooding on the Bronx highways, and neighborhoods will further pollution the city’s rivers, is not caused by climate change, but bad land management including centuries of brooks and lakes being covered by landfills, dredging of NY Harbor, and damming of NYC’s natural sandbars and coastal living shorelines.
Using Gaia Hypothesis: New York Harbor and coastal lands have to be looked at as its geographic and maritime origin in the 1600’s. Sandbars like Long Island, the Rockaways, Coney Island and Staten Island, their bays like Jamaica Bay and waterfronts are integral to our harbor. Coastal flooding and the flooding of lower Manhattan have their origin in the destruction of our contingent wetlands, deforestation of trees. The Gaia theory, paradigm or principle proposes that,” the living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on this planet.”
Environmentalists Need to Force the City to Create a Dutch Styled Water Board Inside a Redesigned Park’s Department Super Agency
NYC needs a Parks Department that is leading the fight to improve the city’s environment, not just the bagman for political payoff to developers. The supporters of the Green New Deal must do more than get rid of fossil fuels. We need to build a NYC environmentalist lobby to pressure City Hall to merge the Parks Department with the Department of Environmental Protection and the other city agencies that deal with the harbor and waterways to create a new super environmentally friendly Parks Department with a Water Board like the Dutch to regulate the city’s water systems and land use as it relates to water.
NYC needs to create a water board to give the city’s living shores a voice in redevelopment in neighborhoods like Gowanus, so the luxury housing developers who want to make that neighborhood into the new Venice, are forced to build wetlands to soak up overflowing water from the canal, restoring the canal to its early role of diverting tidal storm surges from NY Harbor. NYC needs an army of environmental activists, to come up with an ongoing strategy to fix NYC’s entire harbor as a counter balance to developers’ power inside City Hall to force the city to make decisions on land management to limit flooding, not delivering contracts to campaign contributing developers and their lobbyists.
With a third of their nation below sea level the Dutch have battled flooding by using expertise and science. The Dutch water board oversees canals, rivers and everything else water related. Today, Dutch water boards, in tandem with ecologists and engineers, still help determine national flood protection policies, including where people can or can’t live, and what needs to be built, or unbuilt, to safeguard against flooding. Elected politicians come and go; water boards are there to listen to science and take the long view.
Bury FDR Drive to Build a Bigger Park That Includes Wetlands
Both the Eastside activists and the city have expressed interest in building a green roof over the FDR Drive. A roof would create a protective barrier for the housing developments while also muffling traffic noise and pollution, while providing additional parkland. A third tunnel or tube added to underground FDR drive, could be both used to alleviate rush hour delays and convert to handle the overflow flooding during a super storm. FDR’s third tunnel could be used to go either way during Rush hours and turned into a giant water tunnel if a storm like Sandy showed up again.
Moses whose highways caused flooding on the Bronx Highways by burying the runoff of Tibbetts Brook got it right on the Eastside. In 1937, Moses persuaded city officials to add acres of landfill along the East River waterfront, expanding Manhattan’s shoreline and creating a slender, gracious park with London Planes and Pin Oak trees. Activists in the 1970’s derailed Westway, a buried westside highway that would have been topped with a greenway roughly twice the size of the East River Park, hurting the ability to control lower Manhattan flooding.