Grassroots Victory in Greenpoint

Greenpoint—it's the end of a long evening.  Luscious pierogies with mushrooms and onion are wrapped in tin foil and doled out to lingering helpers.  Polish sausages waft forth their last savory say before clean-up is completed, and the exhausted volunteer workers mark the end of another celebration in this community hall as they have for the past century.  The scores of little children have left, in their parents’ arms, after dancing their hearts out to the music of a mariachi band—to the delight of their grandparents, who looked on from the crescent row of front tables—while a lone young couple danced, self-absorbed amidst the disjointed hubbub, a dazzling old strobe light twinkling like a glamorous moon above.

“Hey, who got married?” quips the energetic and charismatic Rich Mazur from his late-evening post (the last of many posts this evening, including organizer and master of ceremonies), behind the buffet at the Polish National Home this past July 27.  Though no conventional marriage, this was indeed the celebration of the achievements of a great and victorious union.

Founded as Greenpoint/Williamsburg Against Power Plants, GWAPP is a collective of independent action groups, religious organizations and individuals from around Greenpoint and Williamsburg who quickly set aside their differences early this spring to overcome their one common foe: the power plant, an industrial complex with which ConEdison and KeySpan intended to line the Greenpoint waterfront.

This celebratory evening marked GWAPP’s cooperative victory, and the end of a remarkably short but powerful ten-week battle resulting in ConEd and KeySpan officially withdrawing their intentions for the waterfront site.

What distinguished this battle was its astonishing grassroots nature, and the swiftness of its victory.  It all started in early April, when a local detective and writer, Bill Chambers, caught wind of some action on the abandoned industrial area formerly known as the Greenpoint Terminal Market.  With some real-life investigation, he discovered that ConEdison and KeySpan, two of the most powerful energy companies in the area, had joined together and paid $2 million for an exclusive option to buy the 14-acre spread, with the intention of building an electric plant.  The first meeting of 350 concerned citizens met ad hoc in the Greenpoint Savings Bank in the middle of April.  The power companies were confronted, and the next week, the count had doubled, as 700 citizens piled into the Polish National Home to question ConEdison and KeySpan on their projected plans.  It was here that GWAPP was formed.  Soon afterwards, over a thousand residents gathered, despite a barrage of rain and tornado warnings, for a powerful candlelight vigil.  They drew more and more attention from local and state representatives, and the battle with the power companies escalated as local residents continued to do what they could to gain recognition on their own.

Flyers were made and distributed by hand, from friend to friend.  A group of schoolchildren made a large banner in protest against the power plant, while others crafted hand-made signs and displayed them prominently in all of their windows. Residents passed petitions.  Local businesses displayed signs.  Residentially, block captains were appointed to go to meetings and report back to and from their neighbors, so that everyone could be involved, no matter what infirmities or busy schedules would otherwise prevent them.  Young, old, life-long residents, and new professionals living in the area and commuting to Manhattan all came together for this common cause. 

Among them was Joan Darragh, 62, who has lived in Greenpoint all her life, was married here and had six children here, three of whom remain in the neighborhood.  She went to an early meeting, and quickly became involved in the effort in whatever way she could.  They had a thousand signs made up for people to exhibit in their windows, and she stood in front of the church with other women and took names for the petition.  The struggle was not so much to win support as to convince people that they could really band together and effect change.  “A lot of people said, ‘oh, it’s a done deal.’ No, it’s not a done deal; you have to fight.  You own a house, you know.” she said.

Far from dissolving in the wake of their victory, GWAPP promptly regrouped its organization, and the name behind its acronym, to reflect the new needs of the community.  GWAPP is now the Greenpoint/Williamsburg Association for Parks and Planning, and its upcoming struggle will perhaps be an internal one, to come to a consensus as to what should take the power plant’s place.

“Tonight is a night for celebration,” said Councilman Ken Fisher, who has supported GWAPP from the very beginning, “and it’s not a night to be serious.  But for all of us, tomorrow, everyone starts talking about how can we make sure that we get something on the waterfront that we want.”

State Senator Martin Connor, another of the many politicians who aided GWAPP, affirmed that this is an astonishing feat of community activism and cooperation.  “But,” he added, “what we’ve done is stop something we don’t want.  The challenge as we look forward is to get what we do want: an accessible, open waterfront with parks and open areas.  We need new zoning.  We need to not just stop the latest bad idea, we need to preclude all the future bad ideas, we need to preclude all the future bad ideas and get what the community needs in a waterfront for the people.”

As Palmer and Fisher both indicated, much of the future of the waterfront rests on the zoning of the area, which is presently industrial but which GWAPP and its supporters hope to see change to a mixed use designation, resulting in a mostly residential area with small commercial enterprises.

They also hope to see a portion of the property go to parks, making the waterfront accessible for the entire community.  Although this area will be privately purchased and developed, GWAPP hopes to influence the planning with help from those same local and state politicians who have already been so supportive.

As master of ceremonies and life-long resident Mazur explained later, “Our objective is, we try to find funding to subsidize the buildings so that there’s a certain portion or as large a percentage as possible of housing that’s affordable, because the biggest problem is people can’t even afford to live here now.  You can’t get an apartment, you can’t buy a house.  It’s basically the build-up of the economy in New York City.  You can’t get an apartment anywhere in NYC.  You have to go to…” Alas, not even Mazur could come up with a location that has not been affected by the incredible increase in New York area rents over the past decade.

With an eye to the future, Mazur and his colleagues have been looking far and wide for guidance and perspective.  He mentioned recently finding encouragement from photographs of the Thames River in London.  “This is what you can do,” he said, the light still shining in his eyes after a long evening of speeches and organizing.  “This was an overly industrialized river, it was a disaster, and look what they did to it.  And what are we trying to do to our waterfront?  In the greatest city in the world, we want to build power plants and factories.”  And the list goes on, as Greenpoint alone has, in the past 10 years, combated water-transfer stations, a garbage incinerator, and a sewage treatment plant, not to mention a devastating underground oil spill back in 1988.  The power plant is one in a line of obstacles overcome, but without solid planning and community and political intervention, there is no guarantee that the waterfront will not once again be plucked from the control of the community.

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GWAPP Steering Committee meetings are open to the public and will be held on the second Wednesday of every month.  For details, check the website at www.gwapp.org.

Contributor

Emily DeVoti

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