Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Brooklyn Tornadoes and a Cool-Headed Appraisal of Weather Weirding in New York

(Above, the September 16, 2010 storm passing over Manhattan.)

Get ready: This is going to be about New York and the environment in some very, very big-picture terms.

A Brooklyn Tornado, A First!
“Jeffrey M. Warner, a meteorologist at Penn State University, said that the tornado was the first one to hit Brooklyn since at least 1950, when modern record-keeping began.”
Was Mr. Warner talking about the September 16, 2010 tornado that tore through Park Slope with its sister storm taking a slice out of Flushing, Bayside and Forest Hills, Queens? Perhaps 1000 trees were uprooted around the city in a few swift minutes, cars were crushed and a woman in one of those cars was killed. (An initial report by the Times cited an estimate by Adrian Benepe, the city’s parks commissioner “that as many as 2,000 of the 650,000 street trees had been killed or else so crippled that they would have to be cut down.”)

(Above, one of the exceedingly large trees that went down in Prospect Park during the storm. In Prospect Park alone, according to the Times: “40 trees went down, and almost 130 others were badly damaged.” Prospect Park was constructed 1866-1873. Might this old tree have gone back that far?)

Seeking Historical Context on the Weather

No, Mr. Warner, the Penn State University meteorologist, wasn’t talking about this month’s storm when he was identifying the first tornado “to hit Brooklyn since at least 1950, when modern record-keeping began.” The purpose of this article talking about the weather is to put things in a bigger historical (and possible future) context and we are quoting Mr. Warner for the purpose of doing that. Mr. Warner was talking about the August 8, 2007 tornado and storm that “raged through Sunset Park and Bay Ridge, ripping the roofs off five brick rowhouses, yanking thick trees out by their roots, turning cars sideways and shattering countless windows.” That means that in the last three years, on separate late-summer occasions, we have actually had the first TWO Brooklyn tornadoes since “modern record-keeping began."

In 2007, the Times reported how that first Brooklyn tornado “forced the evacuation of 20 buildings,” damaged another 50 buildings, killed one woman, involved 100 to 200 cars being smashed or hit by trees and was “the third time in seven months that a sudden downpour had brought the transit system to its knees.” Mr. Warner had more historical context about the unusualness of the weather:
It was the first tornado to hit New York City since 2003, when a weak tornado touched down in Staten Island, and only the sixth tornado recorded in the city since 1950, Mr. Warner said.
(See: Tornado Hits Brooklyn; Subway Back in Service, by Anahad O’connor and Graham Bowley, August 8, 2007.)

Global Weather Warming and “Weirding” of Weather

Welcome to the effects of global warming? There’s a good likelihood that’s what’s going on. While the United States has more tornadoes than any other part of the world, the conditions that make the Midwest ideal for their formation do not exist in Brooklyn, but August 17, 2007, not many days after the first Brooklyn tornado, NASA published a report based a climate model they had developed predicting that violent severe storms and tornadoes may become more common as earth's climate warms. (See: Global Warming Will Bring Violent Storms And Tornadoes, NASA Predicts, ScienceDaily, Aug. 31, 2007). We endorse the suggestion of replacing the term “global warming” with the term “global weirding” because it is more descriptive of what happens as global temperatures rise and the climate changes: There are all sorts of weather extremes, including violent weather events.

More on New York’s Historical, Once Cooler, Climate

New York’s climate isn’t what it used to be. You don’t have to consider the advent of tornadoes to know that. Ric Burns’ 16-hour documentary film on the history of New York recounts how an impetus for the building of the Brooklyn Bridge (begun in 1870 and opened in 1883*) was the freezing over of the East River in January of 1867. The freeze locked up barges and ships and prevented ferry service for commuters between New York and Brooklyn, two separate cities at the time. Intrepid commuters could, however, walk across the ice if they dared. (Here is PBS video. Below is picture from The Brooklyn Bridge: a wonders of the world book By Elizabeth Mann, Alan Witschonke.)

(* It can be regarded, in part, as a great public work constructed mostly during the extended great depression of 1873)

In the 1800s the East River froze over often enough, regularly providing in ice bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn, so that even the New York Times as paper of record seemingly couldn’t keep straight how often it happened. (The Times does make mistakes.) We found this March 14, 1888 article in the Times written at the time of the Great Blizzard of 1888. It tells us that in the 1800s the river had frozen over on “six other instances recorded during the present century”; solidly in early February 1813, for a few hours in February 1817, for two days in the last week of January 1821, solidly in January 20, 1851, from noon to 4:00 PM January 17, 1857, February 1875 between the 9th and the 13th and finally on March 13, 1888, the day of the Great Blizzard. Including the Great Blizzard that would make for seven instances in all except that the Times list leaves out the January 1867 freezing that was impetus for the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, which included would make eight such freezes.

We also found the print below on the Brooklyn Library’s site which it says was published Harper's Weekly in March of 1871. The library's post writes about the accompanying story as if it were contemporaneous coverage* but, unless it depicts a prior year's event, 1871 would bring the total for freezes to at least nine.

(* “According to the accompanying article, the changing tides forced the ice to break apart after only a few hours, leaving groups of people scrambling for safety. Those not quick enough to reach land in time were stranded on ice floats in the frigid water--a frightening end to a playful excursion.”)

Colorfully Cool

The 1888 Times article provides an account of that freeze that is quite something to visualize. The entrances to the Brooklyn Bridge were jammed with hundreds of people. “The ice was fully six inches thick and covered with two more inches hard pack snow.” On the Brooklyn side one enterprising young lad set up a ladder down to the ice and charged dedicated Brooklyn commuters two cents apiece to use it. On the other side between Fulton and Beekman another fellow assisted people back up off the ice for five cents apiece. Several hundred people reportedly crossed the ice before “Brooklyn Police authorities, fearful of catastrophe and loss of life” put an end to it. Then with some stragglers still crossing steel prowed tugboats came up from the Battery to ram the ice and “the startled pedestrians,” observing their approach and “comprehending aright their intention” “scattered and ran for the nearest shore.” Not everyone made it. The ice was broken apart with a “report like that of a small canon” and a dozen men remained on the ice floes in “despair” until thrown a rope and rescued by one of the tug “little the worse for their temporary peril and fright.”

The Times article also colorfully reports that during the 1857 freeze the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher made his way across the ice bridge with a young lady companion “asserting that it was not the wicked alone who could stand in slippery places.” I know what you are thinking: Didn’t the safe crossing of a river on an ice floe by Eliza escaping from the evil Simon Legree factor as a key element of the plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the anti-slavery novel written by Beecher’s sister Harriet Beecher Stowe? The answer is yes but if you are thinking that this inspired Ms. Stowe that would not be the case since her book was published in 1852. Reputedly, the Ohio crossing was inspired by another true incident concerning the escape of a young slave woman in1838. Unless the Times got the date of Beecher’s crossing wrong it was more likely Beecher who was inspired by his sister Stowe’s book than vice versa. (I will resist at this time recounting how Beecher officiated in Brooklyn Heights over the marriage of my great-grandmother’s sister to the son of one of the nation’s most famous eccentrics.)

And the 1700s?

Clearly we have not been experiencing this kind of cold weather in New York since I was born in the middle of the 20th century nor the years of that century which preceded me. We have also not seen such cold in first ten years of the 21st century. What about the 1700s? On page 213 of Mike Wallace’s Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 we see that the river froze over allowing people to walk to Brooklyn in the winter of 1772-73. Then during the Revolutionary War in 1780, the “coldest winter ever known on the North American Continent” the Hudson River froze over for five weeks (likewise a large part of Long Island Sound) with the ice being able to bear a man on horseback until March 17th. The British were able to move troops, two 2-ton cannons and eighty sleighs of provisions from Manhattan to Staten Island over the frozen river ice. (See: The New York Chronology: The Ultimate Compendium of Events, People, and Anecdotes from the Dutch to the Present, By James Trager.) (The British wanted to defend themselves against George Washington's troops who were in Morristown, N.J.)

Can anyone remember Staten Island ferry service ever being suspended for five weeks because the harbor was solid with ice eight or more inches thick? Yes, this weather in 1780 was not only very cold but also exceptionally cold even for those times. Unfortunately, it is time to move on from this subject rather than delve more deeply.

Weather We Were Inspired

(Above, from Wikipedia Park Place in Prospect Heights Brooklyn during the Blizzard of 1888.)

We shouldn’t, however, depart from the subject of the Great Blizzard of 1888 without mentioning that this severe weather event is also credited with inspiring a great public work. Just as the freezing of the East River in1867 is credited with spurring construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, so too is the Great Blizzard of 1888 credited with spurring the construction of the city’s underground subways, speedily constructed and opened in 1904.

One More Way to Destroy the City?

Most of the time we would like to avoid bothering our Noticing New York mind with the problems of global warming or weather weirding. Generally, we are content to preoccupy ourselves with the more traditional ways our local politicians vex us with much more mundane plans to destroy the city, such as the notion that we should be tearing down all the historic buildings in Coney Island while reducing its amusement area down to a minimal fraction.

We confess we found ourselves initially irritated by the “apocalyptic thinking” of the “Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront,” show at the Museum of Modern Art (image above). (See Architecture Review: 'Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront' Imagining a More Watery New York, by Nicolai Ouroussoff, March 25, 2010.) Its grand scale thinking made us uncomfortably ill at ease, reminding us of the kind of from-on-high it-is-easy-to-replace-everything planning arrogance* that is, for example, associated with Coney Island’s destruction.

(* Sure, its easy enough to tear down a portion of Prospect Heights, including newly renovated buildings, to construct the murkily unparticularized “Atlantic Yards” but the ability to actually fill in this hole developer Bruce Ratner created in the neighborhood becomes a theoretical maybe-someday exercise when the developer says of replacement construction: “it's really market-dependent as to when it will really be completed.”)

Then there is the question what can you do about global warming- what’s the old complaint?: Everyone talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it? That was funny in Mark Twain’s time when the weather wasn’t man-made. Now that our weather is essentially a product of mankind the perplexity of our responsibility tends to deflate the jest.

Bloomberg to the Rescue?

What if our most superpowerful local politician, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, were put on the case? Indeed, in what we would deem to be a product of Bloomberg’s wealth, corporate influence and ambitions for presidential office it was announced on September 21st that Bloomberg has been elected to “serve as chair of the C40 Climate Leadership Group, an association of major cities around the world committed to reducing carbon emissions and slowing climate change.” See the press release on the City’s web page. Is this good? Well, we did our own Noticing New York assessment of Michael Bloomberg’s environmental qualifications. See: Monday, November 2, 2009, On Your Way Vote, We Quizzically Ask: How “Green” Is Our Bloomberg? Our analysis? At best Mr. Bloomberg is a Johnny-come-lately and his heart isn’t really in it.

Burning Fossil Fuels

Mankind is continuing to blithely burn the fossil fuels that contribute to global warming. Basically, this involves removing from the earth and injecting into the atmosphere vast quantities of carbon that were sequestered underground for hundreds of millions or billions of years,* going back eons before mankind was a glimmer in the eye of the universe, (and even before the first trees). (Modernish mankind only goes back about 1.2 million years, divergence from the ape lineage is estimated to begin about 5 million years ago, most of the modern art and culture instincts that make us recognizable to ourselves didn’t begin to emerge until only about 70 thousand years ago.) The early earth’s atmosphere went through some gyrations but, simply put, before those vast quantities of carbons were mostly sequestered the world was an unrecognizably warm place that human beings would have found stifling.

(* Most coal was sequestered starting about 400 million years ago. Coals have been discovered in rocks as old as the Precambrian, but it was not until the Devonian Period (some 400 million years ago) that woody plants became abundant on land and peat deposits were able to accumulate enough to make a minable coal. The deposit of significant quantities of oil underground goes back even further, 2.5–2 billion years to the Archean-Paleoproterozoic transition. Then a radical modification in recycling of organic matter, and the Shunga Event—the accumulation and abundant deposition of unprecedented anomalously organic-carbon- rich-matter sediments forming petroleum source rocks and the inferred generation and migration of the oldest known significant volumes of oil/petroleum.)

Free Ride For the Fossil Fuels Industry

Continued burning of fossil fuels persists because it is attractive to the petroleum, gas and coal industry. It is attractive to them because these industries are highly subsidized. They are subsidized overtly with such things as steep tax breaks and, more important, they are subsidized by not having to pay for what they take from the public. The fossil fuel industry doesn’t have to pay for polluting the atmosphere with injected carbon, they don’t have to pay for the cost of higher sea levels, acidification of the oceans, or extreme weather events. They are also insulated, as in the case of the BP oil spill, from full legal liability for the damage done to the environment from spewing oil directly into the ocean.

Close to Home in New York, the Hydrofracking Example

In essence, the profit of the fossil fuels industry is predicated on what they are able to extract from the public and the public realm without paying for it. If anyone doubts the extent to which this can be the case we suggest a viewing of the documentary Gasland, about the bourgeoning hydrofracturing (hydraulic fracturing) industry. Gasland* has been aired on PBS and HBO, and has been in theaters. It is also viewable on DVD. This is the film where homeowners demonstrate how after nearby drilling water from their house faucets has suddenly become flammable. New Yorkers need to be conscious of hydrofracturing because it stands to put New York City’s watershed at risk together with risking most of the state’s above- and below-ground clean water resources. Accordingly, Gasland has scenes that take place in the City Council Chamber and on the steps of City Hall, including a press conference unattended by the City Hall reporters inside the building. If you don’t immediately go see the film we suggest that you at least listen the Terry Gross Fresh Air interview with filmmaker Josh Fox.

(* We went looking for the industry’s side of the story with respect to the Gasland film. You can judge for yourself but we found its quibbles troublingly hypertechnical and misleading in their arguments about what laws the industry is, or is not, partly subject to and whether drinking water is protected from industry practices. Is the film perhaps more Michael Mooreishly shrill than would be ideal to make its case? Given the fracking industry’s use of nondisclosure agreements we are unlikely ever to know.)

Beyond the fact that hydrofracturing as a fossil fuel extraction process represents the desequestration of ancient carbon material (in New York and other nearby states, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, West Virginia, New Jersey, even a small portions of Kentucky and Tennessee, it involves removal of gas from the Marcellus Shale Formation deposited almost 400 million years ago) the process entails multiple antisocial problems. Millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand are trucked into a region and injected underground under high pressure to liberate, mix with, and force natural gas to flow up to the surface.

About half of what is pumped underground is removed afterward. The rest remains as underground contamination. The toxic mix that is removed goes into “flowback,” “frack water,” or “produced water” evaporation pits. It can seep back down into the earth and it is sometimes sprayed into the air to speed evaporation. Because of industry-sponsored legislation for which Dick Cheny and Halliburton are partly responsible there is secrecy about the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations (which may vary from site to site) but the chemicals include toxins, known carcinogens and heavy metals.

The health effects of being around all this, including the effect on animals, are gruesome. Human beings (who are not drinking the contaminated ground water; nobody will, not even people form the industry or regulators) suffer neuropathies, deadened senses of smell and taste and brain damage. In other words the industry extracts health from the public without paying for it.

Fossil Fuels Industry: Bloomberg and the City’s Real Estate Industry

Noticing New York has written a lot about how under Bloomberg the public realm in New York City is habitually sold off to politically connected developers who do not pay value for it. (See: Monday, February 23, 2009, Un-funny Valentines Arriving Late: Your Community Interests at Heart.) The way in which the politically-wired fossil fuels industry treats the public commons is essentially another version of the same thing. We can and will at another time extend the analogy by explaining why practices in the hydrofacking industry known as “compulsory integration,” or “forced pooling,” where the government forces owners to give up rights to their land, are closely akin to eminent domain abuse but for the moment we hope the analogies are clear enough.

Let’s ask again: Is Bloomberg the man to take on the problems of Global Warming?

Global Warming and New York City

The problems global warming poses for the city are real and need to be thought through. Global sea levels are rising. Sea level is about a foot higher than it was a hundred years ago. The planners of Brooklyn Bridge Park say they have planned for a sea level rise of an additional three feet. That’s only what’s planned for and perhaps relatively near term. Sea levels could rise more than that. Even if sea level rises only another foot or so the intrusion of water into our underground subways will put a lot more stress on the pumping system that day-to-day keeps the subways dry.

The city is also exposed and vulnerable to more catastrophic events when sea level rises. New York is lucky in that the configuration of our coastline somewhat diminishes the overall odds of hurricanes hitting the city (less so Long Island) but there is still a significant chance a hurricane will hit. With weather weirding that storm could be extra strong. And with a sea level rise added into the bargain New York City faces a very significant increased risk from hurricane storm surge. The population is large, prime real estate assets on low-lying land prevalent and the logistics of evacuation are difficult. Damage to the city could be in the hundreds of billions.

Here from a March 23, 2006 report the State Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions under Assemblyman Richard Brodsky:
New York City and the Long Island region have been directly hit by 11 hurricanes over the last 120 years, for an approximate frequency of one hurricane every 10 years. The most severe hurricane to hit the New York coastal region has been a Category 3 hurricane. According to historical records, since 1815 there have been four Category 3 hurricanes that have hit the New York City region: 1815, 1821, 1893, and 1938.
Among other things, the storm of 1938, which mostly missed the city, hitting Long Island and more severely elsewhere, flooded Providence, Rhode Island.

On the prospect of vulnerability to storm surge damage the report said:
The City is especially vulnerable to storm-surge flooding because of the New York bight: the right angle formed by Long Island and New Jersey. The New York bight makes storm surge values in New York City higher than anywhere else along the eastern seaboard. New York Harbor and the surrounding rivers essentially act as a funnel, and the water will have nowhere to go but on land. While a Category 3 storm will cause a 12-13 foot storm surge in Florida, the same hurricane will cause a storm surge above 20 feet for most of New York City’s coast.
The first part of the above quote come from state and federal government agencies, the New York State Emergency Management Office, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The second part estimating the storm surge height and what follows below is from a New York Press article by Aaron Naparstek, the founder of Streetsblog, for which Naparstek got information from Mike Lee at OEM.
Everything below Broome Street will be inundated, some parts under as much as 20 and 30 feet of water. Chelsea and Greenwich Village are completely flooded, with the Hudson spilling over all the way to 7th Avenue. Likewise, the East River and East Village become one, with ocean water surging all the way to 1st Avenue…A major hurricane will push ocean water down from the Long Island Sound into the Upper East Side, South Bronx and northern Queens, flooding those areas severely. Vast stretches of southern Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island will be devastated.
Could a storm surge and damage really be as bad as described above? Maybe and perhaps not but how wrong can we afford to be?

Storm Surge Barriers?

I was at the New York City Council during little reported hearings where the possibility and expense of buildings storm surge barriers was discussed. It’s done in the Netherlands. The cost was estimated at $5 billion and possible because there are only a few choke points in the harbor that would need to be addressed. Naturally, any public work estimated to cost $5 billion will probably cost more: The Brooklyn Bridge (built during the reign of Boss Tweed) cost more than twice its original estimate. But $5 billion is not much more than all the public subsidies we are putting into the Atlantic Yards project; money spent on such barriers would be for infrastructure of benefit to all rather than subsidizing one development firm’s private profit at the expense of others and wouldn’t even $10 billion likely be a small cost compared to the cost of a catastrophic storm surge?

Here is another thing we wonder: Couldn’t the barriers be built with a second function in mind; the use of tidal energy to generate electricity? If that were so, wouldn’t their effective cost be greatly reduced? Or perhaps the barriers/generators would even pay for themselves? That would even more likely be the way the math works out if you consider the cost to society of using fossil fuels. Isn’t this a more reasonable expense to ask the public to bear than that of hyrofracking or off shore drilling and oil spills? As we noted before in this post, severe weather has in the past provided the impetus for great New York public works. This wouldn’t be the first.

A Personalized Noticing New York Experience of the Brooklyn Storm

My own personal experience of the September 16, 2010 Brooklyn tornado was not as dramatic as that of some others but I will tell it to you. I was not where the worst of storm was. (One friend of ours was biking through Park Slope and was admitted to very much needed shelter by someone she didn’t know when she climbed a stranger’s brownstone stoop as the worst of the storm hit dead on)

I was busy writing Noticing New York when I heard rolling thunder. I noticed that the roll of the thunder didn’t stop: There were no intermittent breaks as the lightening flashed. It was odd enough so that shortly thereafter I began to record the thunder (the recording is not that interesting as the sound of wind and thunder compete). I decided the sound of the thunder bore investigation and proceeded to the Promenade from where I was able to see that a storm covered the entire horizon over Manhattan and that the wort of it seemed to be a wall of water cascading down in the vicinity of Red Hook. It was later reported Red Hook was one area the storm hit forcefully. Raindrops were beginning to fall and I could tell that a sweep of more drenching rain was about to come. Waiting until almost the last minute I largely escaped it by sprinting ahead. It took just a few bounds before I was back inside my building’s small portico but by that time my back was completely soaked while the front of me was completely dry. Looking out from the vestibule above the stoop I saw torrents.

Below are videos of the arriving storm and then the torrents that followed. As I said, Brooklyn Heights was not subject to the worst of it.

Upstairs, I knew I recognized the pattern of the weather I’d seen. Suspecting that they would be talking about tornadoes I turned on NY1 and, indeed, they were announcing that there was at that moment a tornado in Brooklyn. Showing it on the map it was not immediately clear to me that I was out of range, which I was, but in a very few minutes it was over. My instincts were right; it was tornado weather over Brooklyn. If my instincts are right in some other respects discussed here, let’s hope we will be able to do something about the global weather weirding that has brought tornadoes to visit in Brooklyn for the first time ever.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sports Culture Capper: Yankees, Professional Sports and Criminals Wearing Yankee Hats

(Above, a Yankee hat for sale on the web, one of Jay-Z’s Yankee hats, a New York City Police Department drawing of the wanted Yankee hat-wearing perpetrator of a crime as it appeared in the New York Times.)

I don’t usually pay much attention to the world of sports fan culture when I analyze the urban planning concerns of locating huge stadia in the middle of the urban fabric or complain about the unfairness of how these private profit-making enterprises are being financed on the backs of all of the rest of us, but I have an irresistible temptation to write about the subject now and before I’m through maybe I will have made clear why I personally am not much of a professional sports fan. . . .

. . . . Did everyone catch the story on the front page of the New York Times last week about how New York Yankee caps and baseball jackets seem to have become the apparel of preference for the city’s criminal element?:
A curious phenomenon has emerged at the intersection of fashion, sports and crime: dozens of men and women who have robbed, beaten, stabbed and shot at their fellow New Yorkers have done so while wearing Yankees caps or clothing.
For more of the story’s information about the police data and statistics documenting the criminal fashion trend see: Crime Blotter Has a Regular: Yankees Caps, by Manny Fernandez, September 15, 2010. The Times story detailed the police data and statistics documenting the criminal fashion trend.

Easy Explanation?

The Times wrote: “Yankees caps and clothing have dominated the crime blotter for so long, in so many parts of the city and in so many types of offenses, that it defies an easy explanation.”

Somehow it did not seem so surprising to our Noticing New York sensibility that predatory criminals, the bank robbers and thieves written about in the article, should identify with the Yankees who along with their owners have turned professionalized theft from the community into a business. While the recent new stadia including Yankee Stadium have fewer seats (to boost prices) the Yankee Stadium is actually bigger than the old in order to suck up “inside the cloister of its privately-owned walls the economic activity that once upon a time existed in the surrounding Bronx community.” (See: Saturday, November 14, 2009, The Yankee’s Hoggish New Stadium Monopoly Taxes The Rest of Us.) As reported by WNYC, and what we wrote in that story, the new Yankee Stadium includes: “a `mega-mall’ that is in decimating competition with local merchants taking away the business that used to be theirs.”

Criminally Excessive Transfers of the Public Fisc

Whether we are talking about a reduced number of private-profit-making-stadium-seats or the inclusion of private-profit-making mall space, the public pays for more than a 100% the cost of what gets built with tax-exempt bonds, subsidized transportation access and diverted real property tax revenues. The chart below addresses the less-than-transparent issue of diverted real property taxes. If you want to get into the subject more deeply start with our prior article.

Then there is the seizure of land. Building the new Yankee Stadium involved building over the community’s newly refurbished parkland, replacing that land and its 377 mature oak trees with inferior and slow-to-materialize substitutes. (See: Yankees Claimed a Park; Children Got Bus Rides, by Jim Dwyer, October 23, 2009.) The "replacement" parkland for the community includes space on top of one of the stadium's parking garages, some already mapped parkland, and a patchwork of other plots ranging up from less than a half acre in size. Land seizures to enhance profit has, of course, gotten to be a dishonorable stadium building tradition. For George W. Bush his scheme to build the Texas Rangers stadium in was an excuse to take extra land by eminent domain to generate speculative real estate profit much the way that Bruce Ratner (now partnering with a Russian oligarch and perhaps 498 Chinese millionaires essentially buying green cards) has followed suit.

Turnaround Morality

These sports guys sure are able turn right and wrong around. Just the other day as I was channel switching I came across a couple of Yankee business types, “suits” being interviewed in the Times Center (it was probably a more extended version of this interview with Randy Levine and Brian Cashman) and I swear that these talking suits were asserting that other teams in the league had a moral obligation to go out build new (probably highly subsidized) stadia just as they had done so they wouldn’t be a drag on inter-team revenue sharing pool arrangements. Really? Good God, does that mean worse is yet to come and other cities better be prepared?

Power and Gangsta Success

The brazen aplomb with which these individuals accustomed to power can toss out the suggestion that stadium building falls naturally on the positive side of society’s moral equations supports the diagnosis offered by the Times that the criminal fashion spree is because: “criminals are identifying with the team’s aura of money, power and success.” The other leading theory the Times reports to explain the syndrome referred to as “the Jay-Z effect,” is that the hip-hop artist’s regular wearing of the Yankee’s hat gives the hat a “kind of street rep, a coolness.” Maybe the perps like Jay-Z’s platinum “American Gangster” album or maybe as they contemplate the distinct possibility of arrest when undertaking a big heist they find themselves soothed by Jay-Z’s similarly platinum “Reasonable Doubt” album considered to be an example of “Mafioso rap”.

It’s all hangs together perfectly though because Jay-Z is a 1% investor and PR front man (assisted by his super-celebrity wife, BeyoncĂ©) for Forest City Ratner’s mega-land-grabbing Atlantic Yards Nets Arena. Is it possible the perps are really revering Jay-Z for the larceny associated with this multi-billion dollar raid on the public treasury? Are they astute enough to also know about Jay-Z’s similar role in the “unwholesome process” of developer selection in the Aqueduct racino deal?

Iniquitous? Ubiquitous!

Another concern I have about criminals in Yankees hats is touched upon by the Times article. As you would expect it is the general ubiquity of professional sports gear fashion accessories, the Yankees and other teams included. Obviously, if you are going to rob a bank you are going to want to blend in while making your escape. It seems doubtful that bank robbers would be wearing these garments if they weren’t already in general terms as the Times says “hugely popular” and widely worn so the fleeing suspects don’t call more attention to themselves than necessary.

I’ve got to ask: Why are professional sports as popular as they are such that we see so many sports garments?

A Few “Waisted” Thoughts About Sports Enjoyment

It is not that I have never enjoyed baseball. I wasn’t good at playing it myself. The kind of hand/eye coordination associated with hitting the ball wasn’t my strong suit, but I fondly remember going with my father to Brooklyn Dodger games (yes, he also took me to Yankee games). Still, I suspect the experience of attending a game now is not quite what it was then. What I remember then is smelling the freshly cut grass and the spilled beer and garlicky hot dogs with the taut skins breaking under the pressure of your teeth.

The thing is, particularly now as I age, I prefer sports that I do as opposed to sports that I sit and watch. Swimming, skiiing (preferably water skiing), hiking, biking are all great, but being a spectator to professional sports leaves something to be desired. These days it is a fight to keep my waistline from notching out to the next hole on my belt. I’m not doing badly. Everyone can bring to mind the stereotype of the star high school athlete who eventually can’t play like he used to and then balloons up, continuing to consume the same number of calories while engaging in a more sedentary life style. I’m sort of the opposite, the nerd who while he wasn’t really that interested in sports way back in school is almost as fit now as in those salad days of yore.

More Time to Waist?

I know that the average sports spectator doesn’t, per se, represent the highschool athlete-gone-to-seed stereotype. Nevertheless, let me make a few points. The average baseball game is a three hour affair (with extra innings they run longer). The movies Schindler’s List or Gandhi are hardly any longer. An NFL football game, which is comprised of 4 fifteen minute quarters actually runs about a three hours as well. Basketball games, technically only 48 minutes, run a little shorter, around two and one half hours. Work just a few of these games into your schedule, let alone conscripting yourself to the role of avid fan, and a good portion or your week is destined to be rather sedate. You may have problems burning off your beer and peanut calories. Dare we then be so indiscreet as to mention that the physique of the typical fashionable fan may sport a bit of paunch?

My own life is busy enough so that I have to make a concerted effort to fit in the sports I do for exercise. (The unfortunate ill effects of sedentary writing has to be countered.) Fitting in biking has multiple advantages: I can listen to the news, music or podcasts like On the Media, I can run errands and I can head out to inspect and explore my city, giving me a professional advantage so that I don’t make mistakes like the New York Times reporters who inaccurately report that the Atlantic Yards will be on top of rail yards, a misstatement that is only 40% true.

Our Friend “Ernie B”

Even if professional sports attracted me I can’t see enjoying watching them. I have a friend, let’s say his name is “Ernie B”; Ernie B. knows a huge amount about professional sports. Among other things he can speak for hours with eloquent cynicism about what a money racket the whole thing is and how the public is being soaked. But then he’ll go out and watch the games. For me the cynicism, the idea that I was being fleeced, would take the joy out of it all. Ernie B. also has some similarly themed uncharitable views about where our politics and politicians are headed but doesn’t initiate or engage in much actual oppositional activity.

Potential for Combustible Pizzaz?

It is not that being a professional sports fan is something that we can’t do with pizzaz in our family. We have a good family yarn about how my father was involved in mobilizing the Rockefellers to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn. (It’s a story we promise to tell here one day in a later Noticing New York post.) And one of the stars of the extended family, my cousin Buster Olney, has earned acclaim as a sports columnist, analyst and commentator. Working for ESPN now, for a number of years Buster was actually covering the Yankees (and Mets) for the New York Times.

Far from dismissing sports as brainless, I recognize that there is a lot to say for the top-notch qualities that make for an analytical sports mind like Buster’s. Commendably his talent has taken him to the pinnacle of his profession. It is just that my personal enthusiasm for these things is more on a par with my cousin Mickey’s, Buster’s mother. When Buster recently played “Not My Job” as a guest on NPR’s Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! (the subject was Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens) he described how the rest of his family “had no interest in baseball.” He told the story of how as a Little Leaguer with a burgeoning nerdishness at the age 10 he recited for his mother in the family kitchen all of the plays and every pitch in every inning. Buster recounted: “after about two games, my mother said to me: Buster, you have tremendous potential to be very boring.”

Putting One's Potential Skill With Tedium to Work

When it occurs to me that a fair portion of the public actually has a marked facility for becoming immersed in such potentially boring statistics and play-by-play accounts of sports competitions, I am struck with a fair amount of wonder that essentially this same facility to deal with the tedious could be brought to bear in another context where it isn’t: to keep track of politics and what our elected representatives are doing (or not doing) to represent us, for instance, keeping the stats on how individual New York City Council members voted when Mayor Michael Bloomberg had them extend his term limits or how those City Council members have voted on rigged real estate projects like the Dock Street project, whose extra tall height will obscure sight lines to the iconic Brooklyn Bridge.

We wonder what the average professional sports fan keeps track of politically. Do they know that Mayor Michael Bloomberg's business, Bloomberg, L.P., creates conflicts of interest with almost every company of any size in New York simultaneously doing business with Bloomberg as both businessman and Mayor? Do they know the statistics about how since Bloomberg entered politics his wealth went up tenfold, faster than any other New Yorker’s, propelling him from a somewhat wealthy individual to New York’s wealthiest man? Do they know that Bloomberg’s regularly set up schedule is to leave early Friday morning for long weekends in Bermuda. Do they know he keeps his vast wealth offshore? Do they know how he uses his charities for political purposes and how he has now taken unprecedented and unrestrained power over Governors Island (and Brooklyn Bridge Park) even after he fielded the idea that Governors Island could be used as the home for his charities? Do they know about his national ambitions for higher political office? Or perhaps as professional sports and Yankee fans do they at least know how during Bloomberg’s “negotiations” to finance and provide city land for Yankee Stadium Bloomberg’s desire for a 12 seat luxury suite for the city’s (mayor’s) use, and particularly that it be stocked with free food, became a foremost priority? (To start learning about these things you might want to begin here.)

Engaging in Competition

Personally, I find that the scrutiny it takes to hold our politicians to account and remember their votes doesn’t leave me with much time to memorize batting average statistics. I’d rather spend time figuring out which new politicians have honest potential rather than projecting next year’s lineups or who is going to get what rookie picks in a draft lottery. That doesn’t mean that I am deprived of satisfying spectacle, the thrill of victory (or the agony of defeat)*. The one thing above all others that sport contributes to politics is a cornucopia of useful sports-term metaphors (“end run,” “Hail Mary pass,” “three strikes and you're out,” “level playing field” “sprint to the finish” “frontrunner,” etc.) and that’s because the game of getting yourself politically represented, if you pay enough attention to it, has so much in common with sports. One difference though between politics and professional sports is that when it come to politics a member of the public can actually get in the game.

(* The melodramatic catchphrase “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat” comes from the introduction for ABC's Wide World of Sports.)

Because I engage in sports like swimming and biking, noncompetitive sports where my goal is admittedly only to exceed whatever ever-receding personal best remains to me as each succeeding year pushes me further into my decrepitude, you may conclude I am not competitive. Not so! I am quite competitive. When it comes to the game of politics as it can be played to properly serve the public I have a very competitive spirit. In fact, it is probably because I do that I have problems with other games where all I can do is sit on the sidelines.

Invictus vs. a Sports Movie With Invective

I recognize and appreciate that sports can be praised for its use as a tool to bring people together. I will eventually get around to seeing Clint Eastwood’s movie Invictus and when I do I am sure I will enjoy it and appreciate its message about the unification of South Africa and races and the role of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in dismantling apartheid. In the beginning of that film Nelson Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, realizes that the blacks attending a stadium game, hostile to how their home team is a representation of the old power structure, are cheering against the team.

I am quite capable of enjoying all sorts of sports movies but my favorite one is not about sports bringing people together. It actually falls more properly in another genre I like better, science fiction. It is the movie Rollerball, the original 1975 version with James Caan directed by Norman Jewison (the 2002 remake should be shunned). That movie’s climatic ending involves a crowd cheering in opposition to the power structure behind the sports team central to the action. The film, set in the year 2018, is all about power and how a world of global corporate monopolies coordinate to use a the game of Rollerball (invented for the film) to manipulate, distract and pacify the public as those companies apportion and dole out society’s resources, paying particularly lavish attention to a thin privileged upper crust that includes highly rewarded sports stars. A key tenet the monopolies conscientiously promote is the futility of individualism and individual effort. Outlets and opportunities for opposition to the system don’t seem to exist. In the film, the global monopolies and teams they sponsor have superseded governments which have apparently disappeared.

In Rollerball the invented sports game is used to support a power structure where sports are basically an expenditure and distraction. Real wealth in the society is accumulated directly from the control of resources. For instance, the Houston team for which Jonathan, the principal James Caan character, plays is sponsored by the Energy Corporation which controls all the world’s energy. Other monopolies control such things as transport, food, communication, and housing. There is even a corporate monopoly specializing in the control and delivery of “luxury.” In our current, pre-2018 era, the accumulation of wealth by professional sports moguls is a tad more direct. Sports are more the immediate source of wealth rather than an incidental expense to its control. That is not to say that corporate sports moguls annexing cooperative government officials like Bloomberg, Pataki, Spitzer and Paterson as appendages (together with a host of public authorities employees) haven’t been branching out substantially. They do engage in the fringier areas of public subsidy collection and eminent-domain-abusing real estate transactions.* Nevertheless, the basic idea is the same: That a public that keeps its eye on the sports ball probably isn’t keeping its eye on the ball in the wealth and politics game. It has also been around for a while.

(* The pending NFL players strike and potential lockout is apt to heat up the question of stadium finance and owner profit in an interesting way. Both sides are fighting over who should pay for and get the benefit of the league’s highly subsidized stadiums and in this regard the players are fighting for the release of the owners’ financial statements and books telling the true story.)

Historical Tradition Over the Millennia?

In 1975 Rollerball looked forward to a distraction of the public with sports in 2018. Michael Moore’s 2009 activist documentary Capitalism: A Love Story opens by suggesting that we can improve our comprehension of the public’s present-day sports focus by looking back two millennia to the Roman Emperors' use of events in the Coliseum (starting circa 70 and 72 AD) to socially control and distract the public from, for instance, “the city’s ruins left from Nero’s despotic rule.”

Dispensing With the Sports Section

Do I follow professional sports? Not really. The first thing I do every morning to simplify my day and have one less thing to read is throw away the New York Times sports section. I get the sports news that is important to me from such sites as Field of Schemes and Atlantic Yards Report when it covers the public theft involved in building the proposed Nets arena. Sometimes, however, those sites miss something. As far as I can tell neither of them reported on the bad-guy bandit Yankee hat wearers. Thank goodness that the Times put its story on the front page.

Coming Back to Cap It Off

I don’t mean in my crankiness to begrudge or deny professional sports fans their pleasure. Certainly, I would like it if they were to join and fight a few of populist battles alongside the more regular political activists but each to his own. I recognize the pleasure that professional sports can be even it isn’t mine. Still, when I see a guy in a Yankee hat (or a Nets jersey) my reaction is not purely one of live and let live. It is one of unease. I think about how that fellow may be interested in the theft of my property and that is something I thought about long before the Times told us on the front page that we really do have to be careful about the larcenously antisocial instincts of people wearing such garb.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Staten Island’s Cedar Grove: City Wants the Next Chapter of a 50-Year Eminent Domain Saga to Be Final Dismantling of a 100-Year Old Community

(Above, a picture of Cedar Grove from the Historic District Council’s site.)

The Village Voice has a new must read article about Staten Island’s small summer community of Cedar Grove (brought to our attention by the Historic Districts Council) that provides much food for thought. See: "Poor Man's Bermuda" in Staten Island? Not anymore, By Elizabeth Dwoskin Sep 15 2010. Though the story concerns itself with a community of just 41 families it manages in microcosm to provide perspective on a superabundance of important issues, far more than arise in a typical public development story: eminent domain, the unreliability of public officials and their vision, parks, privilege, municipal budgeting, and finally historic preservation. (For ease of reference we shall be enumerating them when we get further into the discussion below.)

(Above, the Cedar Grove colony houses and beach and just above some of the New Dorp beach. Click any image in this article to enlarge.)

The Historic Districts Council is involved championing the cause of the 41 families who are trying not to be evicted from this summer bungalow colony by calling attention to the fact the New York State Historic Preservation Office has determined that the Cedar Grove Beach Club is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district and is concurrently raising some other very persuasive arguments. Does it make sense for the eviction to be occurring now? As the Historic District Council phrases it: the community residents “had their property taken from them by the city 50 years ago for one scheme that was never built, should not lose their family’s bungalows for another city project that will likely never be built.”

At first blush it might seem like a simple story pretty much the way City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe wants to tell it: That this private community (and club) is on public park land and its residents have been able to be there only because the Parks Department has let them occupy their premises at an exceedingly low rent. Ahem: It ain’t that simple.

The now singularly historic community (it was established slightly over a hundred years ago as a beach campground around 1907 with the existing bungalows were according to HDC “largely built between 1920 and 1940") has always been essentially a private one (though the beach is public) for all its hundred plus years. The picture became more complex when Robert Moses took the land through eminent domain in 1958. Ostensibly, he was taking the private land to create a public park, “a second Jones Beach” according to the Voice article. In actuality, his intention was to build a four-lane highway (what we euphemistically were in the habit of calling “parkways” in that era) along the length of Staten Island’s extensive southeastern shore from the site of the Verrazano Bridge (construction of which began August 13, 1959) all the way down to New Jersey over the Outerbridge Crossing near Staten Island’s southernmost tip; his proposed “Shore Front Drive.”

(Above, Village Voice rendering showing where Moses’ highway was to go along the Staten Island in relation to Cedar Grove and the rest fo the shoreline. Below, where Cedar Grove lies on the entirety of the Staten island Shoreline. Click to enlarge.)

Dealt with in terms of its unveiled actual goals Moses’ highway project ultimately failed when it was defeated in the early 1970s. The federal government opposed it and Mayor Lindsay relieved Moses of his position as the city's arterial coordinator. The original ostensible goal of using the land taken to create a “second Jones Beach” was also abandoned. The Cedar Grove community managed to survive because when the highway wasn’t built the city leased back the land to the property owners from whom they took it in an arrangement that while it could have been more short-lived has now lasted a full 50 years, one half century. The survival of the community and perhaps the initiation of this lease arrangement probably had something to with the fact that the community fought the condemnation in court from 1962 to 1964.

Quite pointedly, the Cedar Grove community has brought attention to the fact that while they have maintained and improved their beach beautifully, the adjacent beach immediately to the north is an unmaintained trash-strewn wasteland. This city-owned shoreline to the north is associated with the New Dorp community where the city demolished other beach cottages that were similarly lining the shoreline before their seizure by eminent domain.

Here is some of what we find ourselves thinking about reviewing this story:
1. That when the city pursued eminent domain against this property the public was furnished with ostensible goals for the seizure of the land rather than revealing the goals public officials were truly pursuing.

2. That the resort to employing pretext prevented the kind of public debate and consideration of the plans that might have led to more valuable outcomes.

3. That when public officials’ true purposes were unveiled the project failed for lack of a practical fully worked out plan for its funding and lack of public support.

4. That you can never remind people often enough how ill conceived Robert Moses car-oriented mega-urban planning projects often were. This is especially important these days given how there has been a conscientious effort to rehabilitate Moses’ image so that the public maybe more willing to swallow the idea that other mag-planning projects like Atlantic Yards, the Columbia University expansion into West Harlem, Willets Point or Coney Island should be pursued despite the fact that all of these projects are predicated upon an initial decimation of neighborhoods that exist. Creation of a second Jones Beach on Staten Island is a valuable idea but yet another shoreline highway would have precluded proper use of the shoreline as a valuable asset. In the early 1990s, the southeastern shore of Staten Island, particularly Midland Beach just to the north of Cedar Grove, was an extremely popular vacation and resort area easily accessible to city residents. With pollution it became less pristine but the Clean Water act has since significantly cleaned up the Hudson and this area has extraordinary long-term potential.

5. Government far too often undercalculates how long eminent domain will lay waste to an area before government acts to replace the commerce, use and activity of the private sector thriving before property was taken by eminent domain.* The land in question at Cedar Grove and the New Dorp community to the north has been the subject of desuetude under the shadow of and as a result of eminent domain for 50 years except to the extent that the effect has been mitigated by renting the land back to the Cedar Grove beach club. If the Cedar Grove residents are finally evicted there is no guarantee that a proper and fulfilling economic use will finally be made of these properties, but we do know that the mitigating effect on this lack of use will thereupon end.

(* Similarly, thirty-five years passed before the city replaced a bungalow community it leveled 310 in Far Rockaway “in a fit of optimism” “not removing blight in the Rockaways but actually creating blight”. Watch the upcoming September 22 broadcast of the Bungalows of Rockaway on PBS.)

6. The private sector left alone to operate naturally and unimpeded by government often makes better use of resources than those governments that step in claiming they can be better stewards to manage such resources.

7. It turns out that for the fifty years that New York City never used the Cedar Grove community’s land for the public park purposes for which the city used eminent domain seize, the city government never thought of giving that land back. We like the comment Paul Jones offered on New York Times coverage. He wondered about whether this is right. Mr. Jones wrote:
Ironic that the property only belongs to the City because it was condemned – for a highway that was never built. Would not logic suggest that the property should have been given back? Or at least offered back?
In fact, there are supposed to be some applicable concepts about the use of eminent domain pertaining to this. We suggest that you read the City Room New York Time article and particularly direct your attention to the comments section. We are with the remark in comment #63 “Interesting article and even more interesting comments.” (See: August 11, 2010, For Beach Residents, a Summer Nearly a Century Long Winds Down, by Corey Kilgannon.)

8. Articulating a concept that others have picked up on elsewhere, the Village Voice coverage describes the low rent paid by the Cedar Grove residents as a “sweet deal”:
Cedar Grove Beach residents say they pay the city $134,000 a year to lease the property for the entire summer season. Divided among 41 families, that's less than $4,000 per family for the entire three months—a sweet deal. (They also pay the salary of a full-time custodian, JosĂ©, whose family lives in a bungalow year-round.)
$4,000 for three beach bungalow summer months is certainly way below market. The low rent would certainly seem unfair unless one remembers that the community owners were probably way undercompensated when their land was first taken and that with pretextual taking and failure to make actual public use of the property there was significant unfairness associated with the taking in the first place. (We have covered the issue of such inadequate compensation in prior articles.) HDC’s post on the subject contains the observation of one resident that “the Beach Club now pays more in rent in a year than the City paid for the bungalows.”

Bill Dugan, a Cedar Grove resident quoted by the Times calculates the cost of renting at a higher amount than the Village Voice article author:
Mr. Dugan said the club paid the city about $140,000 a year, plus the cost of maintaining the property. It winds up costing $6,000 to rent a cottage, from the middle of May to October. But then there is the sweat equity. Residents say the property has been improved by decades of their labor and improvements. They hire a full-time caretaker, and each family volunteers for chores for the summer. It is their tractor that shores up the beach and sifts the sand, digs out the place after hurricanes and maintains its roads.*
(* We can’t vouch for the information but one comment, #45, at the New York Times sites says that residents paid $100,000 to reconstruct the bulkhead to the south of the beach.)

It should be noted that the beach the community has maintained is a public one to which the public has access even if there are issues about whether the public feels comfortable accessing what feels a bit like a private beach.

9. If the rent is currently too low, surely it could be raised. Even if there are valid arguments that low rents constitute an augmentation alleviating the inadequacy of the original compensation that was paid perhaps now, fifty years later, the time has come to raise the rents closer to market. And if the rents were raised it would change the equation and bring into even starker relief the question of why now should be the time for city to be destroying historic properties with value when it hasn’t even started to maintain immediately adjacent comparable property. We quote another comment (#62) in the Times article:
For example, doesn't seem strange that with the worst fiscal crisis in recent years currently in full swing, that the Parks Department would chose now as the time to evict these families? When the Parks Department does not have the funds to properly maintain properties they currently manage, where is the money coming from to destroy this historic village? With every local politician opposing the planned destruction why would Parks still move forward?

. . . Benepe even says in this article that they don't even have the requisite approval from necessary agencies to go forward with his supposed plan . . .
We note that in June of 2007 (before the 2008 economic downturn) the Regional Plan Association released a report, Balancing Public and Private Responsibilities on the Waterfront, questioning whether the city will be able to pay for the planned 55 miles of waterfront parks. The report issued weeks after Mayor Bloomberg announced his citywide green parks initiative estimated the operational cost of the waterfront parks at $100 million annually (almost one-third of the park department’s $355 million budget) at a time when the city itself had not yet estimated those costs. (See: Planned Parks May Cost City Too Much, Group Warns, by Timothy Williams, June 14, 2007.) As the Times mentions the report also got into something that intertwines with the next point we will discuss:
The report criticized some of the new arrangements, particularly financing formulas that may allow wealthier neighborhoods to have better maintained parks than poor areas, and parks where operations and maintenance have been left to developers.
10. The Times article commenter last quoted above segues into another issue: What’s being done with other Parks Departments property and whether it is being preferentially sold off elsewhere to the privileged or the well-connected. That raises some issues of class that deserve to be spotlighted, together with the question of who may be subject to some insider benefits. Robert Caro in is epic biography of Moses, The Power Broker, wrote about how Moses, particularly in his earliest days as an actual public official (just after his reformer days), acted symbolically as liberator of property that had been privatized by the wealthy. In this vein Moses’ Jones Beach was a publicly accessible in contrast to the beaches on Long Island had been gated and otherwise made inaccessible by the wealthy almost as far out as Smithtown. Similarly, Mayor Jimmy Walker’s expensively elite Tavern on the Green was remodeled into something more generally affordable by the rest of the public. That was way back then; the pendulum, it appears, can swing back.

One commenter (#63) alleges invidious treatment in a very analogous situation concerning a co-op at One Sutton Place South (with residents at various times such as Winston Churchill Guest and wife C. Z. Guest, Bill Blass, Sigourney Weaver; John Fairchild, George Gould, Amy Phipps, Janet Annenberg Hooker, Carl H. Tiedemann, Carolyne Roehm and Marietta Peabody Tree the patrician, activist, socialite and staple of gossip columns, who reportedly had affairs with Adlai E. Stevenson and John Huston). The co-op has been renting back for $1 a year property for its backyard garden that was taken by a 1939 eminent domain seizure. With that lease now expired the city and the Parks Department has an interest in using the property for a public promenade. In a lawsuit against the city the co-op charged that “the city has failed to take the proper steps required by the City Charter to develop the park.” Notwithstanding the commenter’s assertion of unfairness, our research indicates the dispute is not yet resolved and remains outstanding. However, the point that it is an analogous situation is quite well taken. (See: In Sutton Place's Backyard, Private Oasis on Public Land, by Charles V. Bagli, December 31, 2003, A Co-op on Sutton Place Sues to Keep Its Backyard, by Charles V. Bagli, June 19, 2007, A Park? Not With My Backyard, by Charles V. Bagli, January 9, 2005, The Penthouse Solution, by Josh Barbanel, January 16, 2009.)

Essbee, in comment #14, apparently sensing some hypocritical favoritism, expresses concern about privatization of the parks by the city’s elite:
So – the Parks Department wants to evict families, demolish 41 historic bungalows because suddenly they have an “issue” with a private group having a lease on a park? What about the Central Park Conservancy or the Prospect Park Alliance or the situation with Randall’s Island where a bunch of Upper East Side prep schools were going to have exclusive use of public facilities during prime hours?
We don’t know if the Central Park Conservancy or the Prospect Park Alliance should be subject to such flat-out suspicion, but we understand the point about favoring private prep schools with superior access.

Another commenter, Jamie (#24) zeros in incisively on Parks Commissioner Benepe’s disparate treatment respecting Brooklyn Bridge Park:
Adrian Benepe: “This is public land, it belongs to the public, and we want to return it to the public.”
Isn’t this the guy who insisted we needed private development of condos in Brooklyn Bridge Park? Let me see if I can understand this. Regular ordinary people cannot benefit from using public land, even if they have been doing so for 75 years. But rich elites can benefit from using public land? Adrian Benepe: “There aren’t any other parks in New York City with private residences on them, especially on prime waterfront.” He says this while at this very moment they are planning to put luxury housing in Brooklyn Bridge Park!
(See some of our own analysis on Benepe and the Brooklyn Bridge Park: Friday, April 30, 2010, Unveiled: Two New Towers In Prospect Park By Grand Army Plaza Entrance To Help Green The Area.)

Probably the "Poor Man's Bermuda" title of the Village Voice is intended to implicitly acknowledge the importance of the issue of class in this story. For those paying attention to governance of the city it immediately brings to mind that our city’s most iconic “Rich Man,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself, reportedly arranges his regular schedule to accommodate early morning departures every Friday so he can have long weekends in Bermuda. (For more of analysis of Bloomberg as our “offshore” mayor see: Monday, May 24, 2010, Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth? An Examination of Brooklyn Bridge Park in Terms of the Politics of Development, Part I.)

The issue of class drove the heated passion of a great many of the comments to the Times story. We were, for instance, surprised to see the Cedar Grove resident referred to as “scoundrels” apparently because they had been privileged to have the poor man’s version of Bermuda. Obviously, not everyone was on the same page respecting who was specially privileged.

11. Adding to the above comments in a somewhat similar vein we’d like to ask this: If the City is so desperate for more recreational shoreline why is the city simultaneously just on the other side of Lower Hudson Bay drastically shrinking the public amusement areas of Coney Island once protected by zoning in order to deliver a vast amount of acreages into the hands of private developers for other uses unrelated to public outdoor seaside recreation? (See: Wednesday, July 1, 2009, Noticing New York’s Testimony at Today's City Council Hearing on Coney Island.)

12. Setting aside the possibility of subsequent inappropriate privatization, the creation of public parks is clearly a normally appropriate use of eminent domain. It entails both actual public ownership and actual public use, unlike the essentially private benefit schemes for which eminent domain has been recently commandeered, Atlantic Yards and the Columbia University expansion into Harlem being glaring examples. We can readily support eminent domain’s use for park purposes and to create access so the the public can make a continuous uninterrupted circuit around the city’s shorelines. But we still have to ask a couple of things first.
a. Why is the eviction of this community now appropriate? Commissioner Benepe likens this taking to the piecemeal opening of the Hudson River Park waterfront, but the Parks Department is surely doing itself a severe perceptual disservice by taking the community’s land before it has addressed the trash-strewn New Dorp beach for which the city is currently responsible. Clues to the city’s progress and overall intentions can be seen in annual evolutions (or lack thereof) of the city’s Department of Transportation bike map. In the 2004 edition the completed bike path along the Staten Island shore went as far south Sea View. In 2007 it went about another mile further south to the Gateway National Recreation Area. Since that time no other incremental progress has been made although the next link of the path was about to get to that infamous complained-about New Dorp beach. Thereafter the path is slated to go along the shore next to Cedar Grove. Interestingly, the change in maps after 2004 also shows that for some reason plans to connect that path to other bike paths northwestward (and ultimately the northwestern shore) are being dropped. Shouldn’t at least these minimal next steps of extending the bike path and cleaning up New Dorp beach be taken before the Cedar Grove residents are evicted?

(Above, excerpt from 2004 DOT bike map)

(Above, excerpt from 2007 DOT bike map)

(Above, excerpt from 2010 DOT bike map)

b. Can’t there be a solution that is consistent with preserving the history and assets these bungalows represent? Wouldn’t the city be more interesting by virtue of their preservation? It would tell a story and connect us all to our history, including reminding us how essential it is to remain skeptical of public officials. It is, after all, a short length of shoreline. The public would continue to have access and accessibility can be enhanced. We see no reason historic preservation need be incompatible with other plans, even the bike path. Public accessability however must be key. Preservation of landmarks is, after all, something that is supposed to be undertaken with the benefit to the public in mind.
13. In comment #29 to the Times story DY expresses concern about the oddness of how the city is proceeding and speculatively ponders: “Why would Parks want to destroy historic properties that sit on their land? There must be some other agenda here.”
Indeed, why is the city rushing on this right now? It would be a shame to rush and then find out that, just as was the case in 1958, there was “some other agenda.” The issues and options here are richly deserving of further discussion and further research. Wouldn’t at least one more season of debate be in order?

Monday, September 13, 2010

It Now Comes Down To This: Democrats Should (Run Off and) Vote Tomorrow For Eric Schneiderman as Attorney General

(Above, State Senator Eric T. Schneiderman in May when as a candidate for Attorney General he stated his ideas about investigating eminent domain abuse in projects like Atlantic Yards.)

It really would be a shame if our next New York State Attorney General doesn’t investigate the misconduct of state officials with respect to Atlantic Yards and the associated abuses of eminent domain there and elsewhere in New York State. And it will be a glorious new day if they do investigate and bring the powers of that office to bear on those problems. And wouldn't it be extremely unfortunate if we were to get a new state attorney general who doesn’t even understand or care about the issue?

For this reason our Noticing New York advice is that voters should vote tomorrow to award Eric T. Schneiderman the Democratic nomination for Attorney General.

If the conventional wisdom is to be believed the race for the nomination has now come down to a contest between Mr. Schneiderman and Kathleen Rice. (See: As Primaries Draw Near, Ads Take on Sharp Tone, By David W. Chen, September 12, 2010.) The perception is that Mr. Schneiderman has the momentum to defeat Ms. Rice who otherwise could likely win. The reason you have to pay attention to who is ahead is because this is a multiple candidate election and we don’t have a system of instant run-off elections so if you don’t put your vote behind the best candidate who can take the lead the state could easily wind with the candidate least representative of the qualities the voters find attractive about the overall field of candidates. We could wind up with the least qualified, least desirable candidate. In our opinion, Ms. Rice is the candidate who shares the fewest of the desirable qualities than can be applauded in the other four candidates.

Schneiderman vs. Rice on Atlantic Yards and Eminent Domain Abuses

We are actually quite happy to vote for Mr. Schneiderman. As we reported previously, in May Mr. Schneiderman offered to investigate projects like Atlantic Yards and eminent domain abuse. (See: Friday, May 28, 2010, Touchstone For Whether There Will Be Change In Albany: Attorney General Candidates on Atlantic Yards and Eminent Domain.)

Part of what he said is as follows:
I don’t have objections to the concept of eminent domain but that’ s supposed to be for the public good. That’s like if you have to build a bridge between two communities that will benefit people you know you may have to take some land. The idea was not to get land so someone can build a megadevelopment for a shopping mall or something else. This is just completely out of balance. Now if I’m in the Attorney General’s office- - * * * The next Attorney General’s ability to move program bills which is part of the Attorney Generals’ function, is going to be greater than it’s ever been, or been in recent history. This last year is the first year since 1937 that the Democrats have held the assembly and the senate so our opportunity to enact reform is new. I would move program bills to correct this and I would enforce them rigorously. Also, the Attorney General can also just conduct investigations into the way these projects are carried out. Because even if they are technically complying with some of the laws I assure you that there are other issues that can be raised by an attorney general willing to take a look aggressively at the way these folks are proceeding.
Yes, other of the candidates like Eric Dinallo have said that the State Attorney General should be taking significant actions that would curb the kind of abuses at Atlantic Yards. Yes, Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, also a candidate for the nomination, investigated analogous abuses in connection with the financing of Yankee Stadium and since May we have heard him strengthen his statements about investigating the Atlantic Yards abuses. But of everything we have heard Mr. Schneiderman’s statements were the strongest and most encouraging.

By contrast, here from our May story is the gist of what Kathleen Rice had to say about eminent domain.
. . . there has to be a balance, the balance of development vs. the interest of the community. And the Attorney General comes out on the side of advocating for. . . supports the community advocating for themselves. And I think that that’s the issue here because I think this is a very touchy issue here, with everything going on in Brooklyn and all around the city and we deal with it too in Nassau County. So again: It’s a balance and that’s the job of the Attorney General, to advocate on behalf of people in situations like this. And that’s what I would do.
In other words, Ms. Rice expressed the same kind of pious platitudes about eminent domain usually used by those politicians who actively support but gloss over its abuse. If anything, her platitudes are a shade weaker than the conventional catch phrases. The faint understanding of the issue reflected by what more she had to say as quoted in our article in May is similarly damning.

Debate Links

Maybe Atlantic Yards and questions about eminent domain are not the only way you would like decide who you want to vote for tomorrow. If you would like to hear what the candidates have to say for themselves in the debates that led up to the primary we can give you the following links:

WABC Debate - July 16, 2010

Rochester: WXXI - August 31, 2010

Albany: WAMC - September 1, 2010

NY1: - September 7, 2010

WNYC - September 08, 2010

The debates are all remarkably consonant with and similar to each other. If you wanted to pick just one to watch and listen to we would suggest the NY1 debate. It’s available on video and runs an hour and a half, while some of the others run only an hour. Held late in the campaign it is also a debate where all the candidates come across at their best, operating on all cylinders and the confidence and ease of the novices has grown.

We will suggest, however, that you don’t really need to listen to debates. We can tell you what you probably need to know about their essence: They all give you the same sense of what is at issue, that Albany needs to be changed. What is discussed as relevant to the issue of change is pretty much the same.

The candidates have discussed whether the Attorney General always has the freedom to investigate politicians for at least certain public integrity issues and whether in some cases it would require the Governor signing an Executive Order granting the general power to pursue such prosecutions. (This is something advocated by Mr. Dinallo. Mr. Dinallo argues that Schneiderman would have a conflict of interest in investigating the legislature. Schneiderman argues that he has already been willing to take on investigations of those within his own party and cites his chairing of the committee that expelled fellow state senator Hiram Monsurate from the state senate. Ms. Rice quarrels with this asserting that his doing this did not constitute courageously initiating an investigation, only picking up after a conviction). All the candidates say they could accept an endorsement from Andrew Cuomo as the Democratic candidate for governor without being precluded from investigating Cuomo as an elected governor afterwards. Sean Coffey says that in such an investigation he would follow the facts of such an investigation wherever they might lead. The candidates have discussed and were somewhat at odds over whether Cuomo as the current Attorney General should have recused himself from investigating David Paterson, our current Governor. Schneiderman says he thinks that Cuomo did not need to recuse himself. Brodsky promotes his public authorities reform as the single largest reform recently to date. In other words, there was much about those in elected office investigating the misconduct of colleagues and other state officials.

There was also talk about where Ms. Rice is coming from and her ambitions versus her political principles. It was pointed out that this race is Rice’s third race for office in five years, but before that she didn’t bother to vote at for 18 years. It was also pointed out that she has accepted money from Assembly Speaker Sheldon’s Silver’s law firm and aligned herself with political boss Assemblyman Vito Lopez. For more of a critique on Ms. Rice’s ambitions see: Winning a Tough Image, Prosecutor Gains Critics, by Nicholas Confessore, September 8, 2010.

Finally there was much discussion about how any of these candidates can bring about Albany reform to the extent that they are already part of the current system, are already Albany insiders, are already making deals to get endorsement and already accepting campaign contributions with a pay-to-play tinge.

Didn’t We Cover This All by Focusing on Atlantic Yards?

To get a feel for all of these issues we still feel that best touchstone is Atlantic Yards and the hard questions that can be asked about the specifics that come to light when that is given focus. That includes the fact that Andrew Cuomo, our current state Attorney General and presumptive governor-to-be, has taken and not returned campaign contributions from Forest City Ratner, the developer of Atlantic Yards notwithstanding requests that he take action with respect to the megadevelopment. (At an event not long ago one of his campaign representatives explained that the contributions did not need to be returned because of the timing of their acceptance!)

We therefore suggest that the best way to get a feeling for what the candidates might do in terms of cleaning up Albany (a better feel than you will get listening to the debates) is to read our earlier article that uses Atlantic Yards and eminent domain abuse as a touchstone. We think that when you have duly considered the matter you will vote Eric Schneiderman especially when you consider that he seems to be the one with the momentum necessary to defeat Kathleen Rice.