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 highway now known as the FDR Drive. Across the highway, Moses supervised 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 requests to learn more. Emily Johnson, contemporary dancer and founder of the dance company Emily Johnson/Catalyst, 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 to 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.
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.
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 Bloomberg-administration 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 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.
The proposal included a cute photo of Robert Moses, in his mid-century fedora, next to the legendary neighborhood advocate Jane Jacobs, with a plus sign in between them, as if this massive infrastructure project, tailored to specific communities and geographies, had arranged a liaison between the two. But at this stage, no one — not the architects, not the city, not the federal government — was concerned with how to attach massive floodgates to the underside of an elevated highway, or, for that matter, with how to build a defensive levee next to the FDR.
Both before and after the design competition, the plan went through several stages of “community input,” in which local residents, including Holland and Ortiz, told the architects and planners what amenities they would like to see in the plan. They wanted more lawns, more approaches to the water, better access across the FDR to the park.
By early 2018, the de Blasio administration was ready to finalize the plan and get City Council approval and start construction. Officials told the relevant community boards to get ready for an intense last round of meetings. And then, for six months, those same officials went silent.
As we now know, in part through records requests made by ERPA, during those six months, the various city agencies conducted a “value engineering review,” in which an outside group of engineers sat down with all the planners and looked at the design to see if it was a good idea. The review concluded that BIG’s original plan for East River Park was a big headache. The Parks Department wasn’t thrilled about having to maintain a floodable park. The Department of Transportation wasn’t excited about having to close a lane of the FDR every night. Everyone was worried about triggering “alienation,” a lengthy legal process involving the State Legislature, if the city did something with the park that was not a “park use” (for example, turn it into a sponge). Worst of all for the engineers, the berm was slated to be built atop a series of high-voltage Con Ed lines that ran down from the plant on 14th Street, the same plant that exploded during Sandy. In order for the berm to proceed, Con Ed would have to build a tunnel around the lines. That would be costly and time-consuming.
The engineers started brainstorming alternatives. Eventually, they came up with “Value Alternative LI-29”: “Elevate park high enough to eliminate wall.” (LI stood for “limit inundation.”) This would obviate the need for a complicated Con Ed tunnel, keep the park from flooding in the future, and bring to a bare minimum the work that would have to be done alongside the FDR. It would avoid triggering alienation by being, in effect, a massive park repair, and it would also, crucially, save time. This was important because another storm could come any day, but it was even more important, at least to the value engineers, because there was a deadline attached to the $335 million from HUD. A significant portion of the funds had to be spent on construction by 2022 (recently, this deadline was extended to September 2023). The only real disadvantage the engineers could see was that the community would have to be brought up to speed, or, as they put it, “Public updates will be needed.” But that concern was quickly dismissed.
City Hall, by now, had committed to the original plan, but the engineering study apparently caused another round of consideration. This coincided with the start of de Blasio’s second term and some internal staff turnover, including the arrival, at the helm of the DDC, of Lorraine Grillo, a widely respected administrator from the School Construction Authority, and Jamie Torres Springer, a city planner with a consulting background. Grillo and Springer embraced the engineering study’s recommendation and emerged in September 2018 with an announcement.
Chester remembers receiving a call on a Thursday evening from a contact at City Hall. As far as she knew, the undulating berm was still the plan. “At that point in the process,” she said, “I personally was very focused on, like, what kind of benches would be in the park.” Instead, her contact gave her a heads-up that the plan had changed. The next afternoon, the city announced that, instead of building the berm, it was going to bury the park in eight feet of fill and build a new park on top.
Everyone who had spent the past five years working on the old plan was aghast. “To say that I was angry would be an understatement,” Holland told me. “It was like, How could you do this to me? I thought we were friends.” But that turned out to be the least of the city’s problems because at that point, a lot of people who hadn’t been paying attention started paying attention.
The first group to form in reaction to the city’s plan was East River Alliance. It mobilized the community in a series of meetings and hearings during which local residents yelled at city officials. But as Naomi Schiller, an anthropology professor and local resident and one of the group’s founders, quickly saw, the residents were sometimes yelling at one another, too. The fissures tended to fall along class and racial lines, and they revealed, in Schiller’s words, “a long-standing history of racial exclusion” on the Lower East Side. Residents of the public housing along the FDR didn’t feel they had ever been welcomed or accepted by the residents of the private co-ops along Grand Street. In the words of Frank Avila-Goldman, a resident of Gouverneur Gardens, a Mitchell-Lama affordable-housing co-op, “A community of folks who never sought us out and never sought to integrate is now telling us that we shouldn’t lose our barbecue pits.” There were exceptions to this — some NYCHA residents opposed the city’s plan, for example, and collected 2,000 signatures in the Baruch, Lillian Wald, and Jacob Riis houses on a petition against it. But the most vocal opponents were professors and artists.
The plan would first go to the community boards (3 and 6) and then to City Council. According to tradition, the council would follow the votes of local representatives — in this case Margaret Chin of District 1 (Chinatown), Keith Powers of District 4 (Stuyvesant Town and up), and Carlina Rivera of District 2 (the Lower East Side). In the months after the planning change, all the councilmembers asked for mitigating measures. Rivera, whose district was the one most affected by the park closure, drove the hardest bargain — extracting, in the words of one city official, “a pound of flesh from us.” The city promised to fix up numerous smaller parks in the area and convert other city property to green space; it also agreed to “phase” the construction inside the park, leaving about half of it open at all times.
As for the community boards, as Holland explained to me, they were in a tough position. Their votes were not binding on anyone, and voting “no” might simply take them out of the game; voting “yes” with conditions might keep them in it. In June 2019, CB3 held an emotional meeting at which local residents spoke out about the plan. Most people who came were opposed. The few who spoke in favor of the plan were NYCHA tenant leaders, and they were booed.
Vaylateena Jones, a retired nurse who grew up in nearby public housing and joined the community board in the wake of 9/11, admitted there were far more people speaking out against the city plan than speaking up for it. But the things the plan’s supporters said carried, for her, more weight. “It was just a few people — maybe three out of 70 — but what they were saying was very emotionally powerful,” she said. “They were saying, ‘Save my house. Save my children. Save my life.’ That sounds a lot more impactful than ‘Save my park.’ ”
Nancy Ortiz, the NYCHA resident leader who had also joined the board after Sandy, was still very angry about the debate two years later. “Who are you to tell me how to protect my home when you live on Avenue A and 8th Street?” she said. Those people had not been flooded, had not been worried about what they would eat. And furthermore, most of them had not been involved in the many years of planning that had preceded this whole mess. “Where were you,” she said, “when we were doing the tabletop meetings” when the designers sought input from the community? Or when the Army Corps of Engineers presented its flood-protection plan at a community college on the West Side? “When I dragged myself out there, where were you? Because I was there. I don’t recall seeing you.”
It was a matter of primacy, of ownership, and of fact. The berm, too, would have required a lot of work, but the new opposition didn’t necessarily know that. “The scale of destruction of the new plan was shocking to people because they had no idea how destructive the old plan was,” said the East River Alliance’s Schiller. Because of the ham-handed way the new plan was rolled out, the old plan became imbued with a lot of positive qualities it didn’t actually have.
Holland was sympathetic to the anti-plan contingent but also, at some level, unmoved. He had by this point started coming around to the city’s plan: It was crude, it was destructive, but he was convinced it was more feasible. And he was beginning to be disturbed by the way the process of community input seemed to render some people invisible. “If we have a meeting on a Monday night at 6:30,” Holland said, “I know who’s going to come to that meeting and who is not.” The plan was not perfect, but it was expensive — putting over a billion dollars into a neighborhood that didn’t usually see that level of investment — and the 2022 spending deadline was approaching. “I understand the protests,” said Holland, “but when it comes to where I live, I’m going to have a different attitude to that because I live here. And I’ve been through it.” When the plan came to a vote two weeks later, Holland voted “yes,” with conditions. So did Jones and Ortiz. The plan passed.
In November 2019, the City Council voted in favor of the DDC’s plan. Around this point, Schiller and the East River Alliance decided to do what they could to advocate for the park within the new plan’s framework. But some members of the alliance, including Pat Arnow, weren’t yet done. They split off to form ERPA, determined to fight until the very end.
Malcolm Araos, the Ph.D. student whose paper I had read before meeting with ERPA, turned out to be Canadian. He had come to New York to study the city’s many nascent climate-adaptation programs. He told me he began looking at the East River Park project as a model of community participation in early 2018, just before the city changed the plan, then continued to study it as the community devolved into warring factions. At first, he was puzzled — “It was just people yelling at each other” — but eventually he concluded that the city had fundamentally broken the promise of community engagement by imposing a top-down plan, then appealing to its superior engineering expertise. More profoundly, he thought, the controversy represented a kind of preview of the battle over climate-change adaptation that will take place in the decades to come. “We haven’t had a real conversation, as a society, about the relationship between society and nature,” he told me. “We haven’t discussed what the trade-offs are going to be.” In a high-stress and at times highly confrontational way, the city was having that conversation now.
After branching off from East River Alliance, ERPA became more aggressive. It urged people to speak out against CB3. “Tell them they are personally responsible when the kids in this neighborhood are deprived of a great park for years and have no trees and greenery to cleanse the air,” Arnow wrote at eastriverparkaction.org. When the group’s protests fell on deaf ears, it sued. In February 2020, ERPA filed a lawsuit arguing that the plan to raise the park constituted a “non-park use” and therefore should trigger the alienation process. ERPA held a press conference to announce the suit, at which the ubiquitous Reverend Billy gave the legal battle his blessing. But a judge rejected the suit in August, finding that raising the park to protect it from flooding constituted a legitimate park use.
Once the pandemic began, some local residents became even more fiercely attached to their park space. This is when Eileen Myles got involved. So did other artists, who, in October, organized an “art attack” and covered the amphitheater near Corlears Hook with graffiti murals, hoping their artistic value (one of the artists was Al Diaz, former graffiti partner of Jean-Michel Basquiat) might prevent the park construction from going forward. (This did not happen. The Parks Department simply painted over the murals.) In November, a striking, Shepard Fairey–style poster appeared in the park and throughout the East Village and Lower East Side. It depicted Mayor de Blasio and Carlina Rivera in gray tones, their mouths and eyes shaded in an evil charcoal, and under them was written, in bright orange, DESTROYERS OF EAST RIVER PARK. These actions all received favorable coverage at the hyperlocal websites Bowery Boogie and the Village Sun.
But eventually, the racial and class tensions roiling the debate spilled out in public — that is, onto social media. Arnow, who had been running ERPA’s very active Instagram account, saw a poster in the window of an anti-development group in Chinatown depicting Councilmember Margaret Chin — who had once been a Maoist but had since become a relatively mainstream, development-friendly Democrat — as Godzilla rampaging through the city. CHINZILLA, the poster labeled her. Arnow posted the image to ERPA’s Instagram. It was immediately denounced as racist. Arnow eventually apologized and deleted the post, but the damage was done. Arnow was forced to resign her position on a community advisory group related to the project; a little while later, she resigned as the head of ERPA.
The group wasn’t done fighting. On social media, Myles was a dynamo and in a few short weeks this March raised almost $40,000 for the group’s legal-defense fund. Legendary East Village rock guitarist Matt Sweeney took to Medium to support the group, and Chloë Sevigny chipped in with an Instagram post. In mid-April, just as the city was getting ready to award a $1.27 billion contract for the reconstruction of East River Park to the lowest bidder, a joint venture based in Queens, ERPA organized its largest public protest yet. Myles and Emily Johnson, with Arnow quietly stage-managing, led 500 opponents of the plan from Tompkins Square Park to a “die-in” in front of Rivera’s office on East 4th Street, then to the amphitheater at Corlears Hook, where a diverse and distinguished group of speakers denounced the plan. Several City Council candidates spoke, including two from District 2, both running against Rivera with East River Park as a centerpiece of their platforms.
But Myles was the star. “This is bullshit!” they yelled from the stage of the amphitheater, which had been slated for destruction. People cheered. “And the biggest bullshit of all,” they said, was that the plan for Battery Park, on the West Side, included a glass flood barrier and wetlands. “We want glass gates and wetlands!” said Myles. This was not, strictly speaking, true — the glass flood barrier and floodable park from the Big U design had long since gone the way of the undulating berm. Nonetheless, there was a huge cheer for glass gates and wetlands.
ERPA’s continued troublemaking is viewed differently in different quarters. Vaylateena Jones, the retired nurse and CB3 board member, sees the group as fundamentally benign. “Someone needs to advocate for that park,” she said. Others see ERPA as fundamentally destructive. “I don’t think they realize the sort of damage they’re doing,” said one person involved in the early Rebuild by Design process, suggesting that whatever help the group is rendering to the park is being canceled out by the headaches it is causing as the city attempts to floodproof the island. City officials, meanwhile, become apoplectic at the very mention of ERPA. “We get letters, emails, tweets,” one said. “Some of them are from Park Slope!” The official didn’t understand why people from Park Slope would have an opinion about what happened to East River Park.
The city’s best defense has been to play offense. On April 15, a few days before the march, Mayor de Blasio announced the start of major construction on the ESCR project in his daily press conference. He played a video featuring Nancy Ortiz talking about the need for flood protection. Rivera Zoomed in from her living room to offer support. The construction was taking place north of East River Park, up in Stuyvesant Cove, but since it was technically part of the same project, the city could claim it was now a fait accompli. Eleven days later, however, the higher bidder on the East River Park portion of the project sued the city for improperly vetting the bids. The headaches continued.
It was not lost on the city planners that East River Park would be merely the first, and not by any means the hardest, section of lower Manhattan to defend. In fact, its being a city-owned park gave planners a great deal of latitude (or so they thought). Just south of the park, between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, where BIG had proposed gates flipping down from the FDR, funding had instead been earmarked for gates that flip up from the ground. In the Financial District, the “pavilions of protection” had been deemed infeasible, and as of now, the city is studying a plan to extend Manhattan into the East River and turn that landfill into the flood protection. But this will be extraordinarily expensive — $10 billion is the current estimate — and no funding mechanism is yet in place.
Beyond lower Manhattan, trying to get a handle on what the city is doing to prepare for climate change is nearly impossible. The MTA has invested in stackable steel beams, massive doors, and giant inflatable tunnel fillers. At great expense, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development has moved the mechanicals of hundreds of buildings to higher floors. Several of the Sandy design-competition projects are moving along. There will be wave-deadening barriers off Staten Island, berms and walls and a floodable park in Hoboken, and flood-swallowing marshes out in the Meadowlands. But the word that keeps coming up is patchwork. In a city where most of the development is private, and nearly half of the budget comes from property taxes, leaders have been loath to address climateproofing in any holistic way.
At some point, more tough conversations around climate adaptation will become necessary, including about retreating from the water. “Places are going to have to decide: Do they want depopulation or evacuation?” Brian Stone, director of the Urban Climate Lab at Georgia Tech, told me. “Do we have a gradual, and hopefully equitable, buyout of people’s homes, or do we have a cataclysmic and chaotic and deadly evacuation?” Amy Chester of Rebuild by Design warned about a more familiar process. In the absence of a plan from the city, people in coastal communities will start moving inland, putting pressure on housing prices. “People inland think this issue doesn’t affect them,” she said, “but it does.”
The argument over the park is an argument about scale — both time scale and project scale. The plan was immensely destructive yet relied on storm-flooding projections only through the 2050s. The activists wanted the city to think a hundred years ahead and consider not just the rising water but the terrible highway next to it; these things were related, after all. “We’re trying to do this massive climate-adaptation project,” said one community-board member, “and at the same time, we treat the FDR like it was here when Henry Hudson came!” But the city isn’t quite ready to have that conversation. It’s had enough trouble just doing one project in this one park.
The whole story was full of vicious ironies. The city had prioritized flood protection for the vulnerable Lower East Side but, in doing so, had subjected the neighborhood to an experiment in community-engaged planning, under a looming deadline that distorted the debate. The city’s reversal had then deepened divisions inside the community. “The city owns that division,” Avila-Goldman said. And while there’s no overt plan to bring in private developers, Naomi Schiller of East River Alliance points out that it would be foolish to think an attractive, brand-new park with stable flood protection wouldn’t increase land values and eventually force working-class populations out. It is a well-documented process known as “green gentrification.” As geographer Samuel Stein puts it, “Real estate displaces them before climate change has a chance to.”
Two months after my tour of the park with East River Park Action, I took a counter-tour with city officials and planners. They were Jamie Torres Springer, at the time the deputy chief of the DDC and now its leader, who had been the face of the city plan since the fall of 2018; Molly Bourne of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, who designed the new park; and City Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver.
Touring the park with this group was a very different experience. Silver, an urban planner by trade and the first African American head of the American Planning Association, was unsentimental about the trees and the park. To him, East River Park was long overdue for an upgrade. It wasn’t modern, it had no flow, and the entrances — narrow, ugly pedestrian bridges bordered by chain-link fencing over the FDR — were atrocious. The new design, post–park burial, had much better pedestrian bridges and more lawns. As for the trees that would be destroyed, Silver said, “Robert Moses planted those trees.” (They were old.) “These trees are nearing the end of their life cycle,” he added. “I need to think of the next generation of trees.”
For Silver and Springer, the new plan was incomparably better than the old one. As we crossed the FDR overpass into the park, Springer explained that the Con Ed lines running under the park, right next to the highway, get so hot that they must be insulated with oil. “We were going to build a floodwall on top of that,” he said, describing something that to him was clearly crazy. Silver felt much the same about the “floodable park.” Already he had to deal with trees that fell in his parks after strong winds and snow. Did he really need a major Manhattan park that was flooding all the time? “I was very grateful when they moved the flood protection to the other side of the park,” he said. “Very grateful.”
As we walked, Silver kept pointing out dying trees and atrocious entryways. “Look at that beauty,” he said, sarcastically, of the Houston Street pedestrian bridge, which from the park side presents itself as a 14-foot wall. Silver had brought sketches of the elegant new entrance that would allow people to stride over an expanded bridge at grade into the park, then slope down gently toward the water — but not too close.
Springer seemed especially delighted that he wouldn’t have to build anything next to the FDR. “Here’s what would happen,” he said. “We could only close a lane of the FDR for six hours at night. That’s the rule. So we come in and set up and mobilize for an hour. Then we work for four hours, from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. Then we spend another hour cleaning up.” The original plan was supposed to take three and a half years. Springer thought this was a total impossibility. Getting the Con Ed lines squared away alone was complicated enough to derail the timeline. Once they looked at the plan carefully, he said, “there was a realization that we could not deliver it as we wanted to deliver it in the time that we wanted to deliver it.” As for the skeptics who doubted the city would deliver the new plan on time, Springer was optimistic that he could prove them wrong. The reason it takes so long to build things in New York City, he said, is that there’s nowhere to set up, to stage. The partial park closure would basically eliminate that problem.
I asked why a project that was meant to protect the city from climate change had to defer to an ugly 1930s highway on which a hundred thousand cars spew carbon dioxide into the air every day. Why not just close the FDR and turn it into a bike path?
Springer laughed. “Okay, I’ll set up a call with the DOT,” he said, then added, “Do you realize what 100,000 cars rerouted into a local neighborhood looks like? It’s noise, it’s traffic, it’s car exhaust. They are not going to close the FDR to build this park. No responsible city transportation agency would allow that.”
To me, it seemed like the thing ERPA was most right about. But for the moment, addressing the FDR was beyond the scope of the city’s thinking. Right now, it had some federal money to build some walls and berms and so on. It was going to do that first.
“The City Council has already approved the plan,” Springer said. “The community boards approved it with conditions — but we met all their conditions!” The city had jumped all the hurdles. The sooner it could start dismantling the park, the sooner it could rebuild it again.
I asked Springer why the city wasn’t raising the park 15 feet or even 20, while it was at it, since there wasn’t much indication that humans were going to get global warming under control anytime soon. He said you could plan only so far ahead.
“You need a parameter,” he said. “You have to set a parameter.”
We walked out of the park together and then, alone, I walked back in. On my way, I ran into one of the ERPA activists. She told me the group had just walked through the park with mayoral candidate Dianne Morales. ERPA was not giving up.
Who was right? I no longer knew. Between the two plans on the table, I agreed with Trever Holland that the city’s was more practical. But I shared ERPA’s fears, in a more general way, about development, environmental destruction, and a city that was doing things pell-mell. However, I don’t live by the water and don’t worry that the next big storm will destroy my home. I walked back through the park — old, weird, and “different,” as Myles had told me — then caught the ferry across the river to Brooklyn at Corlears Hook. From the water, you could see how close the city was to the ocean, how precarious, how magnificent. You could see the park and the highway and the high-rises and the bridges. An incredible city — if only we could keep it.