Islands Unto Themselves?

This essay is the August edition of the newsletter Climate / Change, created by Tom O’Keefe. The project endeavors to face climate disruption with clarity and courage, urge climate action, and envisioning more balanced, sustainable futures. Each post empowers readers by featuring concrete steps big and small that we can all take to promote positive change, and resources we can use to educate ourselves. 

With the exception of the Bronx, New York is a city of islands. Three in particular. One that may be the most famous in the world. But dozens of extant islands, and no doubt hundreds of former that have succumbed – over nearly four centuries of European colonization – to the ceaseless human remaking of this place.

Even the Bronx has its islands, in fact. City Island, far to the north, still has something of the feel to it of the fishing village it once was. North Brother – once a quarantine site, upon which the ruins of an old hospital are still visible today – has refreshingly been converted into a bird sanctuary, and South Brother – site of the city’s first dump – is likewise now uninhabited, while a short distance from the Brothers, across the tidal straight known as the East River, is located the infamous penal colony, Riker’s Island, a monument to our inhumanity – cage, on average, to approximately 10,000 people – over which, every day, pass hundreds of commercial airliners arriving at and departing from much-maligned LaGuardia Airport.

Manhattan’s islands are generally more well-known, if their histories – Ward’s and Randall’s Islands, joined by landfill; U Thant Island, artificial relic of subway tunnel construction, and now home to a small colony of double-crested cormorants; Liberty Island, formerly Bedloe’s, one-time home to a United States Army fort, the remains of which still frame, fittingly, the base of the Statue of Liberty – remain, in many cases, obscure.

Coney Island is no longer an island, but was once multiple, while the number of islands in the still-vast Jamaica Bay – although drastically reduced through dumping and infilling, hardening of shorelines, and, in particular, the massive construction, first of Floyd Bennett Field (once site of Barren Island, and multiple smaller), and later, of Idlewild, now JFK – is still such to inspire wonder.

Bitterly, ironically, if not surprisingly, the flooding from Hurricane Sandy largely mapped to areas of infill and encroachment on wetlands and water. Now, these same areas are epicenters of a building boom. (For an excellent, accessible ecological history of Greater New York – including extensive exploration of the “process of making land out of water” – I recommend Ted Steinberg’s Gotham Unbound.) And yet, when water isn’t flooding our streets or lapping at our doors, it is easy to forget how intimately this city (and metropolitan statistical area) is tied to its rivers and ocean. In fact, it is easy enough not to realize in the first place (as I didn’t until recently) that no less then seven rivers feed into New York Harbor and Long Island Sound in the Greater New York City Area.

I reject the self-serving corporatism of the Regional Plan Association; nonetheless, I believe it is essential that we eschew chauvinisms – at the level of the neighborhood, the borough, even the city – to grasp how fundamentally interconnected are all of our lives across the region, and indeed, around the world.

Still, to the resident of the South Bronx, whose grandparents came north to Harlem during the Great Migration; whose parents moved to Morrisania looking for better schools and to escape the slums; who witnessed as a child the destruction wrought by Robert Moses’s “urban renewal” and came of age during the savage era of “benign neglect” and “planned shrinkage” which followed New York City’s 1970s fiscal crisis; whose children faced criminalization, mass incarceration, and exclusion even as the City reemerged as the dynamo of the new, financialized, neoliberal American economy; and whose grandchildren now attend under-funded public schools, breathe the City’s worst air, and drink the City’s worst water, right next door to the Hunts Point Distribution Center that provides much of the City’s food; to the Major Deegan, the Sheridan, or the Bruckner, or for that matter, the MetroNorth corridors that carry wealthy commuters from Westchester into Manhattan; to the waste transfer stationsthat handle a disproportionate amount of the City’s vast flow of “trash” – to such a resident of the South Bronx – whose communities have suffered staggering transgenerational infra/structural violence and environmental racism – talk of interconnectedness may sound like so much more of the hot air already in the process of choking us.

It is against the subjectivities of people in the South Bronx, Central Brooklyn, and Southeastern Queens that efforts towards building a just, sustainable, and ecologically-sane future for New York City must be measured, as against the consciousnesses of those calling for decolonization of land and institutions here in one of the hearts of global capitalism. My ancestors came to New York themselves fleeing ecological and human catastrophes (the Potato Famine, World War I), but harnessing the desperation of immigrants has always been part of the logic, structure, and strategy of settler colonialism, and the fact of my forebears desperation little changes the hard realities of our shared present. Yet, as a person who has made my life in New York, and loves this City in spite of all its – and my own – contradictions and shortcomings, I fear for our collective future in the face of the all-but-unthinkable, and yet increasingly imaginable.

In many ways, the City Government is doing a remarkable job– especially since Sandy and under Mayor de Blasio – in improving its “climate readiness”, and yet, sadly, its actions remain insufficient; in fact, they fall far short of the truly necessary level of urgency, both in view of our already dire situation, but even more, given that, globally, there are few signs yet of truly concerted action being taken to end fossil fuel consumption, convert to a fully renewable economy, and, in the process, build a just and sustainable future. No amount of “resilience” can protect us if global average temperatures increase by six degrees Celsius.

There are no easy answers. But one starting point is committing ourselves to understanding where we really live; yes, in “the greatest city on Earth” (or its metro region), but more to the point, on a collection of islands and peninsulas. On land, much of which was once wetlands and tidal marshes (and which was taken by force and through massacres, not purchased with trinkets). In a beautiful, still-ecologically-remarkable, but damaged, fragile, and extremely vulnerable set of intersecting and overlapping ecosystems and built human environments – a place, today, at once of unique world-historical significance, and yet also emblematic of the threats that menace many of the megacities which constitute key nodes of the contemporary networked world order.

On the advice of my partner, going forward (and into the coming US school-year, given that my own work follows an academic calendar), I plan to devote these monthly newsletters to explorations of particular issues/topics related to Greater New York – think the infrastructure that ensures the safety and reliability of our water supply, our wastewater treatment facilities, the elaborate systems and infrastructures of “waste” management without which our streets would quickly begin to pile high with refuse – with the certainty that, at very least, I should learn a lot; the hope that, in the process, some of my fellow New Yorkers will as well; and the ambition that readers beyond the region (and outside the United States) may find inspiration in the approach, even if not always so much relevance in the details.

It’s been my experience that we – in New York, as in most of the rich places in the rich/core capitalist countries, at least those of us here who are not among the growing number of homeless and hungry – largely take for granted our water, food, and electrical supplies, until the tap runs dry, the shelves are empty, and the lights are out. Rather than wait for future disasters to teach us further hard and traumatic lessons, I think it’s time we confront our complacency and begin to plumb the depths and immediacy of our vulnerability.

What I’m Doing

I’ve supported my partner in a worthy undertaking and continued trying to make the most of the summer:

    • Love Child has partnered with our friends at Power Market to offer an incentive for New Yorkers to sign up for community solar. Long story short, PowerMarket partners with ConEd and a number of renewable energy projects across the region to offer (~10%) discounted electricity to ConEd users while feeding renewably-generated electricity into the grid. We have already subscribed – both at home and at Love Child – as part of the South Bronx Solar Garden (slated to come online soon), and I encourage you to consider moving your residential and commercial electricity bills over to a community solar project. In the process, you should save money; it’s free and easy to sign up; and you’ll be supporting the installation of more renewable energy generation capacity in New York. If you use this link to register, you’ll get a $50 gift card and we’ll know you came to community solar through us; if you’re interested, please feel free to reach out to me with any questions, and I’ll be happy to put you directly in touch with Travis at PowerMarket.
  • I attended a public meeting held by the Army Corps of Engineers regarding their multiple proposed potential plans for storm surge barriers in and around New York Harbor. The most extreme of these would entail building a massive barrier across the entire mouth of Lower New York Harbor, from Sandy Hook in New Jersey to Breezy Point in Queens. Critics, such as the organization Riverkeeper, have called that plan in particular a “threat to the very life of the Hudson & Harbor.” I encourage you to get informed about these potential developments (helpful video, fact sheet, and resources here), and give your comments to the Army Corps before the public comment period closes on September 20th. Although I’m opposed to almost all of the plans proposed by the Army Corps, the threat to our more than 500 miles of coast/shoreline is an urgent and very real one, and I’m happy to see public and governmental concern and awareness growing.
    • I visited multiple sites in the Gateway National Recreation Area, including the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and historic Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island. The Wildlife Refuge is a welcome reminder of the rich ecology of New York City and the wide variety of non-human species that continue to live in or pass through the region, while Fort Wadsworth – in addition to offering some truly spectacular views, including the one captured above – offers insight into the geopolitical and military history of the City. An immense infrastructure of now-totally-obsolete coastal defense, built up over a matter of centuries, remains hidden in plain sight around the City. In Brooklyn, across from Fort Wadsworth, Fort Hamilton remains an active Army base, while Fort Lafeyette – constructed on Hendrick’s Reef, another of New York’s now-vanished islands – was demolished in 1960 to make way for one of the towers of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Fort Tilden and Fort Hancock frame the mouth of the Lower Harbor; Castles Clinton and Williams remain in the Upper Harbor; and Forts Schuyler and Totten once guarded the approach to Manhattan via Long Island Sound in the vicinity of today’s Throgs Neck Bridge. Aerial warfare and long range missiles had already relegated even the most advanced of the coastal forts to irrelevance by the time nuclear weapons solidified it, but in considering these relics of strategic/maritime history, we get a glimpse into the forces that shaped New York and the centrality to this city of the waters that now, in the era of global climate disruption, harbor a new sort of menace.
    • I joined the infectiously-sewer-loving Steve Duncan on an NYC H2O tour. Spoiler: If you go on a tour, you’ll get to look under a lot of manhole covers. No actual infections should result.
    • I checked out the exhibitions at the Center for Architecture on “Designing Waste” and the Fourth Regional Plan. Both worth the time in my opinion.
  • I’ve tried to go to the beach as much as possible, which has been nice.

What I’ve Been Reading

Already running a bit long this week, so offering here a few books, and one long article, plus a rejoinder to it:

Fear City– Kim Philipps-Fein’s excellent analysis (and dramatic recounting) of New York City’s fiscal crisis.

Reclaiming Gotham – Juan Gonzalez’s illuminating take on the accomplishments (and failures) of the de Blasio administration and the broader urban progressive movement in the United States.

The Slums of Aspen– credit to Zero Waste Habesha for this rec (via Insta that is) – only just starting this book – subtitled “Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden” – myself, but already very into it.

Losing Earth Capitalism Killed our Climate Momentum…– Nathaniel Rich’s (very long and highly white-male-technocrat-centric) look at the emergence and failure of high-level negotiations around climate disruption in the 1980s, and Naomi Klein’s necessary critique, in the Intercept, of Rich’s high-profile New York Times Magazine piece.