Mayor Robber

The pointless demolition of Manhattan’s East River Park

The city is currently uprooting the park’s 991 trees, many eighty years old. Photo: Mikiodo.

DURING A NORMAL YEAR one hundred thousand people recreate and run through East River Park in Lower Manhattan. Nobody has the numbers from the worst of the pandemic but it’s probably double. Painter and former drag star Taboo! enjoyed working out there in that fenced-in gym off the running track I myself have made use of since 1978. I felt comfortable asking the editor here if I could write something about the park since I knew he and much of a portion of the art world were dancing at the amphitheater at Corlears Hook, which is at the southern end of the park, the night Biden got elected. And I still feel terrible that I missed that party. I had already been involved with the activists who have been fighting to save this vernacular gem of a park since 2018, when the city first announced they had a new plan for providing flood control for the neighborhood and that this was to destroy the park—though in the warlike logic of our mayor and the New York Department of Design and Construction they would be saving it. They would be renovating it, protecting it, renewing it, salvaging it, updating it, anything but what they are actually doing right now which is demolishing it. They are in the throes of uprooting all 991 trees, many eighty years old, among the older trees in the city.

One particular tree, a pin oak, was the site of choreographer Katherine De La Cruz leading us, one day, in movement around it, this glorious large old tree. And looking up into the sky, remembering what I’ve learned in my time thinking about, fighting for, and relishing this park, I knew that the expanse of the crown of a tree also indicates how wide its roots go. They’re deep and connected with other trees, so the second the city began destroying the park last week, that tree definitely got the word from other trees that danger was coming.

How can this be? Precisely it’s because New York’s current mayor, on his way out, wants to do it, needs to. De Blasio will leave behind a legacy marked by his distinctive contempt for this city’s commons. And it’s no secret that he has solicited contributions from real estate since the beginning of his career. When he was slapped on the wrist by the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board, he worked for two years to keep their warning under wraps. The chair of said board, a de Blasio appointee, said it’s fine. No, it’s not. The gang of remarkable activists I’ve had the chance to be among are dancers, retired pols, several photographers, actors, lawyers, disabled people, unemployed people, artists, two poets, scientists, academics, musicians, a former UN senior political affairs officer, city employees, filmmakers, some of whom are NYCHA residents. And fuck you, we are diverse. And as the mayhem steps up in the park we are becoming more so. We’re lead by indigenous land defenders, part of a global movement. We can see who cares.

The expanse of the crown of a tree also indicates how wide its roots go. East River Park is home to some of the city’s oldest trees. Photo: Alice O’Malley.

NEW YORK’S COASTLINE AND RESILIENCY has been in the minds of the city’s political class, scientists, and well, you know, people since before Hurricane Sandy in 2012. We live on an island; the waters are rising; the climate is changing, and the infrastructure is old, inadequate, and daily getting worse. So after Sandy, Scott Stringer, New York City comptroller and one of the few city bureaucrats with the public good and science in mind, shepherded, along with Brian Kavanagh, something called the East River Blueway Plan that would have delivered wetlands, covered the FDR Drive, and generally integrated the entire coastline connecting Midtown to the bottom of the island. It was a great plan. But it was rejected in 2013 as too expensive, which is nuts since the current East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) plan will cost 1.45 billion dollars and growing without sewers in the budget. (This year’s Hurricane Ida wasn’t a coastal issue; it was a sewer issue.) But it was clear post-Sandy that something had to be done, so under Obama there was a design competition and they awarded a grant to something called the BIG U, and for East River Park there was developed with the community a relatively gentle plan for flood control.

Because having a park along the river was and is a form of flood control already. The flooding during Sandy that happened in the NYCHA housing across the street and throughout the neighborhood was mainly waters coming from uptown where there wasn’t a park. Our park absorbed the floodwater and was open the next day. Proponents of the current plan—the destruction happening today—refer disparagingly to the park as a sponge. And they’re right—but that’s good. If the park absorbs the water you don’t need a levee. The initial ESCR plan fortified the exterior sea wall and adapted some aspects of the Blueway plan, giving better access to the water from the park and covering the FDR Drive at several points. Sewers were included in the plan. The highlight of the original flood plan was a rolling berm along the west side of the park that protected the neighborhood from any water that did breach it. Community members and politicians and architects and engineers hashed this plan out for about four years. It was done, and then strangely, according to the longest-standing members of the group, the city “went dark.” There was no word on a plan that for all intents and purposes was ready.

Activists lost a lawsuit on Thursday opposing the destruction of East River Park. Photo: Alice O’Malley.

Then in March of this year, Jamie Torres-Springer was hired as the new commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction (DDC). He had been at HR&A Advisors, a real estate consultancy that de Blasio was deeply enamored with (its alumni and future employees were everywhere in city planning and any part of the local government that determined the direction of the built environment and parks). Jamie’s wife, Maria Torres-Springer, was head of New York’s Economic Development Corporation, one of the most powerful positions in New York real estate. When Jamie was hired by the DDC he had to give up his partnership at HR&A, but he got a green light from the city to hold onto his shares. Jamie was the messenger of the city’s intention to scrap the original plan. They now had a new, better plan, also called East Side Coastal Resiliency. Not to confuse anything (ha). Jamie insisted recently in Michael Kimmelman’s lovely tap dance about the park (part of a New York Times initiative funded by the Ford Foundation, where Maria Torres-Springer now works) that, “We really didn’t consider the new design to be a radical change from the original one.”

Except that this new one will flatten the park, covering it over with millions of tons of not-yet-sourced fill, which will then sit there and blow around. Once the fill has settled (ha), they will cover it with concrete and AstroTurf and then put lots of spindly little trees on top. Here’s your new park!

The scientists in our group say fat chance those little trees will grow in the even hotter environment we’ll have in ten years, and that they’ll most likely be planted in toxic dirt. The contractor the city hired in 2018 left mounds of fill contaminated with lead right across from a grade school in Queens for about two years.

None of the glowing PR the city has been spouting for three years has ever mentioned that the new ESCR = total destruction of every scrap of biodiversity in the park, including those eighty-year-old trees surrounding the amphitheater that are being cut as I write. The all-new ESCR is always presented as an addition, not a subtraction—with the great news for the DDC of not having to stop a lane of FDR traffic during construction or require ConEd to move its power lines (both of which would have been required by that rolling berm). And great for the Parks Department that you don’t have to maintain a concrete and AstroTurf park. That’s what the poor neighborhoods get.

The amphitheater at Corlear’s Hook, the site of a massacre of members of the Wecquaesgeek tribe in 1643. Photo: Alice O’Malley.

Traumatically, the site of the dance party at Corlear’s Hook is the location of a massacre of the members of the Wecquaesgeek tribe while they were asleep in February of 1643. The “Hook” refers to its shape, and it was a nice place to store your canoe. The Dutch naturally wanted that spot to unload their ships. So they took it.

Our city council representative Carlina Rivera, who grew up on Rivington Street, was a proponent of the original community plan. But she began to shift, and if you watch the voting pattern of our “progressive” city councilmember you’ll see that she always supports up-zoning, whether it’s in SoHo, Chinatown, Gowanus, or Governor’s Island. Carlina says yes.

There was a vote on ESCR in the City Council in 2019 and 90 percent of the public testimony was against the new plan. Environmentalists were opposed because it continues to be true that if you remove 991 trees from a park bordering FDR Drive you have no mechanism for absorbing any of that CO2 toxifying a neighborhood with already high asthma rates. And heat is the number one climate-related cause of death in New York. Ecocide is genoicide pretty much. Even the Hague knows and is beginning to consider it a crime.

Then began the city’s campaign. There’s a pattern when a working-class or low-income neighborhood of color faces any kind of development: The opponents are generally cast as privileged outsiders, NIMBYs, “activists” not “residents”—Kimmelman sweetly suggested “NYCHA” considers us white “interlopers.” (There is actually an organization called NYCHA Speaks that doesn’t like the plan but they are never quoted.) When the new plan got approved by the city council two NYCHA residents, April Merlin and Yvette Mercedes, went door to door thorough the local public housing with a petition against it. Two thousand signed (eighteen thousand have signed a number of different petitions, all opposing the plan), and they brought it to Carlina’s office and she refused to see them. They don’t know what they were signing, she said.

On Brian Lehrer, de Blasio chirped that there was a long public program that produced this plan. If I get over my outrage at the “bitch you wanted it” tone I simply remember the fact that he’s lying: Yes there was a long community process but that was for the other plan, one that didn’t destroy the park. They gave the new plan the same name, now they are suturing the public process onto the one we didn’t want. No problem. You girls are crazy.

Protestors demonstrating against the mayor’s East River Park plan. Photo: Alice O’Malley.

LET ME EXPLAIN the legal situation to cap this off. I can’t bleed much longer. I’m sitting in Texas as I write this. There was a suit filed by East River Park Action in early 2019 requiring that the city officially submit their plan for alienation of parkland to the New York State Legislature. You can’t take the public lands away from the people without full disclosure, a comprehensive review, transparency, and mitigation money for those affected.

The proposal the city accepted did not fulfill all the requirements (and there weren’t many—it’s a ludicrous and unheard-of plan to destroy a public park and install a levee on top) of the bid but they were the low bid so the city picked them. The other contractor, Tully, is suing the city and Jamie Torres-Springer for not following the city’s own guidelines.

When the contract came to Scott Stringer in June he sent it right back to the DDC. We cheered. We were standing outside the Municipal Building that day. I wrote a speech. It was a pretty good one and since then we set it to music. It’s called “Land Grab” and you can find it on Spotify. And then guess what? De Blasio overrode it. He registered the contract flaws and all. Why? What’s the rush?

And this was not in the news at all. None of it is. We’ve been posting this stuff like clowns on social media. And whenever we appear in these grand articles by old liberal white men they frame us like clowns. Old white artists, professors. The worst!

Our case in 2019 was rejected. The judge, Melissa Crane, a de Blasio appointee, gave it all of twenty-three minutes. She didn’t even write an opinion (which is apparently weird) and she bought the city’s assertion that the park is dying and determined that destroying a park to save it is a park purpose and therefore does not have to go through alienation. And so the plan rolled forward again.

We appealed it and lost again. And here’s the latest: We appealed the appeal. It just went to the Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state of New York and lawyers are apparently buzzing now about this case because if you let the city ride roughshod over the alienation issue you have in effect given the city a green light to do whatever it wants to public lands in the future. That’s bad!

The higher court was supposed to decide if we could have our next appeal case. According to those in the know in our group it looked good. It’s no longer just about us. If we got that new hearing it would’ve taken six months to be heard. A lot of fundraising for us, for all that lawyering, and a lot of hope.”

New Yorkers dance on East River Park’s amphitheater. Photo: Alice O’Malley.

We had gotten our first TRO (temporary restraining order) back in the beginning of November while the alienation case was still being determined. Once we lost, that TRO was lifted. I’d been tense as a rabbit all year and when the TRO was put in place I breathed a sigh of relief. Cause I am not an activist, I am a poet. “I’m a flaneur,” declared Taboo! last time I stood in the park with him. It was on the bridge from Cherry Street to the amphitheater. “Do you know the word flaneur?” he purred. And if you know him you know that Stephen really does purr. Yes I do I smiled. “I am a flaneur,” he enthused. Me too I grunted but the winds were too strong for me to be heard.

I took the opportunity to throw the dog in the car and drive to Texas. A big carbon footprint flaneur dying to write, so I thought, get free and act fast. Turns out that was dumb. By the time I got to Atlanta not only was the TRO lifted but the contractor was in the park and had begun chopping. They hit the cherry trees first, the prettiest part of the park though the whole thing is so damn beautiful. They moved on to the Linden trees near the dance circle where poets read during our biggest demonstration last April—1,500 people came, Ryan McGinley said. No press of course.

They had cut nineteen trees out of 991 when the new case being decided on December 20 gave us a TRO again. Three people arrested so far. Alice O’Malley did it again. And Sarah Wellington of course. Harriet Hirshorn, who suffers from claustrophobia wound up in a cell. That was bold. Laura keeps playing her trumpet. Taj is there. I was following it on social media and by phone and posting and not sure whether to admit in my posts that I was here in Texas and not there with my boots on the ground with my comrades. People danced. It was marvelous, the joy when the worst had begun to happen and then we got a reprieve. The trees were safe.

But the city’s lawyer declared our TRO not in effect—they didn’t buy it. Does the city have a right to decide what judge to comply with? It was Friday. My friends went down to the park at dawn with copies of the TRO. The contractor got really pissed cause Tommy touched his car. There were scads of cops there. Sorry we’ve got orders from the higher-ups.

Nobody in Albany where the TRO came from could be reached over the weekend, so the city had a double crew working 24/7 buzzing everything down. Playing fields’ trees all gone. I have not looked at my phone while I’m writing this. They were approaching the oldest trees when I last looked. The amphitheater is being destroyed. The southern part of the park is already gone.

Where’s the governor? Where’s a single person on the city council or in the state senate? One lone state assembly member, Yuh-line Niou, stood in objection to the city. Otherwise they are all turning away. 

And what about the mayor. He touts the ESCR plan as if it were the crowning achievement of his time. Thursday came and we lost. What’s left? Is a legal solution the only way? How about an environmental case? We need an expert. De Blasio’s got two weeks left, a lot of friends in real estate, a lot of debt and, you know, it just feels like looting to me. He’s looting the city, that’s all. That’s what it is.

Eileen Myles is a poet with twenty-two books and is a member of @1000people1000 trees and East River Park Action, both opposing the ESCR plan.