Greenpoint Gazette

Short Takes: Where are the environmental activists?

BY Aaron Short

Laura Hofmann is getting tired. She has just sent out an email blast to a number of public officials, community leaders and reporters about refuse that has been washing up on the steps of the Newtown Creek Nature Walk and an oily film that has blanketed sections of the waterway.
A mother of six and grandmother of three, Hofmann is a constant presence at community meetings throughout the neighborhood, including the Newtown Creek Alliance, Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee, Open Space Alliance, Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, Community Board One’s Transportation and Environment Committees and full board meetings. Whenever there is an environmental forum about toxic soil contaminants in Greenpoint, or a press conference urging the EPA to add Newtown Creek to the federal Superfund list, Hofmann is there. The problem is that few other people are.
“Where are the young environmental activists?” Hofmann asked, just after a public information forum on the state’s efforts to clean up chlorinated solvents in late February. “I see the same people going to these meetings. We need help.”
With the state and the city facing severe fiscal crises and immediate budget shortfalls, long-term environmental justice issues are being put on the backburner. The city’s wastewater treatment plant has been plagued by hefty cost overruns, construction on new sludge docks is being delayed indefinitely, and the federal Superfund program has been severely underfinanced over the past decade.
Hofmann believes that new environmental advocates could help advance issues that have been festering in Greenpoint for years, but many of these potential new leaders have turned their attention towards more tangible and immediate concerns. Members of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, perhaps the leading Williamsburg organization engaging residents in community activism, has rallied new residents towards transportation and open space issues. NAG’s open space committee, led by Julia Morrow and Emily Gallagher, is planning to distribute seed balls in vacant lots and working on an event to raise awareness about waterfront sites for new parks in Greenpoint. The transportation committee, led by Lacey Tauber and Alex Sweet, has advocated more bike lanes throughout the Northside and lobbied the MTA to restore bus service in the region, including the only wheelchair accessible means for crossing the Williamsburg Bridge.
“Transportation activism kind of is environmental activism,” said Tauber, NAG’s newest board member. “The things we’re advocating for, more bike lanes and better transit, enables people to not have to drive and that makes for a better environment.”
Then there’s the high school component. In neighborhoods like Bushwick, the South Bronx, and Sunset Park, organizations mobilize young people to take up quality of life issues as diverse as asthma, affordable housing, and school safety concerns. The Harbor School in the Bushwick Campus has an entire curriculum devoted to maritime instruction and environmental science. One class last summer had students hiking from the source of New York City’s drinking water in upstate New York to the city’s watershed in Van Cortland Park.
Building coalitions across neighborhoods to bring about social change and environmental justice is difficult, but it can be done. The removal of the marine transfer stations four years ago was brought about by an alliance of community groups, and more recent partnerships among organizations such as Neighbors Helping Neighbors, Brooklyn Legal Services, St. Nicholas NPC and Make the Road New York—who just received a $20,000 grant from the EPA to combat the risks of lead paint poisoning and exposure to pesticides—has led to stricter city oversight for mold that can trigger asthma attacks inside apartments.
“You have to choose your issues wisely,” Michael Freedman-Schnapp, Co-Chair of NAG, said. The marine transfer stations and the lead law were issues that were shared by multiple communities that could be remedied by citywide policy change.”
Cleaning up the Greenpoint Oil Spill and advocating more open space throughout North Brooklyn are the big environmental issues that could foster community collaboration. But campaigns need foot soldiers, and pushing through a crowded agenda of city council races, transportation reform, and budgetary reductions with effective messaging is the significant challenge of groups such as the Newtown Creek Alliance, NAG, and the Open Space Alliance.
Michael Schade, an environmental organizer with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice and Greenpoint resident, believes that local community groups must further utilize social networking tools on the Internet, such as blogging, Twitter, and Facebook, to connect with young residents where they congregate.
“I think environmental organizations should look at ways to bring organizing into the 21st century,” said Schade. “There is NAG’s neighborhood watch blog and Newtown Creek Alliance’s website, but groups can always do these things better.”
For Laura Hofmann and other long-time residents carrying on the fight, the issue-based activism of new residents comes along not a moment too soon.

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