“Every summer I enjoy looking out the window at the trees. I live on the 18th floor, so it looks like broccoli, all over the place. So it used to be green and lush, [but] now there are certain trees that are tinged a little yellow. Now, it’s like when you go to the supermarket, and you see an old broccoli and the tips are kind of yellow…and it just looks sickly. And I don’t know how it looks to other people…but I know how it used to look. It looks like it’s struggling.”
Tina Johnson described to me the changed view from her 18th floor apartment. She lives in New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Grant Houses, located in the West Harlem neighborhood of Manhattanville. As the climate changes and new development moves forward, changes in natural and manmade environments have followed here in West Harlem, elsewhere in uptown, and the entirety of the city. Minor details in the landscape, like this view from this 18th floor, are incongruous with how they once were. This summer, heat is a constant part of the everyday, clinging to the sides of buildings and their stacked up livelihoods, warming street corners and the gathered publics around them.
Johnson and I chatted together on the second floor of a church building on 152nd and Amsterdam. Headquartered inside this church building is WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a non-profit organization where Johnson is a member and community leader. WE ACT has served Northern Manhattan for 30 years. Over 600,000 people live in its neighborhoods: Manhattanville, Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, Inwood, Central Harlem and East Harlem. All of these neighborhoods have more granular spatial demarcations, imposed political boundaries, and their own layered histories. The majority of people living uptown are Black and Latinx people of color. These identities comprise uptown, its neighborhoods and embedded cultures. The history of uptown is multiplicative and inexhaustible, as much it is emblematic. Legacies of art, literature, music, migration and activism are known to diasporic African and Latinx communities around the world.
Johnson considers her West Harlem apartment unit her “center of gravity,” the place where she’s raised her children, the fifth generation in her family to grow up in the city. However, her family’s health has been affected by its environmental conditions: “…I started having breathing issues, I was diagnosed with systematic lupus, and when I started trying to figure out what those things meant, it kept coming up: inflammation, inflammation, inflammation. I live in NYCHA, and there were serious problems in my apartment over the years. I live in my grandparents’ old apartment. There were like, things that didn’t occur when I was younger. Leaks in the wall, peeling paint, bubbling plaster, raw sewage leaks, things like this. And despite all of the attempts to address them, it was never addressed…in the meantime, my children were little.” West Harlem and other Northern Manhattan neighborhoods have some of the worst child asthma rates in the city. In East Harlem hospitalization rates for asthma and respiratory illness are over three times the rate for the Manhattan Borough for adults, and double for children. NYCHA is currently in violation of a Federal consent decree requiring the prompt inspection and removal of mold in addition to other kinds of building upkeep. Public processes have historically also allowed sources of pollution on to be sited near residents in Manhattanville and other neighborhoods uptown.
Concentrations of particulate matter and other types of pollution are worsened in hot weather. The city rarely issues a heat advisory warning without issuing an air quality notification immediately after; ground level ozone forms in hot weather when pollutants react with sunlight. A recent study estimates that 2,700 premature deaths every year in the city can be tied to this process. Breathing becomes impossibly constrictive, especially for people stuck in the claustrophobic air of their apartments. Heat is a stressor on the lungs and the rest of the body, especially for individuals affected by chronic illnesses from their buildings and polluted air outside.
Johnson shared, “I am concerned about extreme heat because it affects health. And I don’t know if there are any studies on this, but I’m sure it affects longevity. And I want to live.”
Soon afterwards and not far away, a WE ACT for Environmental Justice intern, two staff members and myself are knelt on the hot pavement; we chalk arrows at the intersection of 133rd and Broadway, using the pink and blue dust to direct people to the Manhattanville Community Center. The NYCHA common area doubles as an air conditioned cooling center during heat advisory days. In these centers, any member of the general public can take shelter from the city’s infamous sweltering heat, which hangs muggy in the air around us, pressurized and stifling. August 7th is one of the hottest days of the year, especially in a landscape of absorptive urban material: pavement, steel, and iterative building facades. Further east in Central Harlem where only 6 percent of the Community District is composed of parks or open space, this urban heat island effect is even more extreme. Today the heat index peaks at 97°F, thus far the 21st of 90°+ heat index days the city has experienced since May. On average, 100 people die yearly from heat-related causes in New York City, a likely underestimate that does not account for secondary health impacts. Without mitigating measures, deaths could number into the thousands in the decades to come as the climate changes.
The fans above the auto body shops across the street cool the garages below them. Air conditioning units are affixed to the building above, gray boxes stacked against windows from below. Near where we work, the flowers of the Manhattanville community garden grow beautifully, their hues blooming and etched in their brightness. We move over from our position to make room for a group of children entering the building, in the midst of summer camp activities wearing matching t-shirts. Over 3,200 residents live in this development. In contrast to the Manhattanville NYCHA building, across the street the concrete and glass archway of a condominium faces the community center. Per the city’s records, its official declaration made in 2011; individual apartment units have estimated values of over $700,000, per online listings.
We zip-tie blue and white signs to poles on the block, which are marked with a fan and a “cooling center” header. Passer-bys see us drawing on the sidewalk or securing the signs and are curious about our intentions; we get occasional inquiries in both English and Spanish. WE ACT staff and interns have zip-tied over 130 of these signs around Northern Manhattan, directing people to other designated cool spaces, including senior centers, libraries, and other NYCHA common areas. The Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency has set goals to mitigate heat for residents and improve local communication systems via its Cool Neighborhoods NYC planning document. However, the city only releases the location of cooling centers as heat waves occur, available via 311 or an online platform activated during the city’s official advisories. This leaves elderly or chronically ill populations unable to plan to leave dangerously warm apartments. Additionally, the locations of the centers are otherwise unmarked from the outside of buildings for pedestrians seeking immediate relief.
This summer, the signs posted by WE ACT have become a familiar part of postings dotting traffic lights and bus stop poles, interspersed with bright flyers for art shows, church summer barbeques, lost pet signs and other pieces of paper asking pedestrians for some temporary attention. The hope is that those who seek shelter from such a blistering day will be able to use these directions to find it, especially those most in need.
In WE ACT’s conference room and organizing office, banners and hand painted signs are carefully arranged on the walls, memorializing past campaigns, marches and political actions. WE ACT and its leaders were some of the seminal founders of the Environmental Justice movement, a liberatory framework created in 1991. The movement sought to add the voices of communities of color to the environmentalist activism and rhetoric, as those bearing environmental burdens resulting from histories of colonization and oppression. WE ACT’s founders Vernice Miller-Travis, Peggy Shepard and Chuck Sutton began their activism in the late 1980s, protesting the health effects imposed by the North River Sewage Treatment Plant, originally slated to be built in a higher-income, white community. After suing the city, WE ACT received a settlement in the amount of $1.1 million. Over the years, WE ACT’s leaders have conducted air quality assessments in Northern Manhattan, pressured the MTA to stop investing in diesel fueled vehicles, and developed the environmentally friendly Mother Clara Hale bus depot. Other campaigns have focused on renewable energy, toxic consumer products, healthy food access and other kinds of legislative actions.
Johnson participated in a study through WE ACT and other community and academic partners called the Harlem Heat Project, where residents measured the temperatures inside their apartments. Using the readings from a thermometer placed in her son’s bedroom, the study result showed that she already knew: “that it’s hotter inside than it is outside.” While 86 percent of Northern Manhattan households have access to air conditioning, the majority of households in Northern Manhattan are low or moderate income, making cooling costs prohibitively expensive.
Notions of the environment and its patterns intermingle with memories of growing up, even in one of the most urbanized places on earth. She recalls:
“When I was younger it would get hot. And we had tile, so my friends and I would sleep on the floor… We never had air conditioning. Now I can’t imagine not having air conditioning. And I think that it’s so hot it affects people’s moods, it affects people’s ability to stay calm, and it affects people’s ability to concentrate…and I would like to figure out a way to start some healing around that. And that means being able to make people aware so that they can have agency and they can be responsible for whatever it is they can be responsible for. Because it all matters; it’s not just a future thing. And it’s not something that you have to look at the news to tell you: you can walk around, you can look out the window, you can keep track of these things yourself.’
This agency is something that she views as imperative, a legacy inherited from previous generations.
“The way that I grew up, I was taught to look at the trees to be able to tell if it’s about to rain. I was really given a place on the ground in nature.” She sees this indigenous knowledge as a means of counteracting a society that is “transactional, random and anonymous,” one that is driven by the market and a culture of consumption, where traditions aren’t honored as she’s understood them. She worries about a seeming inability to consider the pulses of environmental change, the way the world appears as it does now, versus how it may have before. “Everything is commodified, and I don’t see that as a good thing. There is enough abundance on this earth to help us sustain things…Now there’s a feeling of scarcity…and I never had that feeling before.”
She considers such a perspective important for living in a city that is shaped by commodification and capital, a gilded kind of amnesia. “We’re living in New York, everything changes generation to generation, and you might not recognize the block. I’ve lived through these changes and seen them go round and round and round. I feel very strongly about trying to get that voice injected in this conversation…it’s really important to know history and it’s really important to have as many different perspectives that aren’t related to consuming.”
Johnson has taken on several leadership roles in her community, from leading participatory budgeting efforts or writing grants for youth employment programs. She was heavily involved in the development of WE ACT’s Northern Manhattan Climate Action plan, designed by hundreds of participating New Yorkers. Its goal is to address how climate change affects the urban poor, embedded within histories of systemic racism and neglect. Climate change on its own holds a kind of apocalyptic weight, in images of waves swallowing up New York City, a lego-block placeholder for 21st Century human civilization. But it instead fits a narrative of “slow violence,” where institutions fail to protect all communities equally, and high-emission lifestyles and industrial forces immiserate those who consume the least in entangled models of fault and disregard.
At WE ACT’s July climate justice working group meeting, members shared memories of Hurricane Sandy, past power outages and other more minor emergencies. Many attendees expressed doubt about the city’s ability to respond to different kinds of crises, including heat waves and storm weather; often they wonder about their prioritization in these infrastructural systems as uptown residents. Beyond people’s immediate well-being, some voice concerns about how temporary displacement from affordable housing could lead to more permanent displacement. For these community members, climate change in New York City blends with other existential concerns, notions of citizenry subject to the turbulence and cruelties of the New York housing market. Racialized conceptions of who may be entitled to public infrastructures and reliably safe and affordable housing persist.
WE ACT’s climate action plan specifically describes ways in which the residents of Northern Manhattan might organize themselves and design local communication systems for extreme weather. Wayfinding was identified as a priority for community members, who felt that awareness of evacuation zones, cooling centers, and food pantries and emergency services was lacking in their neighborhoods.
Around uptown, one observes a public life beyond lomographically-styled advertisements for music festivals, bank-sponsored outdoor concerts, the kinds of syrupy “Summer in the City” imagery that scrolls past along Link NYC Kiosks. Commuters board one trains uptown, only to find out that the car they’ve stepped into is more or less the temperature of a warm bath, exclaiming out to a car to no one in particular. Couples lean on each other’s shoulders on sweaty benches, while children create temporary worlds in play. Teenagers follow their own rituals, furtive in shared gossip. In this summer’s humming sociability, the shady corners and the sidewalks outside of restaurants and delis become sites of unexpected reunion. Music continually rings out from speakers at the street level, the notes and rhythms mingling with the traffic and spoken greetings.
The wayfinding campaign was borne of a desire to better mark and direct the public in Northern Manhattan such a community level, to build familiarity with spaces and resources that already exist. In an era where neighborhoods are marked via .kml files and locations designated via online platforms, there’s something stubbornly analog about the task, recalling cold-war era symbols for nuclear fallout shelters. Members held a design contest prior to the campaign in order to create a universal symbol to use for signage, and voted on finalists which were then adapted by staff.
While the campaign relies on directing people to city-funded resources, its methods of adding signs and chalked messages to well-worn pieces of sidewalk might be considered tactical and DIY. We get a series of reactions throughout our day of outreach. One woman asks us for additional information: while the effort only goes towards Northern Manhattan, one of her clients lives in a 6th floor walk-up in the Bronx that frequently suffers from power outages. Another complains that the chalking is making the sidewalk look too busy, and the message may go unnoticed. Following the campaign, WE ACT will meet with city officials, and ask for more resources for permanent cooling centers, as well as better and timelier information on their locations and availability for the public. These efforts roll into heat mitigation and adaptation strategies that WE ACT will go on to pursue in 2019 and beyond. Cooling centers are a small solution to a larger extreme heat problem, but remain a basic facility to rely on when one’s home is made to be inhospitable.
This inhospitability threatens ways of living that are synonymous with uptown and its cultures. Public life expands in the summer, following natural laws of matter as well as quotidian impulse. People find impromptu gatherings and chance meetings in the lawn chairs sat out on baking pavements, in the animated chatter of park hills and picnic pavilions. Ice cream stands advertise Dominican shaved ice; they dot intersections with their white sun umbrellas. In parks, the smoky fragrances of birthday candles and drift amongst the greenery. It’s a world of communal life, defined not simply by static architecture, but the ebbs and flows of pedestrian and street-level activity.
Ron Thomas is another WE ACT leader and lifelong resident of Northern Manhattan. He became involved with WE ACT following a course at the Pratt Institute. As an outdoor enthusiast and as a bicycle rider, his concern about the environment relates to civic engagement, recreation, nutrition, and well-being. He has participated in and helped lead voter registration efforts, solar campaigns and other types of activism through WE ACT.
He describes chance interactions during the summer, “I’ve seen people out…that I hadn’t seen in 20 years. And we talk and catch up. They tell me what’s going on in their lives. And we have this glorious breeze from the trees.”
Thomas’ memories stretch back to the activism of the civil rights movement, the art and culture produced by protest and dissent, and calls to define a new kind of society in the 1960s. He describes, “I used to see MLK on 125th street. I saw the Kennedy brothers, I was young, like a toddler. And I saw Malcolm X speaking in the streets, he had a microphone and a big audience around him.”
Like Johnson, he worries about what he sometimes observes as a disconnect, a lack of interest in organizing as individual neighborhoods: “People are not as involved. People don’t feel like they can do anything. When I was very young, it seemed like people felt very involved, like they could change things. People wanted to talk about politics, now people don’t want to talk about it. They’ve just given up, seen the news. And say ‘nothing can be done.’ Skepticism has taken hold.”
Despite this observation, he also describes a change, where “people are coming out more though. I think WE ACT was started by people who were alive in the 60s who felt that energy. But I guess it goes in waves though. The pendulum swings back and forth.” Though members of WE ACT have their concerns, they are believers in civic life, in kinds of potentials embedded in their individual communities.
On a warm July afternoon, people are learning how to salsa in the Brother Sister Sol’s Frank White Memorial Garden on a 143rd Street. The music is light and easy, as are the movements of the individuals taking instruction between the benches and the gazebo. The sun bursts into the little grove, though its harshness is muted by the bunched vegetation. WE ACT members gathered in this garden for the annual member barbeque. The music and the lightness of this summer gathering feel incongruous to the gravity of some of the speeches made before. Cecil Corbin-Mark, Deputy Director of WE ACT had addressed members, reading Martin Niemöller’s “First they Came” poem, drawing parallels between the treatment of migrant children and the sickening of Northern Manhattan residents, from toxics found around the home, the air quality outside and a warming climate. But the joy persisted following, as members, their children, grandchildren and friends made conversation and enjoyed food and sunshine.
New York City has always been subject to movements of capital, its infrastructure a gargantuan manifestation of what is deemed valuable by a global economic system. The natural environment and the manmade emerge from this system: a climate changed by emissions from a fossil fuel-reliant economic system, and a housing authority that denies its residents the right to their own health, as a result of public neglect and budget cuts.
Despite its embedded inequalities, summer as it is becomes more than leisure, more than hazard, something of the ability of the public to gather together around each other, following trajectories of activism as they have continued in uptown. As WE ACT moves from the grassroots wayfinding campaign to potential legislative action regarding cooling centers and cool spaces, climate action as a whole, notions of neighborhood and community persist.
Saritha Ramakrishna is a second year Master in City Planning candidate at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, originally from Phoenix, AZ. Recent work of hers has appeared on LitHub and she also writes for the Boston Hassle.