Bloomberg's Last Dump: The Great Upper East Side Garbage Swindle

There's a mayor's race underway and pugnacious outgoing Mayor Bloomberg has found a way to continue whacking his opponents (and even his friends!) in the nose long after he's gone.
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There's a mayor's race underway and pugnacious outgoing Mayor Bloomberg has found a way to continue whacking his opponents (and even his friends!) in the nose long after he's gone. He has insisted that a "Marine Transfer Site" (a euphemism for a place where garbage is processed onto barges) be built in the supposedly fancy Upper East Side of Manhattan. It's all part of a plan to make neighborhoods take care of their own trash. It's also a way to appear fair and strong-willed for having the guts to dump 1800 to 5000 tons of garbage a day on a wealthy area.

In truth, it's a linguistic bait-and-switch perpetrating a quasi-racist injustice.

The 91st Street Marine Transfer Stations will be on a bend in the East River in the far north-eastern corner of the Upper East Side five blocks from East Harlem. It will be ten stories high, cover two acres, and operate 24 hours a day, 6 days a week. More than 1000 public housing units lie within a few hundred feet of it. 22,056 people live within a quarter mile. Among these are 6,755 members of racial minorities, 1,059 children, and 1532 people living in poverty.

Democrats Bill de Blasio and Christine Quinn join Bloomberg in boasting of their courage for taking on these Upper East Side constituents. Speaking of the site, Quinn boldly states, "The days of environmental racism have to come to an end. We have, for far too long in the City of New York, put all the municipal refuse into low income neighborhoods of color." For various reasons, wind patterns being one, the people who'll suffer most from this dump are African American and Hispanic. This is probably why the only black Democrat, Bill Thompson, opposes the garbage site. South of here is lily white, perhaps the whitest area being Quinn's 3rd District which includes Chelsea, Greenwich Village, Soho and Murray Hill.

I'm sure you'll be surprised to learn that the affluent white residents evoked by the words "Upper East Side" live nowhere near the 91st Street garbage site and won't be affected by it at all. They are many blocks away on Park Avenue, Madison Avenue, and 5th Avenue. A typical example would be Mayor Bloomberg who lives on 79th and Madison close to Central Park. Yorkville, this being the actual area where the garbage site will be, is déclassé at best. This is not Soho or the West Village. There are no fancy boutiques and few charming cafes. People come here because of the neighborhood schools (6 within a quarter mile of the dump) and a non-profit sports facility, the child-friendly Asphalt Green. The cross streets are full of railroad apartments renting for less than similar ones in the worst areas of the East Village. The area is already environmentally burdened by the FDR Drive, there are few parks, and, unlike the West Side, the riverfront has not been developed. The garbage site will be built right up against Bobby Wagner Walk, a public park. Garbage will be unloaded a single block from another public park, Carl Shurz Park. Access to the plant will literally cut Asphalt Green in half. Asphalt Green is used by more than 31,000 children a year from over 100 New York schools, many in East Harlem and the Bronx, but also Queens and Brooklyn.

Up to 400 truck-loads a day will drive down York Avenue, a tree-lined residential street, make a right by a small restaurant opposite the dump gates -- and then drive through Asphalt Green. This is the only access to the proposed garbage site. It is a block-long ramp passing between Asphalt Green's playing fields and its infant playground in front of the Asphalt Green AquaCenter. The AquaCenter contains the only Olympic sized pool in Manhattan and is where Brooklyn resident Lia Neal, only the second African American female swimmer ever to reach the Olympics, trained before winning a Bronze medal in 2012. The garbage transfer building will be so high that children on the playing fields will be in its shadow and so close that a fifteen-year-old girl could throw a ball from the field and hit it. Environmental studies have highlighted the obvious and unavoidable health hazards involved in putting the garbage site here, including increases in asthma caused by idling garbage trucks. Since the City studied the environmental impacts of the site the World Health Organization re-classified diesel exhaust, which is what the garbage trucks emit, as a carcinogenic. Garbage trucks also knock down and kill more people per year in New York City than any other vehicle. In an area containing more schools than any other in the city, tragic deaths of children are inevitable.

Having roared past Asphalt Green's infant playground, a truck may well hit a traffic jam before crossing the low bridge over Bobby Wagner Walk and entering the dump. The plan promises that "only" 19 trucks at a time will idle on the ramp overlooking the children panting below on the playing fields. Unfortunately, as breathing rates during exercise increase 10 or more times above resting rates, the dose of pollution delivered to the lungs increases proportionately.

Bobby Wagner Walk, the park the truck will soon cross, is part of the "East River Esplanade" that extends from 125th Street down to 90th. It is, according to the City Planning site, "the oldest portion of the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway." I often bike down the other side of the city along the Hudson River Greenway. It is a broad and gorgeous swath of greenery that runs alongside the vast Hudson River from north of 196th Street all the way down to Battery Park, more or less the whole length of Manhattan. There were plans to develop or expand garbage transfer sites along here, including one in Quinn's district of which she is in favor. To be built on the Gansevoort Peninsula in Chelsea, west of the West Side Highway, it would accept 40 to 60 sanitation trucks a day bringing in materials for recycling and would operate between noon and 3 p.m. five days a week! To compare this to the Upper East Side dump with its thousands of tons of "solid" waste and hundreds of trucks coming in and out 24 hours a day 6 days a weeks is like comparing a stolen kiss to rape. But perhaps because wealthy and influential white people dominate Chelsea (minorities are truly in the minority here - 828 within a quarter mile of the site compared to the 6750 in the Upper East Side), even this modest, non-odiferous site has stalled. The truth is that the Westside riverfront has become so gorgeous and so white, the whiteness now extending 40 blocks north of where it terminates on the East Side, that no garbage sites are going to get built here -- this despite a wider river and far more space between river and residents. Instead the lavish "esplanade" is awash with moms pushing expensive strollers. Yachtsmen sail from the 79th Street Marina. On weekday mornings brightly-helmeted executives swarm south on their $2000 bikes, off to extract more nectar from fashion, litigation, and Wall Street.

This is NOT what it's like on the Upper East Side. Here the Esplanade is a ten foot wide stretch of concrete where Hispanic and African-American residents of East Harlem cast their fishing lines over an iron railing. The river is narrow, an eighth the width of the windswept Hudson, but it has been getting cleaner and the fishermen sometimes eat the fish they catch. On weekends, families barbecue. Billions were spent beautifying the Westside riverfront. The Upper East Side Esplanade Beautification Project consists of a solitary lady volunteer who plants flowers in a hollow log. Neglected as it is, modest as it is, it is a park. It is used by white, African American, and Hispanic walkers, runners, bikers, and lovers. It has benches. It is the only place to which large numbers of East Harlem residents and the 2200 residents of the housing projects can easily walk for some fresh(ish) air or to watch the boats go by. The garbage site (two acres, ten stories high!) will be built right here and affect these people. They don't have a lot of fight in them and for Mayor Bloomberg to dump on them requires no courage. I have a strange feeling that if Bill de Blasio, who is married to an African American woman and has a son of color, took a walk along here, he'd realize Quinn's talk of "environmental racism" describes this garbage site rather than justifying it. But let's pick up where we left off: the journey of the stinking truck.

Having waited a few minutes on the ramp along with 18 others, our truck now drives over the bridge, passes through large doors, and enters an enormous space containing tons and tons and tons of garbage.

What is the nature of this garbage getting deluged into the heart of a residential neighborhood? It's called "solid waste," but "solid" is not the first word that comes to a sensible mind peering into a bag of ordinary garbage. This is all the stuff you can't recycle because, well, it's garbage: old fruit and vegetables, dead flowers, tissues you blew your nose into, expired eggs, dog vomit, a blanket with bedbugs in it, diapers, the remnants of a take-out curry lost in the back of a refrigerator ten days ago, discarded Band-Aids, the pregnant cockroach you thought you killed, meat, fish and dregs of soup, cat litter, the sheet your grandma died in, old onions mixed with rotting broccoli, the rat trapped by your janitor, and - why always so pessimistic?! - a slice of lemon with the smell of vodka still on it! Yay!

This beautiful discharge, this effluvia, now pours out the back of our truck filling the air with... okay, why belabor it? It's almost over. Our truck turns around and drives back out past the kids gasping below. Currently the playing field is surrounded by buildings on three sides but an unobstructed breeze off the river blows across it. If the garbage site is built it will close off the fourth side and the wind, if any, will waft the smell of garbage onto the field to mix with the diesel fumes from the idling trucks before inhalation through those enthusiastic young nostrils and mouths and into those wheezing young lungs. Our empty truck waits in line for a traffic light at the end to turn green and finally, with many companions, accelerates back onto York Avenue. But let's freeze this picture for just one second.

I cannot emphasize this enough: York Avenue is in Yorkville and both York Avenue and Yorkville are 95% residential. There is no gap, no buffer! The trucks exit the garbage site and are instantly on residential streets. No waste ground, no long drive to the site, no breezy promontory. Millions of tons of garbage will travel through and be processed in the middle of an incredibly residential neighborhood! In fact, I cannot think of a single neighborhood in Manhattan that is more residential. There's nothing else up here! I have never seen a garbage site as close to where people live except in Rio and Mumbai.

I keep looking for Manhattan equivalents. "It's like putting a garbage dump next to..." but it is impossible to find anywhere on either river where a garbage site could affect more children and more homes. You can discover this yourself using Google Earth. There are plenty of obviously better sites, many in almost entirely commercial areas and some which could handle larger vessels that would cause less pollution than the many tugboats that will service this one.

Bloomberg's plan calls for trucking garbage from as far south as 14th Street and as far west as 8th Avenue all the way up to 91st Street. Some of this garbage will be hauled 80 blocks up through the city before being put on barges and dragged by tugboats all the way back down the city on the narrow channel between Manhattan and the racially mixed Roosevelt Island, past the United Nations, back past 14th street, and on to its final destination, the Port of New York or beyond. This will create two plumes of diesel fumes, a noose around the whole East Side. The kind of diesel fuel tugboats burn is far more crude and toxic than the kind used by trucks, so depending on the wind, Queens and Brooklyn as well as East Harlem will get their fair share of our fair share of this pollution coursing up and down the narrow river.

The garbage site is already in the initial stages of construction. How did this happen? How did it get this far? Perhaps the placement hit a sweet (soft) spot. Even though they are the victims of it, maybe exhausted East Harlem residents fell for the "racial justice" line, while south in Yorkville I think the liberals cringe at being perceived as Not-In-My-Backyard-ish. In truth, putting a garbage site in the opposite direction from where the garbage is headed, thereby doubling its journey, is stupidity for which everyone will suffer.

It's worse than stupidity, it's stupidity propagated by falsehoods.

The first falsehood is to suggest that the placement of the garbage site is legal. At least in the spirit of the law it certainly is not. The Department of Sanitation's own siting regulations sensibly prohibit "new waste transfer stations being built unless there is a 400 foot buffer between them and a residential district or public park." There isn't a third that distance between this site and two large apartment buildings. 1000 public housing units with over 2000 residents are well within the 400 foot limit. Asphalt Green is not a public park, true, but it certainly functions as one for the 31,000 children a year who visit. For them, there is only a twelve foot buffer. And Bobby Wagner Walk, which clearly is a public park, doesn't even have twelve inches: the garbage site will literally touch it!

An element of this swindle that goes hand in hand with the racial justice swindle is to justify the garbage site by saying there was one here before. This is true, but the original one, which was less than half the size, was built in the 1930s when the area was a manufacturing zone and long before the public housing projects went up in the sixties.

If there is an "industry" in the Upper East Side, it is healthcare. There are more hospitals here than in any other area in New York. Tucked casually away in the city's proposal for the garbage site is that "a certain amount of commercial waste" will be deposited at the garbage site "at night". It seems medical waste will be arriving, some of it hazardous. But this is a detail, like the fact that the site is being constructed in Flood Zone A, the most dangerous zone there is. The garbage site proposal is already such an absurdity, why bother to bring in the heavy guns of hazardous waste, global warming, storm surges, the prospect of a river awash in toxic garbage?

There is only one way you can see a mayoral candidate's support for the garbage site as brave. Gracie Mansion, the "Mayor's Mansion," lies a couple of hundred feet south of the garbage site at the tip of Carl Shurz park. Particularly during summer months, prevailing winds in New York blow from the south, which means East Harlem and beyond will take the brunt of the smell and pollution; but given the swirling winds that occur in the bend of the river here a lot will also blow into the mansion. Bloomberg never lived in Gracie Mansion (this neighborhood!), but his successor probably will. The ten-story high garbage "factory" will be visible not just from the upper windows of the mansion, but from the garden too. This assault upon their snouts will remind all future mayors of the great Mike, he who had the political will (and sense of humor) to blight them thus.

As I've said before, Bill de Blasio and Christine Quinn support the Bloomberg dump, at least for the moment. Behind their backs, Bloomberg - who'd ideally like to be appointed Mayor For Life - must be howling with laughter. "Gone But Not Forgotten, Losers!" Of course, if the garbage site is as big a disaster as predicted and has to be torn down at great expense, the legacy-joke will be on the Mayor.

Even if you take a generous view and see de Blasio and Quinn allowing tons of stinking garbage to be deposited next to Gracie Mansion as a courageous sacrifice to the greater good, it actually reeks of political arrogance. The Mayor's Mansion does not belong to any Mayor and is not his or hers to ruin. It is lent to the mayor by the voters of all five boroughs. It is not just the official residence of the mayor, it is where awards are handed out for bravery or long service, where city negotiations often take place, where summer parties in the garden reward city employees, where politicians from Washington come to dinner, and where heads of state and dignitaries like Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama are invited to stay as honored guests.

If, as every New Yorker believes, New York is the capital of the world (it is), then Gracie Mansion is the World's Mansion and should not be subject to the 6-day-a-week, 24 hour-a-day clatter of garbage trucks disgorging themselves a few hundred feet away. It should not become a stinking joke for reporters and those who hate our city. "Something stinks up at the Mayor's house and it's not just the usual garbage..."

If a new mayor really wants to make a point about equity and garbage in Manhattan, he or she should have more vision and send it all in one direction, to the only industrial zone left in the city, the Financial District. Garbage trucks, which should of course be electric by now, could flow onto the Westside Highway and the FDR Drive, head south, and then, obeying the rules of biology, eject their excrement through the bottom of the city. I won't carry the analogy further by pointing out that New Jersey is the current destination, nor that East Harlem and Yorkville are as far away from it as you can possibly get in all Manhattan. I will however continue the analogy in another way.

Much of the garbage problem occurs before it even enters the digestive system and could be vastly improved by forcing corporations to package more intelligently, then teaching individuals to buy, consume and dispose more consciously. As with so many modern problems, the answer will not to be found in archaic industrial-strength solutions imposed on single neighborhoods, but in millions of large and small changes in everyone's behavior.

The latest estimate for the garbage site has risen to $226 million and is expected to rise again, perhaps even double. It will eventually be stopped or demolished because it is so obviously unjust in its location and outdated in its conception. The Mayoral candidates should pledge to stop it now and use the money to investigate intelligent, modern ways to solve this problem. So far, the only Democrat with a chance who makes this pledge is Bill Thompson, a man who understands the subtleties of racism first hand.

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