Tag Archives: Staten Island

Highway to Hell

Twice a week, I wake up at 6am to prepare for my commute in to work at the College of Staten Island. A colleague who also lives in Queens picks me up and we drive together to Staten Island in his car. To get there we take the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), a portion of Interstate 278.

The BQE is a product of the New Deal era, when the state sought to pull the region out of economic depression through massive public works. It staggers the mind to think about how much political will had to be mustered to carve such a highway out of the densely packed city neighborhoods it traverses. Like so much of the rest of the automotive infrastructure of New York City, the titanic figure of Robert Moses led this campaign. In blasting the BQE through the city, Moses helped create the mindset for the petroculture of the postwar period, a culture based on limitless consumption and growth. To drive on this highway is to step into a time machine to an era that is fast receding.

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Today, the BQE is in a state of advanced disrepair. As the photographs I took during one recent commute show, the highway is filled with potholes. Portions of the siding of the road and of overpasses like the Kosciuszko Bridge have fallen off. Construction work on the highway is constant, but the overall quality of the road never seems to improve. The construction that does take place is massively understaffed; long stretches of the highway are under renovation, but only four or five workers are visible laboring to make these changes.

The BQE also traverses some of the worst toxic sites in NYC, including the Newtown Creek, a bucolic sounding stream that divides Queens and Brooklyn and is one of the most polluted waterways in the country – it’s been an EPA Superfund site since 2010 -, and the Gowanus Canal, which should be a Superfund site as well because of its polluted state, except that developers don’t want to scare off potential residents.

I worry about the amount of pollution my body absorbs during these commutes. Seeing all this rotting infrastructure and the massive congestion of the roadway twice a week also makes me worry about the level of toxicity simply living in a city involves. At the same time, I’m aware that most other cities in the world have much higher levels of pollution.

The decaying BQE offers a powerful symbol of the state of US empire. It’s the ugly, toxic product of a fossil fuel age that we cling to at our own peril. Like so many others, I remain shackled to this highway because of the constraints of life in NYC. What will it take to imagine viable alternatives to a highway like the BQE, ways of moving about the world and maintaining propinquity without the myths and destructive material realities of petroculture?

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Staten Island Noir

The first short story I’ve ever written is forthcoming in Akashic Books’ fantastic noir series. I just got this copy of the cover; the book comes out in early November.

Each volume in Akashic’s series is based in a different city around the world. The publisher has been particularly attentive to cities in the global South, with titles like Kingston Noir, Delhi Noir, and (forthcoming) Lagos Noir featuring prominently in their catalog.

The series features and is edited by local writers, so it plays an important role in bringing collections of authors to the attention of audiences in the North who might otherwise remain below the radar.

I intend to explore the rubric of noir in future scholarly work. In what ways, I want to ask, are crime and policing responses to the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism that have forced literally millions of people off the land and into sprawling mega-cities in postcolonial nations? How adequate is the discourse of noir to reflecting critically on the impasses of neoliberal globalization? What gets left out of crime lit, and what crimes cannot be solved be even the most hard-boiled sleuth?

I hope my scholarly work on these kinds of questions will be productive. For now, though, I can say that I had great fun writing “Teenage Wasteland.” This story, set, of course, on Staten Island, explores the politics of toxic garbage disposal in the Fresh Kills dump during the late 1970s. The protagonist is a young Italian-American woman who gets diverted from her career as a fledgling punk rocker in her favorite stomping ground – CBGBs – by a rash of toxin-induced illnesses in her home neighborhood on Staten Island.

I definitely feel that there is more ground to explore here. Both in terms of garbage politics in NYC and in terms of the protagonist I created. I have ambitions to send her to Love Canal and to Italy. After all, the story is set during the anni di piombo (the years of lead), when the Italian government colluded with the mafia, NATO, and the CIA to shift Italian politics to the right by staging a series of bombings which were blamed on anarchist groups and on the Left in general. Lots to explore… Stay tuned.

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Superfund Stories

A couple of weeks ago I attended my first public meeting at a Superfund site.  This site is a rather nondescript triangle of land in the Port Richmond neighborhood, just to the west of my home in St. George.  Like many other parts of Staten Island, this now overgrown plot is a reminder of the toxicity produced by centuries of industrial production.

The site is official known at the Jewett White Lead Site. From 1839 to 1890, John Jewett and Sons operated a lead paint factory on the waterfront along the Kill van Kull at 2015 Richmond Terrace. The business was then taken over by National Lead, another paint factory, and continued to produce lead-based white paint until 1943. Various other businesses operated on the grounds subsequently, including, disturbingly, an ice cream factory.

In December 2008, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) representatives collected soil samples from test pits on the site of the old paint factory.  They determined that elevated levels of lead are present throughout the site: the maximum detected concentration of lead (97,921 mg/kg) far exceeded the screening criteria for both children (400 mg/kg) and adults (880 mg/kg).

The statistics delivered by the EPA at the Jewett White Lead Site meeting prompted me to think about the toxicity that saturates the urban environment and seeps into our bodies, leaving ghostly traces and intensified concentrations over the years.  This toxicity is rendered in particularly graphic terms by a recent article in National Geographic in which reporter David Duncan tested himself for 320 toxic chemicals; he tested positive for 165, finding that his body harbored PCBs, DDT, dioxin, mercury, and PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), flame-retardant chemicals put in everything from mattresses to the plastic and fabric interiors of cars and airplanes.

Duncan’s article offers an extremely unnerving account of the way in which the chemical-laden objects that surround us in everyday life inevitably seep into our bodies, building up a potentially mortal charge over the years. As Nan Enstad argues in an excellent discussion of toxicity and the consuming subject published in the collection States of Emergency, toxins introduce ideas of risk to global commodity chains, leading us away from a focus solely on consumption.  Considering a history of toxicity’s flow, Enstad suggests, may raise questions about decision-making and the allocation of risk at all levels of capitalist production, from the body to the highest levels of globalization.  Attention to toxicity thus helps open the corporeal to cultural analysis.

The corporeal history inscribed by toxicity upon the body is rendered powerfully in the photo essay that accompanies Duncan’s article in National Geographic. From the spectral traces of lead that line a young girl’s pelvis in an X-ray taken in the US to the eye-less head of a Vietnamese child exposed to Agent Orange residues from the US war in Vietnam, these images make the all too invisible ramifications of toxic commodity chains visible.

As these images and the work of environmental justice advocates in recent decades makes clear, toxicity, like wealth, is not evenly distributed. The origins of the Superfund designation in fact go back to a working class community in Niagara Falls, New York.  Here, in the spring of 1972, a group of children found hard chalk-like lumps in the dirt of a playground near their local school.  After several of the children had to be hospitalized for burns produced by powder from these lumps, a history of environmental negligence and criminal duplicity began to emerge.  Residents of the city’s LaSalle neighborhood discovered that their houses and the community school had been built atop a toxic waste dump.  The Niagara Falls Board of Education, it gradually became clear, had bought the property on which the school sat from the Niagara-based Hooker Chemical Company in 1953.  Hooker Chemical had dumped the toxic residues of its production into the disused Love Canal on the site for decades, and then had sold the land to the Board of Ed for $1, with the proviso that they would bear no responsibility for damages caused by the chemical wastes buried at the site.

The grassroots campaign, lead by women such as Lois Gibbs, that developed around Love Canal is an important moment in the 20th century US environmental movement.  In subsequent decades, the environmental justice movement did much to underline the extent to which poor people and people of color are disproportionately exposed to toxic wastes in the land, water, and air of their communities.  Yet despite many decades of struggle, communities across the US and around the world continue to be subjected to forms of environmental racism and classism. In fact, it could even be argued that the soup of chemicals to which such communities are exposed has grown more lethal as companies develop increasingly complex substances, with genetically modified organisms now added to the catalog of toxins.

The ubiquity of Superfund sites around the US is highly unnerving, suggesting that few communities, particularly in the formerly industrial Northeastern US, are really very far away from a toxic site.  The illusion that the production of complex commodity chains has no impact on us is impossible to sustain in the face of this map, even if the residues and impact of toxins are often hard to detect in the individual body.

In the case of the Jewett White Lead Site, however, the long efforts of the environmental justice movement seem to have paid off.  The Port Richmond community in which the site is located is a predominantly African American and Latin@ neighborhood.  When the EPA called a public meeting to announce the results of its deliberations about how to clean up the site, there was consequently a great deal of community concern about whether the toxins would be safely removed from the soil.

At the public meeting, EPA officials were out in force.  They presented their decision with an almost theatrical flourish.  Before a decision was announced, an EPA spokeswoman outlined the various remedies considered by the organization: 1) do nothing; 2) remove all of the contaminated soil and fill the resulting hole in with clean topsoil; 3) put a soil cover over the contaminated site; 4) pave over the site; 5) immobilize the lead by adding concrete to the soil.

As these different option were described, the mandatory Powerpoint presentation itemized the costs of each of these approaches.  Everyone in the audience was silent as the staggering costs of the more preferable approaches were presented.

Despite this tension, however, the EPA pulled off a happy ending.  At the end of the presentation, officials announced that approach #2, complete “evacuation and off-site disposal/treatment,” was the preferred solution.

The public comment period for the Jewett site ended three days ago, and we now have to wait to hear what the final decision adopted by the EPA will be.  Yet while a thorough clean-up of the Jewett site may be in the cards, lingering questions remain about whether we can ever really make the toxic waste we produce go away.  When I asked during the meeting where the contaminated earth would be taken to, for example, the chief EPA official present answered that he didn’t know but that it would be a safe facility somewhere away from Staten Island.

To what extent, then, are we just moving toxins around?  Perhaps we are simply moving contaminants from Superfund sites to other, less-politically active sites.  Like an enduring answer to the issues raised by the rest of the waste stream produced by modern industrial capitalism, an enduring fix for the Superfund sites probably lies less in the pollute-and-evacuate approach currently prevalent in the US than in a determination not to produce toxins in the first place.  This, however, would require a sweeping transformation of today’s toxic cultures.

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Toxic Island

Yesterday I met and interviewed a very interesting Staten Island denizen named Debby Davis. I discovered her through the Toxic Trails map of Staten Island that she created. This map is probably the most important resource for anyone interested in understanding the history of Staten Island as a repository for New York City’s toxic waste over the last couple of centuries.

Davis is a graphic artist who has lived in the Staten Island neighborhood of Stapleton since 1990. She moved to New York City from Connecticut in the 1970s, living initially in the south Bronx and participating in the vibrant East Village art scene of the 1980s.

In recent years, Davis has begun exploring the history and political ecology of her home borough. One of the first products of this project was her photography show This is What Time Does: A Year of Walking Richmond Road, which documented the palimpsestic layers of history visible (and invisible) along this road that traverses various neighborhoods on Staten Island’s north shore. Davis spent a great deal of time in the archives of the Staten Island museum, producing a series of photographs that depict the layering of history through their collage of historical and contemporary images.

More recently, Davis began exploring what she described to me as some of the island’s forbidden places: sites of industrial contamination past and present. These excursions led to the creation of her Toxic Trails map of Staten Island. This work is an online, interactive map of the island’s various contaminated sites, from former and current Superfund sites to shipyards, power plants, bus depots, dumps and landfills, gas pipelines and petroleum storage facilities.

In addition to being an intriguing example of digital art, Davis’s map is an amazing resource for environmental justice activists. Struggles for environmental justice often are catalyzed when people become aware of the dangers posed to their own and their community’s health by local environmental toxins. But these toxins almost always come from somewhere else, and they often have a long history of accumulating in the environment.

Staten Island, for example, has long served as a dumping ground for the much of the city’s waste stream. The reasons for this are complex and multiple. Part of this history has to do with deeply inscribed perceptions of marshes such as those that surround much of Staten Island as a form of natural wasteland. Another part has to do with the Mafia control of New York City’s garbage hauling industry. In addition, though, the land and those who occupied it had to be seen as lesser in one way or another in order to legitimate the creation of a massive landfill such as Fresh Kills.

Much of the strength of the environmental justice movement in fact comes from the legitimate outrage felt by communities over precisely such form of race- and class-biased location of toxins. It is no coincidence, then, that I came across Debby Davis’s toxic map at an event organized by the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy, one of Staten Island’s grassroots environmental justice organizations. Her work is an incredibly important resource for such groups, illuminating the past and offering implicit lessons to help build a better, and more just, future.

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Shipping News

I live next to the New York City harbor, in a Staten Island neighborhood called St. George.  It’s an atmospheric place.  I remember waking on one of my first days in my new apartment to the sound of fog horns out in the harbor as a thick bank of fog rolled in from the ocean and turned the air into a gauzy gray fabric.

There’s constant activity on the bodies of water that St. George abuts: the Staten Island ferry comes to dock a stone’s throw from my window every half hour, lighter barges filled with fuel oil get shunted around the harbor by tug boats, cruise ships the size of a small city glide past on their way to the Caribbean, and huge container ships pass by on their way down the Kill van Kull to the massive Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal, the busiest port facility in the eastern U.S.  MSC, Maersk, Italia are just a few of the shipping lines that go past regularly, bringing huge containers filled with products from the rest of the world to sate the seemingly bottomless lust for consumption of us Americans.

The Kill – a label left over from the area’s Dutch colonial era, with a far more benign meaning (“stream” or “riverbed”) than a non-Dutch speaker might assume – is itself constantly changing. One of the busiest waterways in the region, its sandy bottom must be continually dredged in order to accommodate the large container ships that pass up it on their way to the city’s port. In many places, in fact, excavation has hit bedrock, and the Kill has to be blasted with dynamite in order to render it deep enough for shipping. So, mixed in with those foghorns and blasts of the ferry’s departure horn are occasional distant explosions.

Shipping is undergoing a revolution that is roiling the waters of the Kill. Fifty years ago, goods being transported around the world had to be transferred individually from ship to truck to train. This required armies of dock workers in ports around the globe, creating lots of employment, but also generating very high costs for merchants transferring their wares from place to place. This process of shifting goods from ship to shore, or “breaking bulk,” as it was known, often amounted to half the costs of shipping. Dockworkers also tended to be not just notably cosmopolitan but also quite radical, and, occupying a key node in the global supply chain, could paralyze commerce in a way that was very threatening to capital.

Containerization solved these problems. As Marc Levinson details in The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, goods began to move around the world beginning in the 1960s in gigantic steel cans called cargo containers. As a result of the rise of this standardized mode of transport, the flow of goods was revolutionized. Transportation costs were cut radically and reliability was dramatically raised since goods no longer had to languish in warehouses waiting for workers to pack them individually into the holds of ships.

As a result, as Levinson explains, it became “economically sensible for a factory in China to produce Barbie dolls with Japanese hair, Taiwanese plastics and American colorants, and ship them off to eager girls all over the world.” Containerization, in other words, facilitated the processes of offshoring that have helped to deindustrialize countries like the United States, while shifting much toxic industrial production to developing countries in Asia.

Containerization also fundamentally changed the shape of cities, since it meant that large working class dock districts with deep and important roots such as London’s East End often became moribund when port facilities shifted to deeper waters. The Isle of Dogs, once the heartland of London’s working class culture, was transformed in the 1980s into a haven for yuppie financial-sector workers living in converted warehouses after containerization destroyed the port of London.

But pollution never really goes away. All of those abandoned Barbies and superannuated cellphones – made of toxic non-biodegradable substances like plastic – have to go somewhere. In the case of New York City, that somewhere was, until very recently, the ironically named Fresh Kills Landfill, at 2,200 acres one of the largest waste dumps in the world. The landfill is located on and named for the Fresh Kills estuary, a wetlands ecosystem that drains and purifies water from much of the western portion of Staten Island and deposits that water into the Arthur Kill near the Isle of Meadows. There’s a lot more to say about Fresh Kills, which New York City is currently planning to turn into a park, but I’m going to save that story for later.

The ships that transport all those products stacked neatly inside containers also bring their own forms of toxicity. A recent United Nations study revealed that annual emissions from the world’s merchant fleet have reached 1.12 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, nearly 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The shipping industry, the report suggests, is one of the world’s biggest sources of climate change, after automobiles, housing, agriculture, and industry. By comparison, the aviation industry, which has been under intense pressure from activist groups like Plane Stupid, generates only about half as much greenhouse gases as shipping.

Like aviation, shipping has fallen between the regulatory cracks because it is an international activity. Yet it has profoundly local impacts. According to the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy, an environmental justice activist group based in Staten Island, the Kill van Kull is in violation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act.

In addition to dirtying the water, however, shipping also pollutes the air. Cargo ships burn low-grade diesel fuel that generates sulfur and soot, which in turn gives rise to acid rain, lung cancer, and other respiratory problems. The neighborhoods that fringe the Kill van Kull, most of which are heavily African-American and Mexican-American, in fact have some of the highest rates of asthma in New York City. The only significant controls on such emissions at present are imposed by the New York harbor master, who mandates that ships slow down as they enter the Kill van Kull in order to diminish the otherwise massive wakes they generate.

One of the many simmering debates over environmental injustice currently unfolding on Staten Island concerns a radical change about to unfold in global shipping. Maersk, the world’s biggest shipping company, has just bought ten of the new “Triple-E” size container ships. The proportions of these things beggar description: nearly twice as large as the majority of the world’s current cargo ships, they are as long as the Empire State Building is high, and as wide as an eight lane highway. They are able to transport 860 million bananas or 18 million flat-screen televisions at once. Maersk boss Eivind Kolding reports that the company hopes the ships will cut the cost of transporting containers by 25 – 30%.

Maersk is touting the advent of these ships as an environmental boon. Kolding argues that they will consume 50% less fuel than the current industry average. But this greater fuel efficiency is likely to be offset and swamped by the increasing quantity of commerce carried by these “New Panamax” ships (so large that they will not fit through the Panama Canal). Although each unit of pollution emitted by the ships may be diminished, in other words, the increasing trade they carry will lead to a significant aggregate increase in toxic emissions.

As is so often the unfortunate case, trade and the environmental are seemingly at odds in this transformation of shipping. Only seven ports in the world can currently dock such ships. None of them are in the United States. There are serious concerns that the U.S. will be cut out of trade routes linking East Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, where all the port facilities capable of docking New Panamax ships are currently located. As a result, pressure is building to re-engineer port facilities in the U.S., including those of New York City.

This would mean further dredging and blasting of the Kill van Kull. It would also mean that the Bayonne Bridge, which spans the Kill, connecting Staten Island to New Jersey, would have to be demolished and replaced by a more elevated bridge. And, most importantly, it would also mean more toxic emissions for the people living along the Kill van Kull on Staten Island.

The North Shore Waterfront Conservancy, the fledgling environmental justice organization with which I have been involved over the last year, has tried very carefully to position itself as pro-business as well as pro-environment. The conflict over the ships entering the Kill van Kull is likely to be one in which these poles prove very difficult to reconcile.

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