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Harlem: Where the City’s Waste Flows Upstream

Walking outside my building on a cool fall day I’m greeted by a view of the magnificent blue sky, ribbed with white clouds, but stabbed through by the cylinders of the North River Water Treatment Plant. It’s not difficult to see why the proposed expansion of the Marine Transfer Station at 135th Street and 12th Avenue has the neighborhood up in arms.

“People are suffering with asthma because of the diesel fuel pollution created by garbage trucks and buses. This kind of pollution is a carcinogen—it is cancer-causing and increases heart attacks,” says Yolande Cadore, director of community organization for West Harlem Environmental Action (WEACT). “My role is to mobilize residents to demand equity in environmental issues. We need to be organized, strategic, and vocal.”

Yet it’s hard to be vocal when you’re gasping for air. Asthma rates among children living in Northern Manhattan are the highest in the United States. Still, those in the community who can speak up are doing so through the Northern Manhattan Environmental Justice Coalition, a WEACT-supported coalition of community activists and residents who oppose the planned transfer station expansion. The Marine Transfer Station (MTS) is an edifice just off shore on the river, less than 200 meters from residential homes, where garbage from all over Manhattan is carried via diesel trucks and barges to be processed.

“The new MTS will be three times the size it was and instead of receiving 93 trucks per day it will receive 320 trucks a day,” says Cadore, who also heads up The Northern Manhattan Environmental Justice Coalition (NMEJC). These groups have found growing support from local residents like Carl Maultsby, who lives at 575 Riverside Drive, an apartment building that will be severely affected by the MTS because of its proximity to the site. “Our stance,” says Maultsby, is ‘enough is enough.’”

Groups like WEACT offer detailed critiques of the proposed expansion. “We are basing our analysis of the potential effects of the MTS expansion on the MTS’s of the past,” says Cadore. She paints a vivid picture of the future of this neighborhood if the expansion proposal were to be accepted and implemented.

Cadore points out that because the area around 135th Street and 12th Avenue has narrow, cobblestone streets, “Garbage would leak out into the streets. Trucks would have difficulty maneuvering and thus be sitting idle releasing even more toxins into the air.” Moreover, “The onslaught of 320 garbage trucks threatens pedestrian safety. There would be an increase in rats, flies, and mosquitoes. And trucks would be idling for hours waiting to get into the MTS to unload, which in the past has caused an increase in prostitution.”

This is not the best learning environment for the children attending the nearby elementary school, PS 161. All residences, businesses, churches, and schools would be affected by the smell, noise, disease, pollution, and resultant increase in violence.

“This is definitely a quality of life issue,” says Cadore.

Yet some people refuse to believe that retrofitting the MTS poses a problem for the neighborhood.

“People live wherever their life takes them, they don’t get so choosy,” says Cecilia Valentino, a real estate agent who owned residential property along Riverside Drive in the 1970s and ’80s. I ask her what kind of effect the MTS will have on the value of real estate in the area.

“The only effect that that could have is on the traffic,” says Valentino. “You’re paying one fifth the rent of what other people are paying in New York City. You can move out if you don’t like it and don’t think there won’t be three people waiting in line to take your place, probably willing to pay higher rent.”

Alexander has been working the real estate scene in New York City for over thirty years, and currently sells in Queens. She knew this neighborhood when it was in the pits during the 1970s and ’80s, at which time she sold the apartments. Knowing how real estate values have skyrocketed, since the reduction of crime and drug activity, I ask how she feels about having sold the property adjacent to the MTS and the North River Sewage Treatment Plant.

“Honestly, I regret selling the apartments, but it was such a dump and such a headache. No one would pay their rent.”

Alexander now lives on the Upper East Side.

“I don’t care how many organizations you have, they’re going to do it anyway. The city needs the space and that is one of the cheapest places we can do it [dump and process garbage],” says Alexander. “You don’t want to breathe city air, move over to the country.”

I am in my kitchen, preparing supper—chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans—and from my window can see the lights of Riverbank Park. Kids are playing catch and handball; teenagers are playing basketball and running track. The park sits atop a dump—the North River Water Pollution Control Plant—that handles and treats all of Manhattan’s sewage north of Bank Street in Greenwich Village.

Years ago, when the plant plans were being proposed to the city and when this area of town was being destroyed by drugs and prostitution, the community demanded that if this plant were to be built, then residents were entitled, at the very least, to a park. The city complied and now benefits on the revenue from the plant as well as from the recreational center atop. Is this the type of scenario the city is hoping will occur between Harlem residents and the MTS?

Kathy Dawkins, public affairs practitioner for the New York City Department of Sanitation, refused to respond to questions about the MTS over the phone. Eventually, Dawkins emailed me to point out that one of the city’s eight marine transfer stations “is located on East 91st Street and York Avenue”—a wealthy community on the Upper East Side. “The City must use every location available to efficiently manage its waste. Management of the City’s waste which is a shared responsibility must meet the needs of its various communities and the overall needs of the City as a whole.”

Dawkins’s comments sound reasonable enough, but she omits critical details. For one thing, the 135th Street MTS would process more than three times the waste of the 91st Street MTS, and twice the amount of the 59th Street MTS. These other sites are in use from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., whereas the one in Harlem operates 24 hours a day.

Is all of this a product of environmental racism, whereby policymakers choose disenfranchised, poor neighborhoods of color on which to dump the rest of the city’s garbage? I ask Cadore about Bloomberg’s stance on the MTS and the link between environmental issues and race.

“We are not calling the mayor an environmental racist,” she says. “The pattern in decision-making has been racist and as long as that continues areas of color will suffer.”

But if the actions and decisions are racist, what does that say of the decision-makers? The State Environmental Quality Review Act gathered information from 10 studies conducted throughout the country since the 1970s. Over and over again, studies have found that the number one determinant in choosing a waste disposal or processing center is skin color.

The MTA, responding to accusations of environmental racism, points out that the six bus depots were situated in Northern Manhattan before the influx of an African American population. “The MTA uses the fact that they’ve been there for 100 years when the demographics were much different to reject accusations of environmental racism,” says Cadore. But today’s reality of a community over-burdened with garbage supercedes these arguments. The fact remains that Harlem, a 7.25 square mile region, is taking on far too much waste while the rest of Manhattan, all 13.8 square miles, has been spared responsibility.

Some in the neighborhood hold out hope that the city will reconsider. “No way they’re gonna expand. Do you know how many people live here in this area? There’s at least 30,000,” says Adam Nasser, who has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years. He is co-owner of Angelo’s Grocery store at 135th Street. I tell him about the city plans, and about the effects of the MTS. I tell him all the things that Cadore has told me. He pauses momentarily.

“What can I say? It’s going to be bad for business.” Compassionately, and showing a savvy business mentality, he adds, “It’s gonna affect the restaurant even more,” referring to the Bus Stop Restaurant just next door on 135th Street and Broadway. “I’m just a grocery store, but the dump will be real bad for their business.”

I ask him what he would do if they build the MTS. “I’ll stay, what can I do? This is business.”

The members of Community Board Nine, a group of residents and professionals, advocate waste reduction and prevention along with recycling and reuse. Most members of the Board are in agreement that basic recycling programs need to be reinstalled and supported, which finally will happen this April. At Community Board Nine meetings, members have proposed alternatives like sending the city’s waste out to processing plants via train rails. The city, however, has yet to present any ideas other than dumping the waste on the 135th Street MTS.

“It’s very difficult to break the system,” Alexander says about the proposed MTS expansion. “Look at Staten Island—it is filled with garbage—you can go from one end to the other and it smells like shit and people still live there.”

“The sense in the community is that ‘they [city officials] will do whatever they want anyway,’ and that’s dangerous because it leads to apathy,” says Cadore.

Yet later the same week, on my way to the subway, I pass by Angelo’s Grocery and feel strangely, illogically reassured by Nasser’s defiant prediction.

The expansion of the MTS, Nasser says, “won’t happen. […] If they do it, come talk to me.”


Jacquelene Acevedo

JACQUELENE ACEVEDO is a writer based in Manhattan.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2004

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