The Street-by-Street Battle Against Climate Change
Our climate is changing, and our approaches to politics and activism have to change with it. That’s why The Nation, in partnership with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, has launched “Taking Heat,” a series of dispatches from the front lines of the climate-justice movement, by journalist Audrea Lim.
In “Taking Heat,” Lim explores the ways in which the communities that stand to lose the most from climate change are also becoming leaders in the climate resistance. From the farms of Puerto Rico to the tar sands of Canada, from the streets of Los Angeles to Kentucky’s coal country, communities are coming together to fight for a just transition to a greener and more equitable economy. At a time when extreme-weather events and the climate-policy impasse are increasingly dominating environmental news, “Taking Heat” focuses on the intersection of climate change with other social and political issues, showcasing the ingenious and inventive ways in which people are already reworking our economy and society. Follow along here.
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Adan Palermo’s street, in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, was always his playground. As a child, the tranquil stretch of row houses, between the six-lane 4th Avenue thruway and the eternal shadow of the elevated Gowanus Expressway, was a place for him and his friends to hit baseballs with plastic bats.
Since 2017, the 26-year-old has also been its “block captain,” a role that emerged after Superstorm Sandy brought New York City to a week-long standstill, and the task of identifying neighborhood point-people ahead of emergencies began to seem more urgent. “We’re already close to the water,” he said. And the climate crisis promises to bring more extreme weather disasters to his street, located half a mile from New York Bay, whose waters inundated the nearby neighborhood of Red Hook after Sandy. “Our folks are already at a disadvantage. Sunset Park is a low-income community.”
The “block captain” initiative is part of the Sunset Park Climate Justice Center, which the community organization UPROSE established by popular demand at a series of neighborhood meetings following Sandy. The neighborhood, with its mix of Puerto Rican, Dominican, Ecuadorian, Mexican, and Chinese residents, is one of New York City’s six Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas—areas where polluting industries have historically been clustered, and where the city intends to continue clustering them. All are located in storm-surge areas. Also, all are predominantly low-income communities of color.
But since 1966, UPROSE has been organizing the neighborhood “block-by-block,” as their organizers say, to win lead-paint abatement legislation, fight an expansion of the Gowanus Expressway (high rates of asthma cluster in its immediate vicinity), defeat plans for a 520 mega-watt power plant, and initiate a community-led planning effort that transformed a former illegal dumping ground into a waterfront city park. And now, the Climate Justice Center intends to build climate adaptation and resiliency through a similar grassroots strategy.
These plans are in stark contrast to the more technocratic approach behind more well-publicized climate resiliency efforts in the city, like the $335 million Big U mega-engineering project—the result of a major design and architecture competition—to construct a protective barrier around lower Manhattan. (The first section, the East Side Coastal Resiliency project, is now undergoing public review, and construction is slated to begin in 2020.) Climate-mitigation efforts across the rest of the city include Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $10 billion plan to extend Lower Manhattan’s coast by up to two city blocks, and the inelegant rows of supersized sandbags along stretches of Red Hook in Brooklyn and Astoria in Queens. In partnership with the US Army Corps of Engineers, the city is building more than $1 billion worth of berms, flood walls, dunes, and other flood resiliency projects in Staten Island and Queens, and reforms to zoning and building codes will require new buildings to meet climate-resiliency guidelines.
Yet for UPROSE, “block-to-block” organizing, aimed at meaningfully engaging the community on climate adaptation, is necessary in a place like New York City—and a neighborhood like Sunset Park—where every block is different from the next: public-housing projects on one, auto salvaging shops on another, and restaurants or residential property on the next. And with some estimates projecting up to six feet of sea-level rise for parts of New York City by early in the next century, the industrial, waterfront areas of the neighborhood will be completely inundated.
“This idea that you could create a resiliency plan, and helicopter into a community and apply it, doesn’t work,” said UPROSE Executive Director Elizabeth Yeampierre. She mentioned the 90-plus auto shops near the Sunset Park waterfront, which she says have been targeted for shutdown by some environmentalists. Auto salvage shops, which disassemble old cars, can pose environmental and public health risks from chemicals and heavy metals leaching into the ground or becoming airborne as toxic dust—concerns that, with many auto salvage shops located in storm-surge zones, are growing more pressing as the climate crisis intensifies.
This could potentially harm local residents like Palermo and his family. But Palermo, an UPROSE organizer, does not advocate shutting them down. “They’re the biggest industry in our community,” he says. His work involves approaching and speaking, one-by-one, to the auto shop workers, and from this experience, he understands why climate interventions don’t rank high in their list of priorities. “Even if you want to save the world from pollution, these are still real jobs that people need to feed their families.”
So he talks to them about the risks to their own health. He listens to their concerns. (The most prevalent and pressing concern, he says, is about the skyrocketing rents and their risk of being displaced.) He seeks possible solutions to their problems, like alternatives to the toxic chemicals they can use, or how best to contain spills and leaks. And it is starting to work: Shop owners have asked him for more resources and to run shop-wide trainings to educate all their workers.
It is also precisely what the block captains are doing on their streets: speaking to neighbors (and landlords) about painting rooftops white (this can reduce heat buildup in the city), building a stormwater collection system (to reduce water usage and create a backup in case the water supply is ever cut off), and testing backyard soil for suitability for starting small urban farms. The work lacks the grandiosity of the Big U, but its result is an approach to climate adaptation that encourages participation by residents and draws on their knowledge and strengths: construction, growing food, reusing and repurposing—skills that are abundant among the residents of Sunset Park, according to Yeampierre.
Over time, these community-wide discussions have also prompted bigger projects that benefit the entire neighborhood, and help the city shift toward renewable energy. In November 2018, UPROSE launched New York City’s first community-owned solar cooperative—Sunset Park Solar, installed on the roof of the Brooklyn Army Terminal—which will be collectively owned by all energy users who subscribe, decrease their electricity costs, and be available to low-income renters, small businesses and homeowners alike.
Of course, climate-adaptation efforts—which include both local efforts like UPROSE’s and massive projects like the Big U—can’t tackle the actual causes of climate change. But at the very least, can such a hyperlocal, grassroots approach measure up to the scale and severity of future extreme-weather events?
“The question is not whether it’s scalable, it’s whether it’s replicable,” said Yeampierre. Each community needs to organize itself, with neighbors getting to know one another and identifying their own risks, she explains. “You can’t compare Alaska to New York or Michigan, or anyplace else. You need to look at the place and what their needs are.”
Yet the fact remains that, at every UPROSE community climate-planning meeting, residents ask to discuss displacement instead, raising questions of whether the “block-by-block” climate adaptation approach can be effective when residents are constantly facing more immediate threats. Industry City, a major commercial development that arrived on the Sunset Park waterfront after Sandy, is pushing for the area to be rezoned, which will likely drive up rents and operating costs for residents and small businesses. On the issue of scale, it’s worth mentioning that gentrification and skyrocketing rents are a citywide problem.
The NYC climate resiliency plan does encourage community organizations to adopt climate adaptation measures and lead emergency planning efforts. But for Yeampierre, city planning projects are often led by outside actors and corporations—“They’re coming in to support a vision be created by somebody else.” And that is how the issues of climate resiliency planning and gentrification overlap.
The climate crisis “demands that we start really thinking differently about economics and how we live,” she said, envisioning a future where Sunset Park’s economy is reoriented toward climate adaptation. The neighborhood’s industrial sector could be revitalized by attracting businesses that retrofit old buildings, manufacture or assemble solar panel and wind turbine parts, and install and maintain renewable-energy installations, she suggests. Jobs could go to local people, like the workers currently in auto shops. And in place of Industry City, the waterfront could become something like a market or distribution site for products from upstate farmers.
Whatever the vision, UPROSE is seeking a radical revision in how society approaches urban development—including developments prompted by the climate crisis. The city needs to see “the community as a partner in decision-making and planning on a very hyperlocal level, because they’re never going to have the resources to address all the impacts that are heading our way, whether it’s extreme heat, or whether it’s wind, or whether it’s water,” said Yeampierre. “Every single time there has been a disaster in New York City, people have stepped up, whether it was the blackout, whether it was Superstorm Sandy, whether it was September 11th. People have been unbelievably heroic. They fed each other. They’ve taken care of each other. I think that’s a source of strength that cities just don’t see.”
And for Palermo, the “For Sale” signs on his block, and the new cafes selling overpriced coffee, raise the question of what it means to create climate resilience on his street without his neighbors, or in the community without the people in the auto shops. “They’re a necessary part of the community,” he said. “Without the residents, who do we have to take care of?”