THE Destroy-It-to-Save-It Plan FOR East River Park
New York magazine|May 10 - 23, 2021
The city’s first real battle over climate adaptation has arrived.
KEITH GESSEN

EILEEN MYLES, the poet and novelist and East Village literary figure, winner of a Guggenheim and author of the cult classic Chelsea Girls, first heard the city was planning to demolish East River Park last September. The reason given was flood protection. The area had been devastated by Hurricane Sandy. But Myles was incredulous and got in touch with a group of activists working to save the park. Myles had never really liked activism—“I never have the impulse to pick up a bullhorn in front of a crowd, and the only thing I hate more is seeing other people do it,” they told me—but this was different. This was their park.

Myles began to make noise, research the situation, and email everyone they knew. So it was that, on an unseasonably warm December day, I met Myles and a small group of activists from East River Park Action, or ERPA, at the park’s Corlears Hook entrance. What I found as we walked through the park was an untrammeled piece of Old New York. We started at the giant compost yard near Corlears Hook, the largest food-scrap compost in the city, operated by the Lower East Side Ecology Center since 1998. We passed the historic amphitheater where Joseph Papp staged Julius Caesar in 1956 before moving the production uptown, where it became Shakespeare in the Park. We walked under the Williamsburg Bridge, where a few people were fishing, and up to the track where Myles liked to jog. The East River glittered in the sun. The park was ramshackle—and people loved it.

It was built by Robert Moses on landfill in the late 1930s, while he built alongside it the gash of the highway now known as the FDR Drive. Across the highway, Moses supervised the construction of one of the largest conglomerations of public housing in New York City: the Baruch Houses, the Lillian Wald Houses, the Vladeck Houses, the Jacob Riis Houses. For those residents and many others, the park became a cherished part of the neighborhood. It is the largest green space in Manhattan south of Central Park, and it had recently received some renovations. The promenade along the water had been rebuilt, along with the track and the amphitheater.

Now the city wanted to tear it all down, cover it in eight feet of dirt, and build a brand-new park on top of that. City officials, led by the Department of Design and Construction, or the DDC, said this was the best way to protect the neighborhood from climate-driven sea-level rise. The project was going to take five years and $1.45 billion to complete; some of the money had already been pledged by the federal government, and the rest was coming from the city.

The city’s opponents were a small but determined group. Pat Arnow, energetic, with long white hair, was a retired photographer for various labor unions and the lead organizer. Fannie Ip, a longtime Lower East Side resident, and former legal assistant had done the closest study of the various flood-protection plans and filed numerous Freedom of Information Law request to learn more. Emily Johnson, a contemporary dancer, founder of the Catalyst Dance Company, and a citizen of the Yup’ik nation of Alaska was there to speak about America’s history of violence and displacement, of which the city’s park plan was yet another example. We were joined by Christine Datz-Romero, the founder and director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center, the longtime steward of the park.

The group’s objections to the plan were manifold. Datz-Romero couldn’t understand how a climate adaptation plan could be so destructive of a biodiverse habitat yet do nothing to address the carbon-spewing highway next door. She was concerned the compost yard would have no place in the new park; the Parks Department has refused to promise her that the new park will include it. Arnow was convinced the park would be closed for much longer than the five years promised by the city. The group’s members were all troubled by the destruction of so many trees—nearly a thousand, including some mighty oaks that had withstood Sandy. They were worried, too, that the park and the neighborhood would lose their character, that there would be no fishing off the esplanade and no barbecue pits.

Across the river, the group said, the Brooklyn Bridge Park, which replaced a series of long-disused piers at the foot of another Moses highway, the BQE, had been funded by hotel and luxury-condo developments. Who was to say the city wouldn’t run out of money and be “forced” to open this area for redevelopment? That would also threaten the huge stock of public housing across the FDR. How long would it be before City Hall started raising funds by giving up space, for example, in the Baruch Houses or Jacob Riis?

The thing of it was, said the activists, there had been a much better plan than this one, created by the community, that was less destructive of the park. But the DDC had declared it infeasible, imposed this new plan, and, since then, refused to heed any objections.

October 29, 2012: Top, flooding near Avenue C and 14th Street during Hurricane Sandy. Above, where the Lower East Side was inundated by the storm. Flooding hit 51 square miles, or 17 percent, of New York City.

I walked out of the park with Myles. A few years earlier, they had almost lost their longtime rent-controlled East Village apartment; after a series of court cases, they had prevailed. They had so many memories of this park. “I used to go running here with my Walkman in the ’80s, listening to opera when all my friends were dying of aids,” Myles said. We crossed the FDR ovERPAss at 6th Street. “This park is many parks,” they said. “Sometimes I have known just one part of it. Then I’d get a new girlfriend or a new dog and I’d discover another part.”

Myles was worried about more than the park: “When I came here in the ’70s, the city was corrupt, dirty, but it was about itself.” Now it was different. Everything was about money and real estate, they said. The city was losing its soul, block by block and park by park.

ERPA was running out of time. The federal government had allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for the city’s plan, and now the DDC was racing against a deadline to spend the funds or lose them. But the mayoral race was about to heat up, and if the activists could just delay the plan’s implementation a little longer, it was possible the controversy could become an issue in the race; and if it became an issue, it was possible the next mayor could come up with a different plan and the park could be saved.

Before meeting the activists, I read a paper about the situation by an NYU graduate student named Malcolm Araos, who had concluded that, while the city had behaved very poorly in imposing its plan, the city’s opponents, predominantly white and older, were engaging in what is known in other contexts as nimbyism. They wanted flood protection—just not the kind that was on offer. But my meeting with the activists made me think Araos was wrong. They weren’t all white, and even if they had been, this wasn’t a social question but an environmental one—the park, the trees, the air. Surely, we were all inhabitants of this great green earth?

It turned out I had no idea.

THE STORY OF THE destruction of East River Park begins on the night of October 29, 2012, when the storm surge from Sandy pushed the East River to what had been, in essence, its 1609 borders. In the words of local residents, various parts of their neighborhood “became the river.” Delancey Street became the river. Houston Street became the river. The FDR Drive became the river.

The Lower East Side was the poorest area in Manhattan to be flooded and the most elderly. Nancy Ortiz, then president of the residents association at the Vladeck Houses, recalled how the power went out and residents’ food spoiled in their refrigerators. The local Pathmark had been flooded. If the National Guard hadn’t dropped off a truckload of MREs, she said, people would have gone hungry.

2025: The city’s current plan for East River Park, which requires raising the park eight feet.

For local resident Trever Holland, Sandy was a nightmare. When the lobby of his building at 82 Rutgers Street started flooding, some residents panicked, broke the lobby glass, and ran out into the street. At one point, a group of people who had been living under an elevated section of the FDR sought shelter in the building’s backyard and then became trapped when the water kept rising. They started banging on the back door before someone finally let them in. At around 8:30 p.m., a massive explosion, then another, rocked the neighborhood. It was the Con Ed plant at 14th Street, just north of the park. The lights went out in lower Manhattan and stayed out for almost a week. Holland’s building has 22 stories; people with dogs who lived on high floors and could not make the trip downstairs would let them defecate in the stairwell. “It was hell,” said Holland. “I am not going through that again.” He stopped. “I didn’t say, ‘I don’t want to go through that again.’ I said, ‘I will not go through that again.’” After Sandy, Holland, a former corporate lawyer, joined the influential Parks Committee on Community Board 3, eventually becoming its chair.

Sandy was a national-level disaster. President Obama suspended several days of his reelection campaign and came to survey the damage. He then put Shaun Donovan, his Housing and Urban Development director, and a former New York City housing official, in charge of figuring out what the region should do to prevent another such disaster. Donovan set up a competition called Rebuild by Design, run by Bloombergadministration veteran Amy Chester, to solicit design ideas on the shape of post sandy flood protection in and around New York. In 2014, the top designs received a pledge of nearly a billion dollars in hud funding for a series of projects to defend New Jersey, Staten Island, the Rockaways, the Bronx, and Lower Manhattan.

The largest of the grants, $335 million, went to a project for lower Manhattan called the Big U, developed by the famously imaginative Danish architecture firm the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). The firm’s plan proposed an integrated system of flood protection that would form a giant U shape along Manhattan’s southern edge. Different areas received different designs depending on the local topography. In the Financial District, BIG’s envisioned an interlocking series of “pavilions of protection,” part shopping, part flood barrier; in the very dense neighborhood between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, where Trever Holland lives and the FDR is elevated, the architects designed a series of gates, “decorated by local artists,” attached to the underside of the FDR that would flip down in the event of flooding.

The outgoing Bloomberg administration asked for the Big U to start with the Lower East Side, because, as Chester recalls, it did not see a way to finance the construction privately. “I remember the exact room where they told us that,” she said eight years later, “because I was so proud at that moment of our city.” For this area, BIG proposed an “undulating berm” at the inland side of East River Park next to the FDR. This meant the park itself would remain in the flood plain and occasionally get inundated in accordance with the Dutch concept of keeping “room for the river.” But the hundred thousand people living across the FDR would be protected in the event of a Sandy-type storm.

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