1. City planning and environmental justice in New York City: waste, race and place


By Tom Angotti, Ph.D.
Hunter College
Department of Urban Affairs & Planning
695 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10021
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October, 2001

Over the last century New York City has been known as a national center for progressive urban reform (1). Strong unions, active community and civic organizations, and powerful influences of European socialism in different measures and at different times have contributed to this legacy. The legacy of this progressive tradition is present today. New York City has the largest municipal university in the United States, the largest stock of public and cooperative housing, the largest municipal health care system, the largest public mass transit system, and an array of other public services that have supported the sizeable poor and immigrant populations in the city. The city’s housing and zoning codes, partly a response to public health problems and living conditions of the city’s poor, were among the first and most comprehensive in the country.

But ever since the Reagan presidency and the rise of neo-liberalism “urban reform” in New York and throughout the U.S. has been commonly associated with efforts to undo the institutions serving the working class population, immigrants and communities of color. Instead, the priority has been to promote economic growth, particularly real estate development, make government administration more efficient, and decrease the tax burden on property owners. In recent decades the progressive movements have largely been on the defensive, seeking to prevent the privatization of public services and institutions. The public works, public services and public places built up over the last century are suffering from lack of investment and repair.

Today, one of the impulses for progressive urban reform in New York City comes from efforts to reshape city planning to address environmental inequities. These inequities are evident in the planning and management of municipal waste, which heightens racial inequalities and inequalities among neighborhoods. Thus, progressive reform is focused on the links between waste, race and place. It emerges as part of the opposition to neo-liberal “reforms” and the weakening of the city’s public infrastructure. Waste, place and race are the focus of the growing local environmental justice movement and its developing agenda. This local movement is in turn part of a broader national progressive movement that is a successor to the community and civil rights movements of earlier decades.

Mainstream Reform

What has been known as the municipal reform movement in the U.S. is really a conservative, mainstream movement aimed at increasing the political distance between urban residents and local political institutions. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the basic preoccupation of the municipal reform movement has been with economic efficiency in the delivery of services, a sort of Taylorism for the public sector. Local government is to be planned and managed rationally, according to scientific principles (see Judd & Swanstrom, 1994: 75-104). Local government is to be run like a business, with minimum costs and maximum economic benefits to its prime constituency, the business community. When it comes to transportation, for example, the concern is with efficiency – minimizing congestion, maximizing capacity and flow. There is scarce recognition of equity – mobility and access by all. When it comes to housing, the concern is with increasing the number of housing units and creating jobs in the construction sector. Like its business clients, municipal reform is successful when it yields short-term economic gains, irregardless of long-term sustainability. The traditional municipal reform approach is to seek technological fixes to complex problems – for example, smart highways instead of reduced demand for auto use. It is not consciously concerned with questions of race since distributional problems are supposed to be purely economic ones.

The approach of the municipal reform movement to city planning is focused on physical land use and zoning with little recognition of social factors. Order and rationality in the allocation of land uses is the goal (see Boyer, 1983). Zoning is used as a means of excluding land uses – polluting industry and poor people -- considered to be incompatible with “higher” uses. The “highest and best use” is the one yielding the greatest return per square foot of space. Public space is to enhance private property, and if it does not it may be privatized. Large parks, like Central Park and Prospect Park, serve as refuges for quiet, socially-controlled recreation. Waste produced in the city is to be disposed of at the lowest cost per weight, in the most “efficient” manner. When high levels of consumption are considered as a contributing factor, they are usually attributed to the “profligate ways” of the poor, who are advised to consume less.

Historically, the municipal reform movement arose in opposition to corruption in government. Its antidote included establishing a powerful central authority dominated by a technocratic elite that operated in accordance with the highest professional ethics and in the public interest. This could entail specific changes like creating a strong city manager and at-large elected officials that don’t have to answer to neighborhood constituencies; limiting the numbers of candidates; and establishing a professional civil service system supposedly shielded from political influence.

Robert Moses, perhaps the best known and influential planning official in New York City during the 20th Century was a true product of the municipal reform movement. His large-scale public projects were promoted with arguments of efficiency and city-wide public interest. His public parks and parkways appealed to the rising middle class car owners. Moses thrived on the myth that only powerful centralized authority was “rational” as opposed to the “irrational” interests of immigrant and working class neighborhoods. (Caro, 1974)

The social base of this reform movement is the municipal elite – property owners, particularly in the central business district, and the real estate industry, arguably the most important urban industry these days. Poverty is seen as a matter for philanthropic organizations, not government. Judd & Swanstrom’s observations about the earlier municipal reformers might also apply to today’s reformers:

Analysis of the social class backgrounds of reformers reveals, especially in the big cities, a uniformly upper-class bias. Studies of the origins of reform movements show that business and upper-class groups normally championed reform, while lower- and working-class groups usually opposed it. (Judd & Swanstrom, 1994: 98)

Progressive Reform

The progressive reform movements, on the other hand are concerned with social equity. Their focus is the quality of life for the majority of the population, and more particularly poor people. Government is to meet the needs of people and correct the inequalities resulting from a privately dominated economy. For example, when public services like transportation, education and health care are free or at low cost they tend to be accessible to those who can least afford to buy them on the open market. 

The first progressive urban reformers in the 20th Century created the settlement house movement in large cities to provide housing, services and a rallying point for political reform. They advocated legislation and planning to combat miserable slum conditions. They helped publicize landlord abuses. Notable reformers included Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, and Catherine Bauer. The progressive urban movements today are concerned with preserving poor neighborhoods from threats of displacement driven by rising real estate values. New housing development is to improve the quality of life and preserve existing neighborhoods, not to protect the real estate industry (see Bratt, Hartman & Meyerson, 1986). However, progressive reform did not prevail in public policy during the 20th Century. Instead, market-driven development and technocrat-led government predominate. New York City during the New Deal and the decades after may have been the only exception, but public gains were always highly constrained by private power. Perhaps the conservative reform movement rose achieved so much power in New York City precisely because the progressive social movements were always so strong.

To a large degree the rallying cry of greater efficiency by the conservative municipal reformers is a myth that doesn’t necessarily correspond with their practice. Indeed, in New York City monstrous inefficiencies are associated with the policies advocated by the reformers. For example, the civil service system has institutionalized unresponsive government and protected a stratum of cynical technocrats who are impervious to change. A strong executive authority in a city of eight million means that government constantly runs up against opposition from local neighborhoods on everything from zoning to foster homes, leading to costly battles and litigation – hardly a picture of efficiency. Petty local corruption is supplanted by big-time corruption, as only well-financed candidates with support from the real estate and financial industries can get elected. And instead of a system of land use planning and zoning in the public interest -- “color blind” and neutral -- we have one of the most sharply segregated cities in the world.

A look at the latest attempts at mainstream urban reform in New York City demonstrates just how the myths are made and how they reinforce the established political power.

The Giuliani Era Reforms

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was elected in 1994 and has served two four-year terms. As he prepares to step down due to term limits, there is much discussion of his legacy. Throughout the U.S. and the world, the mayor has managed to project an image of himself as a tough crime fighter and effective manager. The myth is that his government spurred dramatic economic growth, lowered crime, put government in order, and cleaned up the city. He is credited with improvements in the “quality of life” that include the removal of graffiti, indigent people and loiterers on city streets. This is reinforced by the impressions of millions of visitors to the city who look at a revitalized central business district cleared of waste, homeless people, graffiti and street crime.

Mayor Giuliani follows the long tradition of the municipal reform movement in his ideological commitment to economic efficiency, order, rationality and the enhancement of property values. His record contrasts sharply with the most progressive mayor the city ever had – Fiorello La Guardia (1932-44). LaGuardia, in office at the height of the Great Depression, oversaw the construction of extensive public works and the establishment of a vast network of public services. His policies brought a measure of equity to the city’s excluded immigrant communities. Despite Giuliani’s efforts to claim the legacy of LaGuardia, Giuliani and LaGuardia are as different as pickles from pasta (Angotti, 2000). LaGuardia was a lifelong supporter of the American Labor Party and consistent advocate for the poor. Giuliani left the Democratic Party, worked in the conservative Reagan Administration, and has become a poster boy for right wing law-and-order types across the country. According to the New York Times, “Mayor Giuliani is Republican chic, the hottest speaker on the party’s fund-raising circuit” (Barry, 1998: 72).

Guiliani’s efforts to project an image of being tough on crime and corruption and good for business are in the tradition of mainstream urban reform. But his reforms are mostly myth, not reality. The economic growth and drop in crime are due mostly to national trends and have affected all cities in the U.S. The economic boom of the 90s was a national and international phenomenon. Giuliani as mayor had little to do with the economic boom, but with an aggressive public relations campaign and gullible press corps he managed to take credit for it. The sharp decline in violent crimes was also a national phenomenon. In New York City it began in 1990, four years before Giuliani’s election, under the administration of David Dinkins, the first African American mayor of New York City. Crime continued to decline at the same rate under Giuliani’s administration as it had under the Dinkins administration. According to Wayne Barrett:

The New York Times has done, by my latest count, twelve front-page articles about the decline in the crime rate under Rudy Giuliani. It did one article about the decline in the crime rate under David Dinkins – and in that 55-paragraph story, it never mentioned the name of David Dinkins. What Rudy Giuliani has managed to do is mug the media into accepting as fact that he is the man who caused it to happen (Barrett, 2001; see also Barrett, 2000

The story often not told outside New York City is how crime by the police and government increased under Giuliani. Accusations of violations of human and civil rights by government mushroomed. New York City was one of several cities investigated by the U.S. Justice Department for racial profiling by police. Two highly publicized cases followed years of police shootings of unarmed young Black and Latino men: Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was tortured at a police station and African immigrant Amadou Diallo was shot 24 times by a police squad and killed while entering his apartment. The Giuliani administration has been reprimanded by the courts for illegally prohibiting demonstrations not to his liking and preventing people from exercising their constitutional right to free speech. Public places like the steps of City Hall that were once open for the expression of dissent were restricted. He has stopped the flow of information from government, using the Freedom of Information Act to foil efforts to get basic information from government. This has cost taxpayers dearly. Litigation costs and court-mandated damages for police brutality under Giuliani totalled millions of dollars.

Did Giuliani make government more efficient? First of all, the only managers to survive in this authoritarian regime are people who will do the mayor’s bidding. The mayor’s reputation for being “tough” is well-earned. He will not tolerate nay-sayers in his administration, only yes-men. In a municipal work force of 250,000 charged with serving a diverse and complex city of eight million, this has encouraged mediocrity, passivity and cynicism among city workers, and timidity among the managers. Far from challenging bureaucratic bungling, Giuliani has fostered it.

What about Giuliani’s much-vaunted “quality of life” campaign? The mayor claims credit for having gotten rid of beggars, homeless people, and squeegee men and cleaned up the streets and parks. But his campaign was limited to the business districts, where it had some effect, and has had little impact in most residential neighborhoods, where most New Yorkers live, and where there are many other conceptions of what’s important in the quality of life. According to James Traub of the New York Times, “the psychic universe of the city has changed … It was the mayor’s quality of life campaign that made the place fit for corporate habitation.” (Traub, 2001: 64) Note how Traub talks about the psychic universe and not the real one, and corporate beneficiaries. As for cleaning up the streets and parks, credit goes to the many privately-financed business improvement districts in the downtown, and the privately-financed park conservancies in the largest parks and wealthiest neighborhoods. Conditions in parks and on streets in most residential neighborhoods outside Manhattan haven’t changed much at all, and in relative terms conditions have actually gotten worse.

Usually unmentioned in the mythical press paeans to Giuliani is his slender base of political support in the city, particularly in communities of color. In his last election, he defeated David Dinkins by a slim margin, garnering approval by only 25% of eligible voters. His approval in African American neighborhoods was in the single digits. Today, as evidenced by the 2000 census figures, European Americans are a minority, and Giuliani is playing to a minority constituency that is trying desperately to hold on to its political privileges. While New York City is ethnically diverse, races still live apart, and racial segregation has increased (Scott, 2001). Efforts to preserve the existing white enclaves and the land use and zoning measures that protect them are part of a larger struggle rooted in historic class antagonisms.

The media machine that helped create the Giuliani myths follows the tradition of the conservative urban reformers that detaches race and ethnicity from discussions of governance. Race is not considered as related to efficiency, order and rationality. Police abuses and racial profiling, therefore, are treated as if they were simply individual aberrations or examples of excessive zeal. Since reform is supposed to be “color blind,” there can be no question that it is motivated by the highest form of devotion to the public interest.

An interesting exercise would be to grade the mayor on some of his other central objectives. The mayor has tried to privatize city schools by introducing vouchers, and privatize the city university and city hospitals, but failed miserably. Though weakened by budget cuts, they are still public. One of Giuliani’s most prominent campaign promises was to solve the problem of homelessness. Today there are more homeless people in New York City, and more people eating in soup kitchens, than when he took office. They are not downtown any more but they are still with us.

Urban Planning, Zoning and Neighborhoods

In the tradition of conservative reform, the Giuliani administration’s approach to land use planning has been characterized by pledges of good management and sound rationality. Giuliani’s planning director, Joseph Rose, scion of a local real estate empire, encourages the City Planning Department to be “user-friendly.” This means efficiently processing land use and zoning applications without raising questions that might slow down development. The City Planning Department did nothing to stop gentrification or the displacement of low-income people, reduce traffic, preserve public places, or expand neighborhood open space in the city with the lowest ratio of open space per capita in the U.S. To spur real estate opportunities, Rose initiated several zoning proposals that would make industrial-zoned land available for housing development by the private market. A major zoning revision that would have limited building heights was welcomed by residents of wealthier neighborhoods near the downtown, like the Upper East Side and Brooklyn Heights, but backfired when the mayor buckled under to the real estate industry. Rose hadn’t opposed the real estate industry but miscalculated the industry’s willingness to let him throw a bone to the silk stocking districts that were up in arms about a few tall buildings.

Urban planning began as an important part of the municipal reform agenda. The New York City Zoning Resolution was established in 1916, the first in a large U.S. city. Both conservative and progressive reformers supported this effort, though the conservatives clearly controlled the agenda. The call for zoning was strongly supported by retailers on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan who were concerned that the growing garment district nearby would lower property values, hinder sales and bring more garment workers within sight of their fashionable shops. Some property owners were also concerned that new downtown skyscrapers would threaten the values of existing properties when it deprived them of light and views. 

The progressive reformers, on the other hand, saw land use regulation as a means of insuring that new construction in working class neighborhoods would have adequate light and air, thereby combating diseases such as tuberculosis that bred in dark and crowded slum dwellings. Zoning would separate industrial and residential uses, helping to create more sanitary living environments. The 1916 zoning separated uses in Manhattan, where at that time the majority of the population lived. However, large tracts of land outside of Manhattan still permitted mixed uses (industrial, commercial and residential), legalizing existing mixed use neighborhoods and encouraging new ones.

In 1961, the zoning resolution underwent a comprehensive revision to take into account the extensive growth in all of the city’s boroughs. The mixed use zones were eliminated and all zoning districts became exclusively industrial or residential, though many residential zones permitted local retail uses. In Manhattan, incentive zoning was established that gave office and residential developers bonuses in the form of additional floor area in exchange for which they had to provide ground floor public plazas. This explicit promotion of public space derived from the modernist “tower in the park” theory. Although some of the plazas created under these regulations are not well designed, maintained or utilized, incentive zoning has been responsible for expanding public space in the downtown. (Kaden, 2000)

By the time of the 1961 zoning, the zoning code had become the chief planning instrument in the city. It was often said that the zoning resolution was the city’s master plan. However, even a cursory look at the city’s development in the early part of the 20th century reveals how inadequate it was as a planning tool. In 1898, at the time of the consolidation of the City of New York uniting the boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, the majority of the city’s land was developed at very low densities. There were still many operating farms outside of the populated districts in Manhattan. The consolidation offered a perfect opportunity for regional planning. But efforts to develop a master plan were continuously thwarted and weakened. The last proposed master plan failed to get adopted in 1971.

The public health considerations behind the 1916 and 1961 zoning, never the predominant ones, have all but vanished today. Zoning is about managing and facilitating new downtown development, protecting upper income neighborhoods, and protecting the remaining industrially-zoned enclaves as havens for noxious facilities and infrastructure. In the 1970s the potential for reestablishing the link with public health arose with the advent of environmental legislation. The federal, state and local governments established environmental review procedures that required decision makers to take into account the potential negative environmental impacts of major new development. This gave birth to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), an instrument for disclosing (not necessarily avoiding or preventing) potential environmental hazards. The EIS has become a cumbersome and costly procedure, often unintelligible to decision makers. It looks at only the immediate impacts of individual projects and not cumulative or indirect impacts. Most importantly, impacts are measured as potential pollutants, in narrow quantitative terms, and do not relate pollution to indices of public health or risks to human well being. (see Angotti & Hanhardt, 2001)

Planning and Environmental Justice

Today the city’s zoning and environmental regulations allow the concentration of environmental hazards in the shrinking industrially-zoned areas and adjacent mixed-use and residential neighborhoods. (see Mantaay, 2001) The hazards include waste management facilities and industrial plants involving toxic substances. In these areas, residents are disproportionately poor people and people of color. For this reason, the city’s zoning and planning has become a major issue of environmental justice.

The environmental justice movement emerged as a national movement in the late 1980s. It is based in local groups from throughout the country that are struggling to improve the quality of life in their communities by reducing and eliminating environmental hazards. It first achieved prominence with the publication of a study by the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ in 1987 that demonstrated the concentration of waste facilities in and near communities of color in the U.S. (United Church of Christ, 1987) Today, there are numerous environmental justice coalitions throughout the country. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged the issue and created an office to monitor it. (see Bullard, 1993, 1994; Hofrichter, 1993; Heiman, 1996)

The roots of the environmental justice movement in New York City are in the 1960s struggles for community control and racial justice. The powerful protest movements for community control of schools and municipal revenues, and against the displacement caused by urban renewal programs, led to the creation of community boards in 1977. The 59 boards in the five boroughs, appointed by the Borough Presidents and City Council members, would review all land use applications including zoning changes, urban renewal plans, and the acquisition and disposition of city-owned property. Community boards were part of the new Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). With this major reform, neighborhoods would have a direct role in planning and zoning.

However, the community boards are only advisory, have all-volunteer membership, and a small and overworked staff. They are hardly in a position to engage in the planning process as equals with city officials. A court-mandated revision to the city’s Charter in the late 1980s presented a new opportunity to give neighborhoods more power. The Charter had to be revised to meet the requirements of a United States Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the city’s form of government. The chief decision making body was the Board of Estimate, made up of the Mayor, Comptroller, and President of the City Council, who were city-wide elected officials, and the Presidents of the five boroughs. The court ruled that since the boroughs had widely different populations the Board of Estimate did not meet the constitutional requirements of one-person one-vote.

Community advocates entered the civic debate over Charter revision and introduced proposals that would enable and require community-based planning. After extensive discussion, it was proposed that Section 197-a of the Charter be revised to give the city’s 59 community boards explicit authority to prepare and submit plans for approval by the City Planning Commission and City Council. Another provision was that each community board would have the assistance of a professional planner. These changes were approved by voters in a 1989 referendum, beginning the era of “197-a plans.”

Since the charter reform, however, only a handful of 197-a plans have been officially approved although about a dozen others are in various stages of development. Community boards never got their planners. The City Planning Department has taken the view that communities are free to prepare and present their plans for review, but the Department does not provide assistance in preparing the plans. As a result, communities must rely on pro bono professional assistance (mostly available in the wealthier neighborhoods), or the work of students in the area’s four graduate professional planning programs. Some communities have raised their own funds. Many community boards are burdened with so many other tasks relating to the city’s day-to-day administration that they are not accustomed to thinking in any institutional sense about the long-term future of their neighborhoods. (see Angotti, 1997; Municipal Art Society, 2000)

Because community boards have only advisory powers in reviewing major land use issues that are decided by the City Planning Commission and City Council, the tendency for the boards to take positions based on NIMBY (Not-In-My-Backyard) sentiments is pronounced. Board members often find that the only way to enhance their powers or have an influence is to say “no” to projects or changes proposed by developers or city agencies. This gives them some room for negotiation, whereas simple approval gives them no ability to shape development.

One of the main problems with 197-a plans is that even after years of intensive public meetings and years going through the approval process, the plans are strictly advisory. They must be consulted by decision makers in the ULURP process, but there is no obligation that their policies, projects or programs be followed. The 197-a plans are not connected to the budget process, so proposals in the plans are not necessarily funded or implemented.

Community Planning and Environmental Justice

Many of the 197-a plans that have been passed and that are now being prepared were initiated with the intention of addressing the issues of environmental justice. The plans for Red Hook, Sunset Park, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint in Brooklyn were started at the urging of community activists who were struggling against the concentration of waste facilities in their neighborhoods. In each neighborhood, successful campaigns to shut down facilities or prevent new ones from opening were followed by proposals to develop community plans that would allow them to say not just what they didn’t want but also what they did want for their neighborhoods. All of these neighborhoods have large low-income, working class populations. The majority of the people living in Red Hook and Sunset Park are people of color, so the campaigns against waste were specifically identified as questions of environmental justice. In Williamsburg, two large low-income ethnic groups, Hasidic Jews and Latinos, joined together to defeat a proposal to build an incinerator in the neighborhood, which would have added to the large concentration of waste facilities in this mixed-use area. All of the neighborhoods are affected by large volumes of truck traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the borough’s major highway that cuts through these neighborhoods and separates the residential population from large swaths of the waterfront.

For the 2001 elections, a Task Force on Community-based Planning made up of 30 groups, including many environmental justice groups, developed a platform to present to candidates. The platform advocates that government give material support to community planning and provide capital funding to implement plan proposals. The platform specifically cites environmental justice and fair share issues. The Task Force collected over fifty community plans already completed, most without government support, in a Briefing Book presented to candidates (see www.mas.org). Planners Network, an organization of progressive planners that is part of the Task Force, developed its own platform and has held several forums on community-based planning. This election is particularly important because, as a result of term limits legislation, all city-wide offices and the majority of the City Council would be new faces.

Environmental justice groups see community-based planning as a potential mechanism for changing land use and zoning policy. It could help each neighborhood get only its “fair share” unwanted facilities, particularly facilities handling the city’s waste. Planning can provide the political foundation for needed changes in zoning that allow for the concentration of noxious facilities in communities of color.

The main points of the progressive programs are:

  • Commitment of the City Planning Commissioners to bottom-up community-based planning

  • Provision of professional assistance and training to community-based organizations and community boards

  • Development of plans for the disposition of city-owned property and open space plans in neighborhoods

  • The use of zoning and fair share principles to prevent the concentration of waste facilities and environmentally damaging uses in any neighborhood

  • The expansion of budget consultations in neighborhoods and allocation of funds to implement community plans.

Waste, Race and Place

Waste became a major issue in the local press when the city began running out of low cost landfill alternatives within its own borders. In the late 1980s, the city increased the fees it charges to private carters to dump in its last remaining landfill at Fresh Kills. Private carters, who handled more than half the city’s waste, began to export the waste to distant landfills and incinerators. They set up some 85 waste transfer stations within the city to sort the waste and transfer it to larger trucks. Seventy percent of these transfer stations were in working class communities and communities of color, and this incited a struggle by residents and businesses against the concentration of these facilities in their neighborhoods. Three neighborhoods – Greenpoint, Williamsburg and the South Bronx – handle over two-thirds of the city’s domestic and commercial waste.

Mayor Rudoph Giuliani announced the closing of Fresh Kills in 1998, in part to pay a political debt to the Borough of Staten Island, a largely European American borough where Fresh Kills is located. In 2001, the last city sanitation truck made its delivery to Fresh Kills and now all of the city’s waste is handled by private carters or exported under contract to a few corporations. Waste management has effectively been privatized and come under the hegemony of a few transnational waste corporations. And in the process waste transfer stations remain concentrated in poor neighborhoods with large populations of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans. These neighborhoods already have high levels of asthma and respiratory disease which are exacerbated by the increased truck traffic, odors, noise, vermin and other public health risks created by waste facilities. (see Bautista, n.d.)

The emergence of private transfer stations and the export of waste met with protest in the neighborhoods where they were concentrated. Most were on or near the waterfront, located on industrially zoned land that had once been intensely used by the maritime and related industries and left abandoned when most of the Port of New York moved to New Jersey in the 1970s. The waterfront neighborhoods came together in the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods (OWN), and worked closely with the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYCEJA). They took the city to court claiming the Sanitation Department had failed to adopt regulations governing the siting of waste transfer stations to prevent clustering in communities of color; and when the city finally proposed regulations they only furthered concentration of facilities.

Let us return for a moment to Mayor Giuliani and the myths surrounding him. One of these is that the mayor “cleaned up the city.” To be sure, there is a visible decline in the amount of trash on the streets of lower and midtown Manhattan. But this is in large part the work of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) that were started in the Dinkins administration. There is also no visible decline in the amount of trash elsewhere. And in neighborhoods with waste transfers stations, there is more garbage and more environmental hazards such as vermin and diesel trucks than before. The total amount of waste produced in the city has grown incrementally.

But didn’t Giuliani get organized crime out of the carting business and save the public money by eliminating corruption? More myth-making.

All of the city’s waste is now transferred to private corporations and taken to landfills they own and operate. The small carters influenced by organized crime and able to fix prices were replaced by a few transnational corporations that fix prices. The seemingly contradictory myth underlying this change was that the corporations would dispose of waste more efficiently and at a lower cost as a result of competition in the marketplace. Instead, the Sanitation Department’s operating expenditures went up from $590.5 million in 1997 to a projected $940.6 million in 2001 (Independent Budget Office, 2001). Two major corporations take the majority of the city’s waste. Since these corporations own and operate the landfill sites they are in a position to raise the prices charged for taking the city’s waste (tipping fees) with relatively little restraint. While the export of waste is supposed to be only a short-term strategy and the city is currently preparing a long-term plan, there is no serious planning to engage communities in long-term solutions such as waste reduction, recycling, composting and decentralized management that would eliminate the burdens of concentrating facilities in a few neighborhoods. The law suit challenging the city’s regulations governing waste transfer facilities remains unresolved.

Poor communities have always been burdened with the health consequences of improperly managed waste. But a century ago poor and working class communities used waste as raw material for new products and small businesses. Before the introduction of modern sanitary disposal systems – also a product of the urban reform movement – very little waste was exported (see Strasser, 1999, 136-140). The “efficient” disposal and export of waste robbed poor communities of jobs and low-cost products, and forced them to consume more new products, thereby creating more waste. Recycling and reuse of products declined sharply.

The waste problem is aggravated by dependency on the use of autos and trucks for transportation. In the last decade, auto use in the New York City region increased and vehicle entries into Manhattan grew despite increased tolls on bridges and tunnels. This inefficiency in the movement of people and goods satisfies the small minority of commuters using private automobiles and the trucking industry but creates air pollution and public health problems, including safety risks for pedestrians and cyclists, and high levels of asthma and respiratory disease. These public health risks are particularly acute in poor communities and communities of color. These inefficiencies were not addressed by Giuliani’s reforms.

Waste, race and place define the web of public policy issues of critical concern to New York City’s poorest communities. Waste facilities are as segregated as residential districts, and affect the extent to which residents and workers have access to public places that contribute to a quality of community life.

1. By progressive I mean reforms that benefit the city’s working class population. The term progressive has been used ambiguously ever since the so-called Progressive movement at the turn of the century, which was a conservative reform movement often at odds with working class interests. See Judd & Swanstrom, 1994.

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