Green With Envy

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Considering that Hunts Point is on a peninsula, spotting a body of water shouldn’t be a surprise. But last year, Marjora Carter was shocked to find herself doing something she never thought possible: walking her dog along the Bronx River. Along the perimeter of this largely Latino neighborhood, the waterfront belongs to industry, hosting the city’s sprawling produce market, a sewage treatment plant and multiple trash stations.

But that day on Edgewater Road, Carter, who is project director at The Point Community Development Corporation, found herself staring at a bit of blue. “Oh my God–that’s a river!” Carter remembers thinking, telling herself, “Well, if we’ve got a river we’ve got to make use of it.” With members of her staff, she convinced the city Parks Department that this strip of asphalt along the river–a road to a bridge Robert Moses planned but never built–should be remade into a park. Now, the park plan is winding its way through the city’s land use process. Meanwhile, Carter and neighborhood volunteers have already sponsored site clean-ups and community concerts.

So she was surprised to learn this summer from a friend that a new group called the Waterfront Park Coalition, assembled by the politically influential state chapter of the League of Conservation Voters, wanted to adopt and promote her project. Headed by some of the same players behind Manhattan’s new Hudson River Park, the coalition spent this summer searching for promising community-generated ideas that might merit big-dollar investments from public and private funders. Its canvassers called borough presidents, community boards and city agencies. But no one–not the coalition nor any of its member groups, which include the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Trust for Public Land and the Open Space Institute–ever contracted Carter. “We were definitely not invited,” she says.

It’s a turf issue, and more than that: for Carter, as for many other city environmental activists, the purpose of fighting to improve neighborhoods isn’t just to add another patch of green. “Environmental justice” is about building a movement–introducing ordinary people to the political process, and showing them how to assume control of their own neighborhoods. For the environmental justice crowd, when a statewide organization steps in and usurps a homegrown project, it takes the grassroots right out of the green.

This same coalition was inspecting and evaluating some 150 other projects citywide, including community-designed plans to build a beach in Jamaica Bay, create a park in Red Hook, and add waterfront access to the new port planned for Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Elizabeth Yeampierre, who as executive director of the group UPROSE worked closely with Sunset Park residents and the city on the port plan, didn’t even know that the coalition was considering backing the project until she was contacted by City Limits. Like Carter, she resents the fact that these powerful outsiders want to take over the plan. “It’s not a matter of having a park,” she says. “It’s owning a park–something that we worked for and will take care of. Not some missionary that came in and gave us a park.”

Environmental justice has emerged both nationally and locally as the civil rights of the 1990s: a movement in which organized communities fight deeply entrenched discrimination. For UPROSE, The Point, and roughly a dozen other like-minded groups around the city, that means making sure that low-income communities don’t get stuck with the pollutants, trash and trucks that other parts of the city don’t want. At the same time, these groups have spent years trying to help those neighborhoods get the parks they need. The strategies are intensely urban, more Saul Alinsky than John Muir, including organizing neighborhood residents to hold political players accountable for garbage stations, incinerators, air pollution and other scourges that get dumped on poorer communities.

“We want to go to the root causes of environmental burdens,” says Leslie Lowe, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, a coalition of 12 neighborhood groups from all over the city. “We may shut down a waste transfer station here or power plants there. But if the community isn’t empowered, how can it prevent it the next time?”

Now the environmental justice movement may be suffering from its own success, as bigger and better-funded national environmental organizations start to get involved in the city. Ironically, it was the city organizations themselves that pleaded with the big groups for years to get involved.

Waterfront parks aren’t the only environmental justice cause big greens have adopted in the last three years. Last May, the Trust for Public Land rescued 63 community gardens from the auction block. NRDC has fought to clean up contaminated industrial sites for redevelopment. EDF has pushed for sane garbage disposal policies. Even the local chapter of the Sierra Club now lobbies for open space in poor communities. Just as local advocates have pushed for community control, the big greens focus on what they know best: working the political process. They, too, want to green New York City–just not necessarily at the grassroots.

As these national groups have begun to get involved in urban neighborhoods, city activists say they are getting pushed aside. “White mainstream organizations are going into communities of color without working in respectful cooperation with community organizations,” charges Lowe. “That’s reprehensible.”

These big organizations traditionally stress environmental conservation and politically planned solutions. Community organizations, on the other hand, think first of a neighborhood as a whole, appreciating the delicate balance between the environment, economic stability, and, most importantly, the people who live there. Where the local groups once spoke for local concerns, regulators and legislators in Washington and Albany increasingly turn to national organizations for advice on what neighborhoods need. City groups fear that soon, neighborhoods will lose their hard-won right to be players in their own destinies.

“It’s a good thing that certain mainstream environmental groups are starting to get interested,” says Jeff Jones, communications director of Environmental Advocates, an Albany-based lobbying group. “But it’s also important that community groups remain in leadership, because the national groups are not always going to get it right. It’s a problem if the big groups that have a strong relationship with politicians become the voices on this.”

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The establishment greens and the city’s environmental justice groups have one thing in common: the last three years have been good ones. But those triumphs also make it clear why, despite the shared cause, these two movements remain worlds apart.

When the city announced in 1996 that it planned to close the Fresh Kills landfill and replace it with a system of waste transfer stations, environmental justice advocates got to work. Through the Organization for Waterfront Neighborhoods (OWN), a coalition of 26 community groups, they mobilized nearly 4,000 residents in Brooklyn, the South Bronx and Upper Manhattan to attend demonstrations and hearings. One reason OWN could muster such a turnout, huge by community organizing standards, was a strategy of unity: With members all over the city, OWN vowed not to let the city pit neighborhoods against one another. “You know how people say ‘not in my backyard’? Well, we don’t want this in anyone’s backyard,” says Eddie Bautista, who is on OWN’s steering committee.

Using classic grassroots tactics, OWN successfully lobbied to get members on the task forces that were planning life after Fresh Kills. OWN’s overtures to the city and state were repeatedly rebuffed, so it turned to the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice program. When residents testified at public hearings about the stink of mishandled garbage, EPA officials listened, then pressured New York City to comply with public review requirements for waste transfer stations. “Having people in the community talking about it in stark terms, you just can’t ignore it anymore,” says Mathy Stanislaus, co-chair of the Minority Environmental Lawyers Association and president of NYCEJA’s board.

In contrast, the groups that formed the Hudson River Park Alliance–among them NRDC, EDF and the League of Conservation Voters–are accustomed to working from the inside. From the beginning, the alliance lobbied city and state lawmakers to pass the legislation creating the park, getting a $200 million commitment from the mayor and governor to build it. Big-ticket private concessions, including the Chelsea Piers complex, also subsidize the park.

At the Hudson River Park project, community input came only at the end of the process. “It started with the alliance and governor and mayor, then became an open process with public hearings,” says Andy Darrell, who was executive director of the alliance. At those hearings, West Siders worried that the ad hoc management and financing of the park would leave no one accountable for its upkeep. In response, the alliance told them that the current plan was the best hope they had for getting anything done.

Darrell now heads the Waterfront Park Coalition, which hopes to work the same transformation on other neglected stretches of waterfront. Community input, says Darrell, will come later. As with Hudson River Park, the coalition’s mission is to first amass the political and professional muscle to back parks and preserves. “Now we’re building out,” Darrell explains. “We’re looking at how these groups which have a citywide, statewide or nationwide focus can help support community efforts to create parkland.”

Most national environmental organizations have their roots in the conservation of species and habitats–think Teddy Roosevelt or the California condor. Then in 1990, an Albuquerque-based organization called the SouthWest Organizing Project issued a call to arms. In a letter to the nation’s major environmental groups, the organization pointed out that some of the biggest problems facing low-income communities–such as high concentrations of polluting industries in low-income areas–were inescapably environmental issues and needed to be addressed as such by green organizations. It didn’t help, the letter noted, that eco-groups had precious few people of color at their board tables and in their offices.

Mainstream environmentalists have also embraced urban clean-up as part of the effort to attract people back to the city, and prevent suburban sprawl from devouring rural areas. That’s a driving mission for the Trust for Public Land, which has worked to promote New York community gardens since 1978. “Making cities more livable is not only good for people in cities–it’s also good to help neutralize sprawl,” says Andy Stone, director of the Trust’s New York City program. “That is part of our philosophical underpinning.”

For other groups, environmental justice was a sensible next step. New York City-based NRDC has had an urban environment program since the early 1980s. Initially, the program mostly worked on public transit and air pollution, later adding waste reduction and recycling. But only in the last two years–in response to urging from community activists–has NRDC specifically fought the siting of waste transfer stations in communities of color. It turned out to be a natural fit. “Anyone interested in the planet and the environment has to make a connection between making cities work and keeping up the environment’s health,” says senior staff attorney Eric Goldstein.

But when NRDC first tried to take a page out of the environmental justice playbook–balancing jobs, the environment and people–it found that getting neighborhood buy-in takes far more than good intentions. Its proposal was to build a paper recycling mill in the South Bronx that promised at least 275 full-time jobs and about $6 million in community services. The plant’s developers even hired a local community development organization, Banana Kelly, to do outreach. It should have been a winner.

Bronx residents, though, were fed up with industry and didn’t care who was sponsoring it. While they welcomed jobs, they also wanted information that wasn’t forthcoming–and, fundamentally, respect. “They’re coming in saying, ‘Take my word for it. It’s a good [project],'” Carlos Padilla of the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition complained when the project was first announced. “It might very well be. But we just want the facts.” Six years later, some OWN member groups are still fighting the mill.

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For environmental justice activists and the eco-establishment, no territory is more fraught with dissension than brownfields. Cleanup and redevelopment of toxic industrial land has become an urgent conservation issue for the national organizations, because the sites are both an environmental scourge and an opportunity to rebuild in already-developed areas, alleviating sprawl. Many of these parcels languish in poor and predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods, making them an equally big priority for community-based groups.

While New York has committed $200 million in Environmental Bond Act funds to make it easier for developers to reclaim brownfields, lawmakers have been deadlocked for years, unable to pass the laws that would make cleanup legally and financially feasible. Who should pay to clean such sites–a property’s owner, the prospective buyer, or the state? How far should the clean-ups go? As the state Superfund program for environmental cleanup runs out of money, solving these critical questions has become urgent business. But though city groups have worked hard to have a say in a brownfields law, they’ve found themselves outflanked on one side by hardcore environmentalists and on the other by political dealmakers.

At a conference in late 1998, environmentalists, business interests, municipalities, urban planners and environmental justice advocates from across the state met to develop a model brownfields bill. Community organizations struggled to convince the major green groups that cleanup regulations had to be made easier to comply with, particularly if they expected redevelopers to adopt sites in poor areas. “They were looking at it from a conservationist point of view–‘We want to clean up as much as possible,'” says Stanislaus. “We had to work through that in a real back and forth, challenging them. We had to make them understand that the status quo meant leaving poor communities behind.”

In some cases, local reps argued, environmentalists would have to lower clean-up standards–proposing, for example, that groundwater under city brownfields shouldn’t have to be made clean enough to drink in neighborhoods that get their drinking water from upstate reservoirs. The roundtable also developed innovative ideas for giving neighborhoods a say in brownfields, including a fund for grants and loans to build public projects, such as community centers, on sites that can’t lure private investors.

But by the time the legislation was finished, NRDC had bowed out, complaining that the plan didn’t guarantee sites would be clean enough. “The proposal came up short on clean-up of brownfield sites,” says Mark Izeman, NRDC’s representative at the talks. “In our view it had some positive points, but it raises concerns about public health and the environment in the long term.”

Then the League of Conservation Voters jumped ship for a version put forward by Governor George Pataki. Founded in 1989 by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and other prominent environmentalists as a nonpartisan lobbying group, the League endorsed Pataki in 1998 and has developed a consistent record of pressing for politically palatable solutions. LCV board chair Paul Elston says he supported the governor’s measure–which lacked the strong community involvement mandated by the conference’s bill–because it had the best chance of passing. “There’s no guarantee [the conference’s] legislation will make it into the final bill,” Elston says. “It’s not the governor–it’s citizens. That’s different than [Assembly Speaker] Sheldon Silver putting it forth.”

After stalling in 1999, brownfields are likely to prevail in Albany this year. But with one influential ally sidelined and another pushing a competing plan, environmental justice groups are going in with dimmed hopes of getting the bill they believe neighborhoods need.

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If anyone was in a position to bridge the gap between political work and community concerns, it was Peggy Shepard. As executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action, Shepard had secured the grant five years ago to hire the first executive director for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYCEJA). Alone among NYCEJA members, Shepard was equally at home in neighborhood-based work and Albany corridors: a former Democratic district leader, she has also served on the board of directors for the New York League of Conservation Voters for the last eight years. In addition, Shepard’s Harlem group is participating in the Waterfront Park Coalition, the only community organization invited. Its plan to redevelop the Hudson River shore near 125th Street is a leading contender for the Coalition’s support.

As a League board member, Shepard has pushed to make sure urban environmental issues get taken seriously. But her former NYCEJA allies charge that in the process of seeking greater influence for the League in Albany, she has helped close doors for New York City’s community-based organizations. Out of this conflict Shepard has emerged as a controversial symbol of the persistent gulf between the local and national groups, and between grassroots and political environmental advocacy.

NYCEJA and Shepard had long had differences over the group’s purpose. Most NYCEJA members don’t focus entirely on environmental work: El Puente, for example, runs a school and community center in Williamsburg, while The Point hosts arts and youth programs. So while the alliance’s leadership wanted to maintain a broad commitment to community revitalization, Shepard, along with a few other NYCEJA members, backed a strictly environmental focus.

That debate has since been dwarfed by acrimonious personal and political disagreements. While running for re-election in 1998, Governor Pataki was also pushing the EPA to withdraw a new directive that requires states to review whether major new public projects, such as sewage treatment plants, have a disproportionate impact on minority communities. Shepard, appalled, refused to endorse Pataki. And without her support the League wasn’t prepared to endorse him, either.

That’s when League board chairman Paul Elston arranged in a few days what city groups had spent years angling for: a meeting with the state Department of Environmental Conservation specifically devoted to environmental justice issues. Shepard says it was Elston’s pull with the governor that did the trick. “Unfortunately, the reason is that Paul Elston helped raise the money for the Environmental Bond Act when it was the governor’s pet project,” Shepard says. “The world works that way, but state agencies should not work that way.”

As a result of that meeting, the DEC established an environmental justice advisory group. Shepard joined it, the only community-based advocate on the board, and withdrew her objections, allowing the League to endorse Pataki. Meanwhile, other members of NYCEJA didn’t even know that the advisory group existed until NYCEJA’s Leslie Lowe and other environmental justice supporters wrote DEC asking whether the agency intended to honor the new federal regulations. Lowe was assured the problem was being addressed–by NRDC and the League. NYCEJA members were outraged that Shepard hadn’t told them.

This summer, the friction between Shepard and other alliance members came to a head when Shepard launched an inquiry into executive director Lowe’s contract terms. (At issue was a provision granting the board the option of raising Lowe’s salary in tandem with successful fundraising efforts.) When Shepard refused to back down, NYCEJA voted to suspend West Harlem Environmental Action.

Shepard still thinks her former allies were being shortsighted, even a little petty. She insists the League and NRDC are trying to make big things happen, not step on community organizations’ toes. “They’re not an environmental justice group and they don’t pretend to be,” she says of the major green groups. The roles of the two sides, she believes, are clear and distinct: The major groups “don’t network locally. You want that kind of organizing being done by people who live there.”

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Environmental justice groups agree that their local work, not their Albany connections, is their greatest strength. But they also point out that neighborhoods lose out when their own advocates don’t have access to political decision-makers. As they have done in New York’s garbage wars, those residents are the ones who can let regulators know what it’s like to live with headaches, asthma, or an unbearable stink, or what it means to not have a decent park to play in.

On the way to securing $3.25 million in state funding for urban open space last year, the Sierra Club’s Atlantic chapter may have invented a model for how lobbyists and locals can team up. It joined forces with the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Watchperson Project, a community organization that catalogues and fights environmental hazards, and had kids from the neighborhood do the talking.

The project began informally at the beginning of 1999, when Sierra Club legislative director John Stouffer asked Watchperson executive director Samara Swanston if she knew of any projects that the Sierra Club could back in Albany. The two groups had started working together a couple of years ago, trying to turn the Eastern District Terminal site in Williamsburg into a park. This time around, they decided to press for Environmental Bond Act money for urban open spaces, which communities could tap into at their own discretion.

In July, Stouffer made appointments with staff members of leading state legislators, including Assembly environmental committee chair Richard Brodsky. Swanston then brought 10 kids, ages 9 to 16, up from the city to ask the staffers for funding. The kids, says Swanston, won them over by boldly asking what happened to the money the state promised them from the Environmental Bond Act. Says Stouffer, “It was the most productive meeting that I’ve had out of those folks.” Ultimately, the spending proposal made it through.

Next, the Sierra Club plans to work with Swanston to seek out other local groups interested in developing waterfront parks. The chapter intends to help them get the money, support and know-how to do it–on their own. Stouffer is well aware of the Waterfront Park Coalition but isn’t interested in what they’re offering. “There’s a difference in the two projects. We are going to the community and saying, what’s your vision for the waterfront?” he says. “We help achieve them, as opposed to starting from a plan and working from the top down.”

In her years of working in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, this could be the best opportunity Swanston has yet had to get large numbers of local residents involved in their environment. She says she can’t wait. “They may not be organized and pushing for this,” she says of New Yorkers who live near waterfronts they rarely see. “But if you ask them if they want to be on the waterfront–that’s a no-brainer.”