City Lit: Through the Mill

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Who ever said that only the winners write history? Here we have two books about a Bronx paper mill that never even got built. One is by an environmentalist who dreamed up the idea and very nearly made it happen; the other is by a journalist who chronicles its collapse. Neither book is likely to make it to the big screen, but if they did, imagine Gangs of New York meets The Sopranos–minus the stabbings and whackings, but with plenty of backstabbing, double-dealing, blackmailing, turf wars and general sabotage.

In Bronx Ecology: Blueprint for a New Environmentalism, Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and a leading expert on recycling and solid waste issues, offers his recipe for sustainable development. Never mind that it’s drawn from a failed venture: To him, a truly sustainable planet will only be achieved when environmentalists get wise and learn how to run businesses and factories that meet both profit margins and stringent anti-pollution standards. In the early 1990s, he set out to show that you could do both by developing an “environmentally benign paper mill” in the South Bronx. While most of his book is all about what went wrong, there are sparkling parts where Hershkowitz delineates a clear-eyed, even enlightened vision for environmentalism’s future.

The Brooklyn-born, self-described “eco-realist” fervently believed that an urban-centered recycled paper mill would yield both environmental and economic benefits. Using advanced technology, the energy-efficient and environmentally designed facility would transform the 12,600 tons of daily paper waste generated mostly by the city’s law firms, securities and publishing industries into newsprint. By building the mill on a brownfield, the project would both clean up a polluted site and bring much-needed jobs to the South Bronx. Ultimately, Hershkowitz wanted to develop a model demonstrating how paper mills could become “helpful stewards of life on Earth.”

Of course, back in the real world, everyone just wanted a piece of the action. Over eight torturous years, financiers, paper companies and construction firms came and went. In 2000, the project finally fell through, dying the death of a thousand cuts, NRDC staffers believed. Others in the business community suggested that it fell victim to “deal fatigue” and to Hershkowitz’s lack of business savvy.

In the end, Hershkowitz believes he was foiled by “social obstacles,” imposed by several unsavory community groups, unions, and “self-interested development hustlers who pass[ed] themselves off as community spirited activists”–most notably Banana Kelly, the South Bronx community development corporation that he empowered as the sole owner of the mill.

In Bronx Ecology, Hershkowitz casts himself as the naïve do-gooder, a business neophyte and social progressive with “ideologically pure” intentions. To a large degree, his account of events jives with Lis Harris’ Tilting at Mills: Green Dreams, Dirty Dealings, and the Corporate Squeeze. But if you want the uncensored version, read Harris’ chronicle, which is based on an article she wrote for The New Yorker a few years ago.

Harris gives a much fuller explanation of the opposition that the project faced from a small but vocal group of community activists, who argued that the mill’s siting at the old Harlem River rail yard would have added to the South Bronx’s already terrible pollution problems, vis-à-vis increased truck traffic. For example, Harris recounts how one NRDC staffer–Vernice Miller–flabbergasted Hershkowitz by attacking the project in public meetings as a disaster in the making. Yet Miller is conspicuously absent from Hershkowitz’s Bronx Ecology.

Miller, who is a cofounder of the West Harlem Environmental Action Group (and has since left NRDC), charged that the mill’s truck traffic would contribute to the community’s astronomical asthma rates, “even though she was aware,” writes Harris, “that scientific data about the project contradicted her representation.” Harris ultimately concludes that Miller and other mill opponents twisted facts to advance their own political agendas and standing in the community.

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In Martin Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York, there’s a scene when a fire breaks out in the Five Points neighborhood and trucks from different fire stations converge. Instead of fighting the flames, however, the fire brigades fight with each other. So it was with the various community groups and politicians who, wanting to prevent each other from benefiting from the project, opposed or obstructed it.

In Harris’ book, we see Hershkowitz as blindsided by the Bronx’s “byzantine turf politics,” with its dueling egos and parochial interests. For example, he couldn’t understand why former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer suddenly got cold to the project after learning that the mill’s sole owner would be Banana Kelly. “It was clear that Ferrer felt that his traditional role as arbiter of political spoils was being violated,” explains Harris.

Then there were the attempted shakedowns by unsavory Bronx community activists and politicians. Even before a site was chosen for the mill, one leading member of the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition asked him outright for $70,000 to “take care of your problems” with the coalition.

Hershkowitz didn’t understand what was happening. “But we haven’t even chosen a site,” he said. “Why would we have problems?”

“Well, you’re going to have problems with the coalition on siting the mill,” replied the woman (who is not named in either book). Months later, she became a vocal opponent of the mill, claiming that it was going to kill babies and be a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Genocide.

Despite these early snags, the $260 million project was off the ground by 1994, a joint venture of Banana Kelly and a Swedish paper company. (The price tag ultimately ballooned to above $400 million.) But Banana Kelly’s erratic and irresponsible behavior was a constant source of trouble. They were sloppy with paperwork, frequently failed to return phone calls and often didn’t show up at important meetings.

Curiously, the full extent of Hershkowitz’s growing exasperation and anger over these assorted incidents is more vividly portrayed in Harris’ chronicle, thanks in large part to his journal entries, which he obviously shared with her. More importantly, we learn what others are saying about the project, too (though the shakedown artists were seemingly never contacted, and former Banana Kelly executive director Yolanda Rivera refused to be interviewed for Harris’ book). In Tilting at Mills, we get the unvarnished dramatic arcs. Hershkowitz comes off as admirably intentioned, a little too politically innocent and uncompromisingly high-minded, with little concern for the bottom line. But we also see a perpetually baffled, frenetic live wire who curses, cries and exults during his high-stakes roller-coaster ride.

Despite the upbeat subtitle of his book, Hershkowitz concludes it is “more difficult, time-consuming, risky, and costly to develop environmentally superior industrial projects” in urban brownfields than in rural “greenfields.” Industrial investors are naturally risk-averse, he points out, and the kind of intense political and social hurdles his project had to overcome makes such ventures that much harder.

And yet, the man came awfully close to pulling it off. One of his business partners told Harris in Tilting at Mills that the project failed because there was no “real” developer involved. Hershkowitz is smart enough to grasp this, and in the most bracing parts of Bronx Ecology he draws the kind of lessons that his peers would be wise to consider: True sustainable development, he asserts, will succeed only when “environmentalists become more effectively involved with industrial businesses as developers, financiers and owners.”

In other words, more greens need to be sitting in business schools getting MBAs rather than camping out in trees facing down bulldozers. Environmentalists, he advises, will have to stop being reflexively anti-business and willfully ignorant of its practices. One can only wonder if Hershkowitz would have gotten his paper mill built if someone had given him that advice ten years ago.

Keith Kloor is a senior editor at Audubon magazine.