November 25, 2020

Checker exposes the hidden costs of New York City's efforts to transform industrial waterfronts into green oases, in The Sustainability Myth.

Melissa Checker and her book "The Sustainability Myth: Environmental Gentrification and the Politics of Justice"
Melissa Checker and her book "The Sustainability Myth: Environmental Gentrification and the Politics of Justice"

Professor Melissa Checker (GC/Queens; Anthropology, Psychology; Urban Studies) exposes the hidden costs of New York City’s efforts in recent years to transform industrial waterfronts into green oases, often bordered by luxury housing. Her new book, The Sustainability Myth: Environmental Gentrification and the Politics of Justice, shows why environmental efforts and high-profit redevelopment are often at cross-purposes.
Checker recently spoke to us about The Sustainability Myth, and her research in the city’s underserved neighborhoods from Harlem to Staten Island.
The Graduate Center: How did your early work in a low-income Black neighborhood in Augusta, Georgia, which had high levels of PCBs, arsenic, lead, and other pollutants, lead you to this book?
Checker: My early work explored how residents in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Augusta, Georgia, became aware that they were affected by contaminants, and how they came to view access to clean air, water, and soil as another resource to which they were denied access due to structural forms of racism. Relatedly, I looked at how residents’ experiences with the civil rights movement influenced the ways that they organized for environmental justice and networked with other environmental activists across the country.
I moved to New York City in 2007 just as Mayor Bloomberg announced his PlaNYC2030 for a “Greener, greater New York City.” The plan emphasized social, economic, and ecological sustainability. I knew that environmental justice activists and organizations, including those in the city (WE ACT in Harlem, UPROSE in Sunset Park, El Puente in Williamsburg, and the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy in Staten Island) had been using the term “sustainability” to describe their vision for environmental justice for quite a while.
At the same time, gentrification was really ramping up in certain parts of New York City, especially in formerly industrial, waterfront neighborhoods. So I was curious to find out whether Bloomberg’s plan would boost the efforts of environmental justice activists to create more sustainable neighborhoods.
Through the folks in Hyde Park, I met some of the leaders of WE ACT, and they hooked me up with some of the other environmental justice groups in the city. I started interviewing people and attending events and meetings to find out how PlaNYC2030 intersected with their long-standing goals.
GC: You found that development efforts, including those with environmentalism in mind, were often incompatible with true sustainability and environmental justice. Why is that?
Checker: I found that for the most part, environmental improvements were coupled with high-end real estate development. From parks to greenways, to green roofs, to the cleanup of contaminated properties, to small-scale manufacturing — eco-friendly initiatives accompanied an influx of luxury housing and affluent residents. In some cases, communities that had fought for environmental improvements for years finally won some of their battles only to find that they could no longer afford to live in their neighborhoods.
Conversely, neighborhoods that were not gentrifying received few, if any, environmental improvements. Even worse, as formerly industrial neighborhoods became green urban oases, heavy industries were displaced to non-gentrifying neighborhoods, which were already overburdened by polluting facilities. So the “greening” of some neighborhoods led to the “browning” of others.
GC: What do you see as the most promising potential remedies to this predicament?
Checker: Land trusts that preserve affordable housing offer one promising remedy. If low-income communities can partner with nonprofit entities to purchase land around environmental improvements (such as new parks), they can preserve affordable housing in the area. In general, a strengthening of rent protections and rent ceilings would also help. As well, we need more mechanisms for cleaning up contaminated properties that are not tied to real estate markets.
GC: Is there a favorite detail about a particular neighborhood that you uncovered in your research?
Checker: I ended up spending a lot of time on Staten Island’s North Shore, the location of one of the worst cases of environmental injustice I’ve ever seen. Along a 5.2-mile strip of waterfront, there are 21 contaminated sites, all in a flood zone and all within 75 feet of residential neighborhoods. One of those sites, a small parcel of land near the Bayonne Bridge, was used to store uranium for the Manhattan Project. In 1940, during a ship-to-shore transfer of 1,250 tons of uranium, it spilled onto the property. It was covered over with topsoil and then cement, but several rounds of tests have revealed high levels of radiation. Every couple of years, a documentary film crew shows up wanting to film the site. To date, it still has not been cleaned up.