East River Ecocide

Chances are you haven’t just seen the hazy skies blanketing much of North America this week but have been breathing the toxic air, too. Blowing in from the monstrous wildfires devouring the forests out west, it’s more than just a reminder that our planet can’t continue to swallow the pollution we’re pumping into it; more than a reminder, it’s a presence — one that’s killing us. And with covid’s delta strain now spreading like an invisible haze, one that’s possibly spreading into our lungs as well, poor air quality (that euphemism for our most ubiquitous carcinogen) is something we certainly don’t need more of.

But while we can’t stop the wind, that doesn’t mean we’re entirely powerless to clean the air. The cheapest and most effective way, of course (in addition to curtailing pollution — i.e., degrowth), is to plant trees. Trees and other plants not only capture CO2, but produce oxygen. So, if we value breathing (and, really, only a maniac doesn’t, right?), we must also value trees. We should plant trees, as many as possible. But, crucially, we should also conserve the trees and forests and green spaces we have already. It’s no exaggeration to say that those in positions of power who don’t value, and don’t prioritize, such vital resources are putting us all on a path to extinction.

That’s why it’s so peculiar that Bill de Blasio (the mayor of New York City, who never tires of promoting himself as a friend of the environment) among others are planning to destroy over one thousand mature trees in a park here this coming October. At a time when we should be protecting our trees and green spaces most vigorously, the city is intent on destroying the thousand trees of East River Park, the nearly one-and-a-half mile long park that runs between the East River (really a tidal strait, an extension of the bay, particularly prone to flooding) and the FDR Highway along Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But why?

When Superstorm Sandy arrived nearly nine years ago, its high winds and floods spread destruction and havoc throughout the region. Of relevance, the storm knocked out the ConEd power station at East River Park’s northern end, resulting in major power outages over much of Manhattan. From midtown to its southernmost tip, Manhattan was without power for days. And though other parts of the city, such as the Rockaways, in Queens, suffered worse and for far longer, it was largely the flooding and damage to lower Manhattan that led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to initiate a contest to find the best flood control and coastal resiliency project for the area. The winning plan proposed to transform the 1.4 miles of East River Park into a new and improved park, with terraced fields and, importantly, a flood plain designed to absorb future flooding. This design not only preserved East River Park’s trees and green spaces. Part of the BIG U, as it was known, that was to wrap around all of lower Manhattan to protect it from rising seas, the proposal won wide support, including from the lower-income community of color that surrounds the park. Altering the waterfront promenade to gently descend into the East River (to function as a flood plain), it would have also covered the FDR, creating a flood barrier over where that poisonous highway now roars. And because cars account for a great deal of the greenhouse gases heating, poisoning, and flooding us, the covered FDR was to be converted from a source of global heating into a mass transit corridor. With widespread community support, the plan was adopted.

But in 2018 this popular plan was suddenly scrapped. The mayor and his constituency, largely real estate developers, decided to pursue a different, nearly twice as expensive plan. They refused, however, to disclose why. And when the studies they relied on were finally made public, following a court order, much of it was blacked out. What are they hiding?

Among other things, de Blasio et al argue that their new plan protects the nearby ConEd energy plant. But, with all their secrecy, it’s more likely that saving the highway and serving the real estate industry (i.e., making money) is their true motive. This would hardly be unprecedented. Trees have been at odds with making money and power since this civilization’s earliest days. Even the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BCE) includes an important episode in which the hero Gilgamesh, along with his companion Enkidu and the sun god Shamash, kills Humbaba, the protector of the Great Cedar Forest. And for what reason? In order to chop down the salubrious Forest (a use-value) and sell it for gold (exchange-value) and power. Indeed, this story illustrates a fundamental ambivalence inherent in the concept of value, one that inheres in the word itself. For value derives from the Latin word valere, which means strength; but this strength is defined both as health and as power. Among other places, this double even appears in the opening of the Old Testament, in the Garden of Eden. For the two trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge, express this duality of value, too. If, as Francis Bacon put it, knowledge is power, then the tree of knowledge corresponds to power; and for Bacon this power is the power to “conquer and subdue nature.” As for the tree of life, this is nature itself — the nature that the tree of knowledge/power would subdue, just as Gilgamesh subdued Humbaba. Importantly, the tree of life is also associated with health; its leaves are described by John of Patmos in the book of Revelation (22:2) as being medicine. We could go on and on with this antagonism between health and power, ease and disease, and elsewhere I have. Needless to say, the point is that there’s a fundamental conflict between trees and gold which is at play here, too.

And while we may not know precisely why de Blasio and his wealthy accomplices scrapped the earlier, accepted design for the park we do know this much: Instead of a flood plain they plan to build a sea wall. Instead of repurposing the carcinogenic, global heating FDR, the new plan aims to save the highway by sacrificing the park; bulldozing a thousand trees and 1.4 miles of gardens and fields, an amphitheater, historic buildings, playgrounds, all of it, and covering all 56 acres of the park in a billion tons of most likely highly toxic garbage (no one knows what the fill will consist of, or where it will come from) to raise the park. Then a new park will be built, 8 to 10 feet higher than the present park, atop this material. New trees will be planted, they say. But it will be decades before these trees provide any shade, or produce much oxygen, or provide any relief to the community. They may never be planted at all.

With the climate emergency upon us, this is no time to destroy trees, open space, parks, and public health, as the city plans to do. To be sure, if one values human and environmental health one will recognize that if anything needs to be destroyed it’s the FDR, among other highways. Trees, and human health, are clearly valuable as ends in themselves. The lethal, pollution-generating, space-eating cars and highways, on the other hand, are mere means, and poisonous ones at that. Just as the word insane stems from the Latin in (not) and sanus (healthy), it is literally insane to not shut down these ecocidal entities.

What will happen? Will the trees survive the bulldozers of progress? Will the waters rising all around us lead us to rise to this world historical occasion? We’ll see.

For more information about East River Park contact East River Park Action.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com and on twitter @elliot_sperber

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