Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice; By Julie Sze; MIT Press; $24.
This carefully researched book provides a history and analysis of recent environmental justice campaigns in New York City. Studying four instances of grassroots activism – in the South Bronx, Williamsburg, Sunset Park and West Harlem – Julie Sze examines how low-income communities of color organized against and fought garbage and waste facilities that would pollute their neighborhoods. She traces how people usually ignored or sidelined from corporate and government decision-making transformed their personal health experiences into political power, and used their racial and class identity as an organizing tool. And she argues that bottom-up environmental research and community organizing can transform urban planning into a community-led process.
Relying on interviews with participants, press reports and her own time spent working on environmental issues in New York City, Sze – who directs the Environmental Justice Project at the John Muir Institute for the Environment and is an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of California at Davis – outlines four campaigns.
One is that of the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition and partners, who led a successful fight to shut down the Bronx-Lebanon Medical Waste Incinerator. The incinerator began operating in 1991. After years of rallies, buttonholing politicians, politicizing asthma and conducting research on the businesses that operated the facility, the Coalition got it closed by 1998. The campaign politicized a generation of Bronx residents, transformed asthma from a problem of family health to one of air pollution, and in many ways signaled the resurgence of the South Bronx communities that had been left for dead in the wake of the destruction wrought by Robert Moses, divestment, drugs, and the notorious “planned shrinkage” plan of Roger Starr, housing director under Mayor Abe Beame.
In the case of the Brooklyn Navy Yard incinerator, opposition galvanized and a coalition – probably counter-intuitive to outsiders – of Puerto Ricans and Orthodox Jews in Williamsburg. The incinerator was first proposed in 1979 as a means to lessen the trash burden at Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. The facility would have burnt 3,000 tons of trash a day to generate 465 million kilowatt hours of energy a year, Sze reports. But the campaign was successful and the facility was never built.
At the North River Sewage Treatment Plant, which began operating at 137th Street along the Hudson River in 1986, neighborhood opposition led to the founding of West Harlem Environmental Action, or WE ACT. Residents objected to the plant's higher-than-permitted emissions of hydrogen sulfide. While the treatment plant still operates, a lawsuit in state court filed by WE ACT and the National Resources Defense Council resulted in a settlement with the city that required strict enforcement of corrective action at the plant, monitoring and the establishment of a $1.1 million North River Fund to address environment and public health matters.
Sze's fourth case is the Sunset Park Sludge Treatment Plant, proposed in 1991 by the Dinkins administration. By Feb. 1993 the city withdrew the proposal under pressure from a unique coalition of Latino and Chinese community groups in Sunset Park, which argued that the plant would compound air pollution in an area already suffering from the traffic on the Gowanus Expressway. Throughout the campaign, activists invoked the disastrous impact the construction of the expressway had on their neighborhood, connecting two top-down urban planning decisions to the health both of residents and the neighborhood itself.
“Noxious New York” discusses how race and economics influence the placement of polluting facilities within the city, and how community organizers used race and class identity in framing resistance to the waste treatment plants and incinerators slated for their neighborhoods.
Low-income people of color living in New York's once-industrial waterfront neighborhoods know that poor, black and brown neighborhoods see more than their fair share of the city's dirtier side, Sze argues. They know, and they have defined their resistance to such facilities in explicitly racial terms.
Their environmental justice campaigns are more in the lineage of the civil rights movement than Sierra Club-type environmentalism. Indeed, in one of the book's most illuminating chapters, Sze examines the race and class implications of what she argues are the anti-populist, anti-urban impulses in wilderness-focused environmentalism.
“Noxious New York” examines the disastrous effects of energy deregulation and privatization, combined with the drive for “smaller government” and the retreat from democratic values that has characterized the political conversation since the Reagan presidency. If you thought fighting City Hall was tough, consider fighting bottom-line-driven industry that doesn't even pretend to listen. In the allegedly free market, people with less purchasing power will always lose. At least in the political arena they can vote.
Sze also does her reader and topic a great service by reviewing the history of garbage, public health and profit in New York City. As early as 1882, the city charged garbage haulers a $100,000 fee to collect refuse in Manhattan and the Bronx, after discovering the companies were making money by selling recovered materials, she writes. It raises the question of why the city is still figuring out how to efficiently handle recycling 125 years later. In 1894, a commission established by Mayor Thomas Gilroy suggested New Yorkers separate kitchen waste from dry trash. A century later there are small campaigns by the Department of Sanitation to attempt to reintroduce household composting. Sze discusses the astronomical increase in garbage in the 1950s and 1960s with the rise of pervasive advertising, packaging and disposable goods – but she misses an opportunity to critique how the throwaway culture operates in the very neighborhoods most affected by trash.
Sze returns us to the age of tuberculosis and park planning, explains how urban planning and public health diverged as separate spheres with the rise of professionalism and specialization in the progressive era, and argues that the city's dedicated environmental justice activists could bring the two fields back together.
In each of the campaigns she recounts, activists refused to accept their scripted role as emotional, irrational complainers. Instead they muscled in on the discussion, becoming experts in health, air pollution, bond markets (which would underwrite the facilities) and environmental law, and marshalling their own scientific research. This citizen science could rewrite the power dynamic between host neighborhoods and the waste and energy corporations local government often serves.
Explicit throughout the book are the ways garbage and who deals with it have always been mixed up with race, class and privilege. The subject is powerful and it is particularly interesting to consider how activists turned a perceived weakness – being low income communities of color – into a rallying cry: “You can't give us black and brown people your garbage.”
While the examination of social history and language surrounding cleanliness, waste, garbage and contamination in the context of a racist society is illuminating, Sze spends too many pages involved in graduate school rhetoric and language analysis. She could have more simply acknowledged that low-income communities of color know they get the short end of the stick because they are black or Latino and poor. Such discipline would have left more room to discuss possible equitable solutions to the garbage crisis. It’s a fair point that burning garbage or building truck-dependant transfer stations in poor neighborhoods afflicted with asthma is rotten, but the book doesn't discuss what to do with the mountains of waste New Yorkers create.
It would have been helpful to include some analysis of the Solid Waste Management Plan adopted last year or Mayor Bloomberg's new sustainability initiative; the book's publication schedule likely prohibited those discussions. And a keen editor could have pruned the academic language and saved Sze from burying some of her most arresting observations.
Still, “Noxious New York” is a valuable addition to the literature of urban social justice campaigns, an excellent primer on environmental activism in New York City and a powerful reminder of what dedicated people willing to go a lot of meetings are capable of achieving.