What Does It Mean to Save a Neighborhood?
Nine years after Hurricane Sandy, residents of Lower Manhattan are still vulnerable to rising seas. The fight over a plan to protect them reveals why progress on our most critical challenges is so hard.,
Credit…Daniel Arnold for The New York Times
What Does It Mean to Save a Neighborhood?
Nine years after Hurricane Sandy, residents of Lower Manhattan are still vulnerable to rising seas. The fight over a plan to protect them reveals why progress on our most critical challenges is so hard.
Credit…Daniel Arnold for The New York Times
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The day after the storm swallowed her neighborhood, Nancy Ortiz woke before dawn to buy ice. It was 2012, and Hurricane Sandy had reclaimed Lower Manhattan for Mother Nature. Making landfall near Atlantic City, it swept north, ravaging the New Jersey coast, destroying thousands of homes and inundating New York City with waves as high as 14 feet.
Sandy shuttered Wall Street, rattling global markets, and for a moment the storm restored Manhattan’s early 17th-century coastline. A brackish murk of waist-high water submerged all the landfill that humans had dredged, salvaged and shipped to widen the island, and that now supported the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive. It also swamped a large cluster of public housing developments and a beloved but bedraggled ribbon of greenery built by Robert Moses during the 1930s called East River Park.
Nancy Ortiz, who has lived at Vladeck Houses since 1980, was president of the tenants’ association when Hurricane Sandy hit.Credit…Daniel Arnold for The New York Times
In the dark, Ms. Ortiz tiptoed through a shambles of overturned cars and shattered glass to her Acura TSX. The storm had knocked out electricity to 250,000 people in the area, including those in Vladeck Houses, the oldest public housing project on the Lower East Side. As president of the Vladeck tenants’ association, Ms. Ortiz knew there were many diabetic residents who would need to keep their insulin cold. She figured help wasn’t likely to come quickly; for public housing residents, it rarely did. So she got into her car and headed north, some 15 miles, all the way into the Bronx, before finding a store selling 10-pound bags of ice. Into the night she navigated Vladeck’s dark stairwells, knocking on doors.
Though Ms. Ortiz’s neighborhood was one of the worst hit by Sandy, the storm caused tens of billions of dollars in damage all across the region and killed more than 100 people. It was a sign of things to come and begged for a federal response. After surveying the wreckage, President Barack Obama turned to Shaun Donovan, his secretary of housing and urban development, who came up with a novel federal competition called Rebuild by Design. Teams of architects and engineers were invited to conceive creative flood-protection proposals in collaboration with members of the affected communities.
Several dozen proposals surfaced, and in 2014, seven winners were selected. By far the largest grant went to a segment of a wider Lower Manhattan resiliency plan called the BIG U. It aimed to protect residents in the public housing developments, including Vladeck. Officials named the segment the East Side Coastal Resiliency project.
In the aftermath of Sandy in 2012, much of Manhattan south of 39th Street lost power.Credit…Iwan Baan/Reportage by Getty Images
The BIG U proposal — of which the $1.45 billion East River Park is one small part — envisions building climate resiliency around Lower Manhattan.Credit…Rebuild By Design/The BIG Team
Borrowing ideas from the waterlogged Dutch, the plan imagined a redesigned East River Park that could withstand flooding from future Sandy-level events. A grassy, reinforced hill, or berm, on the western edge of the park abutting the F.D.R. Drive would be built to act as a barrier, holding back floodwaters and protecting the housing developments. The plan went through years of public workshops, town hall meetings and open houses attended by more than 1,000 community members. Its estimated price tag was $760 million. New York City taxpayers would pay for what the federal government’s grant didn’t cover.
I had followed Rebuild from the start. As an architecture critic focused on public space, housing and the environment, I saw the effort as a genuine breakthrough. The political stars looked as if they might align — federal, state and city governments, as well as neighborhood groups all pulling in unison to tackle climate change on a meaningful scale in ways that prioritized design and the needs of vulnerable populations. Rebuild, in spirit at least, harked back to the creative, can-do days of the New Deal and the space program. I visited sites with Mr. Donovan, sat in on meetings and invited the plan’s architects to graduate classes I taught on climate change and global cities at Columbia University. The architects told the students about the slow, incremental process of earning neighborhood support. They came with glossy renderings of photoshopped joggers and parents pushing strollers in the reimagined park where floods came and went.
But then, in 2018, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the mood changed. Behind closed doors, city agencies did a “constructability review” — that is, they calculated the proposal’s costs and timeline — and concluded that it was simply not feasible. The city’s parks department said it didn’t have the money, workers or expertise to maintain infrastructure in a park built to flood. The department of transportation, prioritizing cars and trucks, decided the berm’s construction would be too disruptive to traffic on the F.D.R. Drive. Con Edison said that the proposal would interfere with its underground power lines and that engineering the necessary tunnels to encase the lines could add years, risks and untold costs to the project.
City Hall unveiled what it called an alternative design. It would cost New Yorkers $1.45 billion. It required razing not a portion of the park, like the earlier plan, but the entire park, and then covering nearly all its 50-odd acres with eight to 10 feet of landfill while keeping Con Ed’s power lines accessible. A new East River Park much like the one envisioned by the architects and community groups would be built on top of the landfill, with new areas for passive recreation. Gone was the idea of periodic, acceptable flooding. The new raised park, braced by a 1.2-mile flood wall and millions of tons of layered earth barged in by water, would act as a levee to hold back the surging sea.
Daniel Arnold for The New York Times
When the mayor announced the plan, I started to hear new voices.
A group led by professors, artists and other Lower Manhattan residents, a number of whom didn’t live next to the park but used it, started organizing protests.
They argued that the city’s new plan did not go far enough to address the effects of climate change
and that demolishing the park with the shade of a thousand mature trees would leave the neighborhood without precious green space for years.
They contested the city’s experts who said the park couldn’t be maintained as a gigantic sponge.
Ms. Ortiz and some of her neighbors in the subsidized housing projects were no less appalled by the mayor’s sudden change of plans. “We felt betrayed, like we didn’t exist,” was how Ms. Ortiz put it to me. But they also wanted something, anything, built as soon as possible, to protect them from the flooding of future Sandys. They started to accept the merits of the city’s plan. As they did so, they began to see its opponents as interlopers — more than a few of them wealthier, white people living in apartments that were not on the front lines. A project devised to build community trust and overcome political gridlock seemed to be fracturing the community instead.
Now, nearly a decade after Sandy, the Lower East Side is still vulnerable. Across the country, there are similar daunting challenges that demand big, robust and swift responses. There’s climate change, of course, which brings extreme weather and rising seas, but also a dearth of affordable housing, an electric grid in disrepair, a lack of broadband access, failing public transit systems — the list goes on and on. The recent passage of a $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill is a big step toward tackling some of those problems, but as East River Park shows, even when money is at hand, our convoluted systems often make it difficult or impossible to find consensus and work at the speed and scale required. A process of participatory planning, rightly evolved to represent interests other than government technocrats and wealthy developers, has also created, in some places, a culture of Nimby-ism that thwarts even modest proposals. Our conversations seem increasingly cramped, mean and small. Is our society just too frayed to come together around basic material needs?
In the debate over what is officially called John V. Lindsay East River Park, I sensed there might be some useful lessons about how we got here and how we might try to think differently. The park saga is not a conflict between bad versus good actors, but a confluence of different interests, different areas of expertise, different notions of community. It is a parable of progress.
Construction on enormous flood walls north of the park has begun. The city had planned to start reconstruction in the park itself by late November, until a judge granted opponents a temporary stay. The stay has just been lifted, and park construction is supposed to take five years.
Daniel Arnold for The New York Times
If completed, the new park certainly won’t be the best thing that we could achieve, far from it, and it may need to be rebuilt to cope with even more extreme weather in the future.
But nor is it a certain calamity.
It’s a hefty public investment to benefit thousands of underserved New Yorkers that should provide some protection from flooding for a time — an incremental step, in other words.
Incrementalism is how we think about progress today.
The question is: Are there other ways to think about it?
Whose authority matters?
In 1939, George Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion conducted a national poll. With the country coming out of the Depression, pollsters asked Americans to name both the Roosevelt administration’s greatest accomplishment and lowest point. The New Deal had by then established Social Security and federal bank deposit insurance, but what became known as the Work Projects Administration was arguably its most ambitious program. A vast menu of public works, coordinated with local and state authorities, the W.P.A. employed millions of Americans. Across the nation, it produced new schools, hospitals, sewers and hydroelectric power plants, as well as murals, sculptures, libraries, La Guardia Airport in Queens and some 650,000 miles of roads and 8,000 parks. It transformed America.
As the historian Jason Scott Smith tells it, in the Gallup survey the W.P.A. was ranked as both the best and worst thing the administration had done. Change, big change especially, always profits some and troubles others.
Looking toward the Vladeck Houses on the Lower East Side. Credit…Daniel Arnold for The New York Times
Among the roads funded by the W.P.A. was a section of the F.D.R. Drive, then called East River Drive. To city leaders nearly a century ago, New York’s economic future hinged on suburban commuters and automobiles. Car dependence now seems spectacularly wrongheaded to urban planners, ecologists and transit advocates, with all we know about sprawl, carbon emissions and the way highways divided and segregated city neighborhoods. But what is regarded as progress at one moment often comes to be seen as the problem later. As Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University, puts it, “Science is based on the premise that we will inevitably be wrong and find better ways to make sense of things.”
Social reformers in the 1930s seized on the highway’s construction to lobby for the creation of new forms of public housing next to the new East River Drive. Vladeck Houses, the first of these developments, opened in 1940: a complex of 20 six-story brick apartment blocks featuring modern conveniences like “self-operating elevators,” as one news report noted. In contrast to the cramped, airless tenements that made the turn-of-the-century Lower East Side notorious for overcrowding and outbreaks of cholera and other diseases, Vladeck’s boxy buildings in wide open spaces represented progressive ideals about humane living and public health. More than 19,000 New Yorkers applied for 1,771 subsidized apartments before officials had to put a halt to applications.
Robert Moses, then New York’s parks commissioner, saw another opportunity in the highway’s construction. The East River, down to the Battery, had once formed the heart of one of the mightiest and most prosperous ports in the world. By the 1930s, however, maritime traffic had shifted across town, to the deeper channels of the Hudson River. In 1937, Moses persuaded city officials to add acres of landfill along the East River waterfront, expanding Manhattan’s shoreline and creating a slender, gracious park with wading pools, baseball fields, shuffleboard courts, an open-air dance floor and an amphitheater, where among other things, Shakespeare in the Park would make its debut. Shaded by London planes and pin oak trees, the park was sandwiched between the new highway and a riverside promenade. One of Moses’s less-heralded triumphs, East River Park opened in 1939.
The opening ceremonies for East River Park in 1939. The park was built on landfill. Credit…Seelig/NY Daily News Archive, via Getty Images
Social reformers pushed for new forms of public housing, like Vladeck Houses, with airy open spaces, unlike cramped tenements.Credit…Arnold & Kellogg
Moving vans lined up at the Vladeck Houses in 1940. More than 19,000 New Yorkers applied for 1,771 subsidized apartments.Credit…The New York Times
Three years later, Nancy Ortiz’s recently widowed grandmother left Puerto Rico and settled into a tenement on Delancey Street in the heart of the Lower East Side with her seven children. The youngest, Nancy’s future father, was 12-year-old Diego, who was called Willie, though no one can recall why. East River Park, a couple of blocks away, became Willie’s backyard. Years later, after returning from the Korean War, Willie moved a little closer to the park into a development called Lavanburg Homes. Nancy grew up there. As a little girl, Ms. Ortiz recalls, she would accompany her father to the park on summer weekends. Willie and other men from the neighborhood would play softball in guayaberas and dress shoes while she played tag with her friends. Kids who skipped school, she remembers, would hide from truant officers behind the amphitheater.
For Moses, the 1940s and ’50s were years of peak authority as the city’s planning czar. Among other things, he oversaw the addition of more public housing developments along the East River. But the 1960s brought new thinking. Rachel Carson, the marine biologist and author, challenged the authority of pesticide-making chemical companies and inspired the environmental movement. Jane Jacobs took on the urban planning establishment. The highways Moses built had demolished and physically split neighborhoods, displacing or isolating thousands of Black and brown residents and fouling the air with car exhaust. Jacobs argued that ordinary residents who saw the city from the sidewalk level — not planners like Moses looking down on maps like demigods, or developers, focused on profits — knew best what ought to be saved or built in their own neighborhoods. Community members were the true experts. Moses’s power waned.
A model of a portion of the never-built Westway, with its plan for a park over a tunneled highway.Credit…Neal Boenzi/The New York Times
By the early 1970s, when Ms. Ortiz and her parents moved from Lavanburg into one of the newer Moses developments on Delancey Street, an idea called Westway started to take shape across town. The West Side piers, which had replaced those on the East River, had by then become obsolete, too, and Westway was a plan to reimagine that waterfront. A new interstate would be tunneled below the Hudson River, removing cars and trucks from city streets. Disused warehouses and docks would make way for apartments and commercial development. As with East River Park, acres of landfill would be added to create a vast green esplanade. Over the next decade and a half, Westway secured endorsements from New York’s governors and mayors. And President Ronald Reagan’s administration agreed to pay to move the highway.
But it wasn’t to be. The culture had shifted. As more Black and Hispanic tenants moved into public housing, federal and local authorities lost interest in its upkeep. Developments like Vladeck, once advertised as bucolic and equitable alternatives to dense city living, came to represent urban decline. With Westway, newly energized urban activists seized on the proposal as an outmoded emblem of Moses-style, top-down arrogance (though it wasn’t Moses’s idea). They said it prioritized drivers, not public transit users; developers, not blue-collar New Yorkers. Environmentalists focused on its potential to disrupt the mating patterns of striped bass in the Hudson River. A coalition of wildlife advocates, architectural preservationists and subway riders, capitalizing on new, Nixon-era ecological regulations, challenged government experts in court. And they won.
Whether, in retrospect, Westway’s defeat was a victory for the city or not–in effect, environmentalists derailed what would have been a greenway roughly twice the size of East River Park–it was definitely a triumph for grass-roots organizers, signaling a new era in participatory democracy. The Powers That Be had begun to yield, however reluctantly and performatively, to People Power.
‘Why should we believe anything the city says?’
When Rebuild for Design endorsed the East Side Coastal Resiliency project, the big idea was that it would be radically inclusive. The flood-proofing of East River Park would do more than protect the neighborhood from storm surges, its organizers said. It would marry elite architecture and urban planning with meaningful public engagement. People power would join up with expertise.
A new East River Park would be built on top of 8 to 10 feet of landfill, with new areas for recreation. Credit…Bjarke Ingels Group
In 2013, Lower East Siders began to meet with representatives from One Architecture & Urbanism and the Bjarke Ingels Group, better known as BIG, the high-profile Danish architecture firm. This group had come up with the multipart plan, called the BIG U, for protecting all of Lower Manhattan. Jeremy Siegel, one of BIG’s architects, remembers lugging models and maps to community centers and public schools to show residents what the park could look like. He enjoyed the back and forth, he told me, and described the rounds of meetings as “a slow, iterative process.” Matthijs Bouw, the Dutch founder of One Architecture and a co-leader of the BIG Team, recalls that community members at first expressed fear about displacement, along with a good dose of distrust. For him, a key moment was when a local organizer who had been skeptical of the plan stood up and said that “this was the first time residents were treated like partners.”
Ms. Ortiz, who became a co-chair of a community board task force, recalls seniors lobbying for benches and tables where they could play cards and families petitioning for outdoor movie screenings. “People from the neighborhood wanted to see themselves in the process,” she told me. “Over time, we felt we were being heard.” That is the goal of participatory decision-making, after all. To borrow a phrase from Malcolm Araos, a graduate student at New York University who is writing his dissertation about the park, public trust requires participants to “continuously recognize their inputs reflected in the evolution” of a project.
So when Mayor de Blasio’s administration, which had not raised insuperable objections during nearly five years of community consultation, suddenly swapped the plan for what officials decided was a more technically sound one, the switch did more than infuriate residents. It caused a legitimacy crisis. Residents felt bamboozled. The whole consulting process suddenly seemed like a sham. And if that were the case, opponents asked, why should anyone believe city officials who said the engineering, construction and maintenance costs made the earlier plan impossible? Expertise itself was now up for debate.
“We understand the frustration,” said Jamie Torres-Springer, who was first deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Design and Construction when the new plan was announced. In retrospect, he told me, it would have been better to explain more clearly the city’s perspective to residents in community meetings before announcing it as a done deal. But “we were facing a deadline to spend the federal funds and wanted to get the project built as quickly as possible to get the flood protection in place,” he added. “We really didn’t consider the new design to be a radical change from the original one.”
Except, of course, that a central goal of the whole process, to build trust, had been undermined.
I met recently with a half-dozen members of East River Park Action, the most vociferous of the opposition groups that arose in response to the new plan. Months earlier, the group’s alerts started dropping in my inbox, announcing a court hearing or inviting people to join a protest march. We gathered around a table at Cafe Mogador, an old Middle Eastern standby in the East Village. The group included Pat Arnow, a photographer; Billie Cohen, a landscape designer; and Eileen Myles, a poet and the author of “Chelsea Girls.” Their distrust of the Mayor’s plan has been exacerbated by the city’s refusal to turn over documents about its constructability study. “We had to do a Freedom of Information Law request and the city finally released a heavily redacted version of the study,” Ms. Arnow said. “Why should we believe anything the city says if it keeps hiding the truth?”
Ms. Arnow’s group supported the original berm idea that had been developed with the community, and imagined the East River waterfront gradually transforming into wetlands. As sea levels rise, Ms. Arnow foresaw East River Park evolving into eco-friendly marshes managed by the parks department.
The group suggested that a truly enlightened response to climate change would be to build a green roof over the F.D.R. Drive — an idea the BIG Team had floated at the very start, before city officials asked that it be withdrawn because, as Amy Chester, the managing director of Rebuild recalls, City Hall didn’t want to “overpromise.” A roof, according to the East River Park Action group, would create a protective barrier for the housing developments while also muffling traffic noise and providing additional parkland. In essence, they said, bury the highway, not the park.
“It’s not a comprehensive plan,” is how Ms. Cohen summed up criticism of the city’s proposal. It made no sense, the group argued, to cut down mature trees that provide shade, hold carbon and act as a stopover for migratory birds, and replace them with saplings. Instead, they urged, focus on increasing the city’s sewer capacity, upgrading public housing campuses and reducing car emissions.
Daniel Arnold for The New York Times
I found it hard to argue in principle with their desires.
I also love the existing park,
a shambolic retreat and slice of midcentury New York,
which had some recent, costly upgrades, like a riverfront esplanade, that will now need to be undone.
It’s painful to imagine demolishing all those flower gardens, W.P.A.-era buildings and playing fields.
New York’s drainage and sewer systems are indeed rickety and ancient, a fact driven home in September when a downpour from Tropical Storm Ida flooded city streets and killed dozens of people in the region. But constructing thousands of miles of new sewers — not to mention rerouting highways and other herculean, long-term measures — was never Rebuild’s remit. And at a certain point, making such lofty goals a prerequisite for urgently needed flood protection only ensures that nothing will get done.
After meeting with Ms. Arnow and the other East River Park Action representatives, I visited Ms. Ortiz. She has become a frequently cited supporter of the city’s plan. In January, after stepping down as Vladeck’s tenant president, she started working as a special assistant at the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA. We arranged a post-work late lunch at El Castillo de Jagua 2, a Dominican restaurant near Vladeck Houses, where she kissed the waitress and waved to customers. Frank Avila-Goldman, a leader of the residents’ committee at Gouverneur Gardens, a development next to Vladeck, joined us. Unlike Vladeck, which sits on higher ground, Gouverneur Gardens was badly flooded during Sandy.
When she first heard on the TV news that the city had discarded the original plan, Ms. Ortiz said, she was every bit as angry as Ms. Arnow and the other East River Park Action members. The city scrambled to make up for its botched rollout by holding meetings with NYCHA. Carlina Rivera, a City Council member representing the district, helped organize some of these meetings and noticed a gradual thaw among public housing residents. “They were upset by how the new plan had been announced,” Ms. Rivera said, “but at the end of the day they wanted protection and wanted to know there would be a park for their grandchildren.”
The obstacle to that aim, some of those NYCHA tenants came to believe, were now the members of East River Park Action and other such groups. Over the last several years, among the hundreds of thousands of residents in the area, a few thousand people signed petitions against the city’s plan. What percentage of the roughly 30,000 public housing residents objected to it isn’t clear. But people like Ms. Ortiz and Mr. Avila-Goldman began to zero in on how many of the most outspoken opponents seemed to them to be white people not living in subsidized housing.
“For tenants in my building and the people I know in NYCHA who were slammed by Sandy, we need flood protection yesterday,” Mr. Avila-Goldman told me. “The opponents who came late to the party talk about saving trees and squirrels. I have been to so many meetings where I felt talked down to, as if only white people are the ones who care about the environment. If I had a magic wand, I would also deck over the F.D.R. Drive because when I open my windows I find soot on my walls from all the traffic. I’m on the front line. But covering the highway is a pipe dream these people are using to derail a plan that is about saving our lives and our park.”
As Ms. Ortiz put it: “The new plan didn’t blow up the community. It revealed that there isn’t a community. People like to throw around that word.”
If the story provokes thoughts about inclusion, expertise or problem-solving in your own community, tell us.
Balancing inclusion and urgency
It’s not coincidental that the rise of community activism and the use of the word “expertise” occurred around the same time. “Expertise started to be commonly used only during the 1960s and ’70s precisely because there were suddenly conflicts over who should call themselves experts,” says Gil Eyal, author of “The Crisis of Expertise.” “Nuclear energy was a big issue at the time. Nuclear physicists were the experts on nuclear energy. But opponents of nuclear power began to argue that nuclear physicists weren’t expert when it came to public health or the consequences of a potential meltdown, or when it came to environmental issues and environmental racism.”
Government organizations started to include experts of different stripes to contend with big problems. “Of course the more expertise you have, the more entangled you probably are, meaning your neutrality is questionable,” Mr. Eyal said. “So the answer to that problem was to add yet more stakeholders — advocates, members of the public — which made consensus even harder to achieve.”
In essence, Mr. Eyal argues, a participatory system designed to build public trust causes people to lose faith in the system.
The remedy, he says, is time. Researchers have a term, “inclusion friction,” he told me, for how bringing more voices into a process inevitably slows it down. Conflicts arise among different stakeholders, and public discussions require explanations and careful conversations. “To do inclusion right you have to take your time,” Mr. Eyal says. “You can’t present people with a fait accompli because they’ll understand the inclusion to have been a sham.”
The problem is that some crises don’t afford the luxury of time. A deadly virus racing around the world, for example. Operation Warp Speed, the federal Covid-19 vaccine development program, saved countless lives but it also “moved faster than public consensus,” as Mr. Eyal points out, exacerbating skepticism. Some environmentalists argue that climate change is a crisis simply too big and fast moving for the snail’s pace of participatory democracy.
The Dutch have resolved this conflict on the side of expertise. With fully a third of their country below sea level, the Dutch have lived in a state of existential crisis for as long as they have occupied what is essentially the gutter of Europe, where major rivers drain into the sea. When he was tasked by President Obama with Sandy recovery, Mr. Donovan, the Housing and Urban Development secretary, hopped a plane for the Netherlands and got a crash course in Dutch water management. During the 12th century, medieval Netherlanders established water boards: regional councils in charge of overseeing canals, rivers and everything else water-related. Today, Dutch water boards, in tandem with ecologists and engineers, still help determine national flood protection policies, including where people can or can’t live, and what needs to be built, or unbuilt, to safeguard against flooding. Elected politicians come and go; water boards are there to listen to science and take the long view.
This doesn’t mean Dutch experts always get things right. Scientific understanding evolves. In 1953, a huge winter storm in the North Sea breached dikes and flooded much of western Netherlands. Nearly 2,000 people were killed. The Dutch still call it The Disaster. In response, officials undertook the Delta Works, a massive nationwide system of levees, sluices, dikes, dams and sea gates.
Maeslantkering, a surge barrier, is part of the massive Delta Works system protecting the Netherlands from floods.Credit…Frans Lemmens/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux
But even while the Delta Works were under construction, ecologists began to realize that some of those barriers were killing flora and fauna and disrupting tidal flows. So, simultaneously, Dutch water managers attempted a new approach. Rather than just try to subjugate nature, they would also cede targeted areas to the rivers and sea. At huge cost, the Dutch deconstructed some major dams. They built water parks that doubled as reservoirs and designed plazas with sunken gardens and basketball courts that collected runoff when nearby canals overflowed. They ordered farmers to move from properties that, based on engineers’ calculations, would be needed as retention pools to prevent bigger cities downstream from flooding. Farmers weren’t happy.
But the lesson of the Delta Works was that progress is not an endpoint. It’s a process.
In the Netherlands, citizens give up a measure of autonomy in return for safety. Prevention is the priority there. In the United States, a different ethos reigns. Private-property owners whose homes flood or burn down receive federal emergency-relief funds to rebuild, and only recently have insurance companies begun to refuse — or to charge exponentially higher premiums — to insure some especially flood-prone and fire-prone homes. A nation steeped in individual liberty and Manifest Destiny is not accustomed to thinking about prevention or retreating from places too unsafe to occupy or too costly to save.
“This is New York, not New Amsterdam,” as Mr. Eyal puts it. You can’t impose a method here, he says, that is the result of “collective learning handed down in big and small ways, over centuries. What we can learn from the Dutch,” he suggests, “is that some of our truisms are not as stable as we think — participation and transparency are not an absolute good — and then we have to figure out our own way.”
Daniel Arnold for The New York Times
In the meantime…
we remain mired in processes that can take much too long to resolve urgent challenges,
with neighbors battling neighbors, experts battling experts,
and no one with a mandate to take the long view.
Van C. Tran, a sociologist at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center who specializes in community relations, has also been following the East River Park story. Mr. Tran distinguishes between technical planning — the architecture, engineering, cost calculations — and social planning. Technical planning is the realm of experts. “Social planning — in this case how the park should be used — is where the community should have the most input,” he says. But in reality, there are many communities. He believes much of the opposition “comes from more-educated, organized factions in the neighborhood, which raises the larger question of voice and equality — whose voice is most essential and should be heard in the community process,” Mr. Tran says. “My first priority always goes to the voiceless.”
Mr. Araos, the New York University graduate student, told me he believes finding common ground has to start long before a crisis arises. “The solution can’t just be more meetings or more ‘community voice’ — this doesn’t work by itself,” he said. The answer involves strengthening investments in public institutions so that neighborhoods are better prepared to deal collectively with existential threats like climate change or a pandemic. “At the time of planning a huge public work like in East River Park,” he continued, “the relationships we build through institutions like local schools or libraries can be the building blocks of civic trust, cohesion and respect.”
What counts as progress?
A construction site near Vladeck Houses. Work to tear down and rebuild the park is estimated to be finished in 2026.Credit…Daniel Arnold for The New York Times
Back in September, I met Mr. Bouw, the Dutch architect who helped design the BIG U, at the 34th Street ferry landing on the East River for a walk along the riverfront, so he could explain the mayor’s plan. We passed an elevated section of the F.D.R. Drive, not far from Bellevue Hospital, where floodgates as thick as bank-vault doors will be installed. Across a decrepit pedestrian bridge over the highway, we reached the park, passing an old playground with concrete chess tables where Ms. Ortiz told me she used to take her children to ride the seesaws.
The new East River Park is expected to take at least five years to build and it is conceived to keep Lower East Siders dry during Sandy-like storms until 2050. By then, continued sea level rise could mean an upgrade will already be required. I asked Carrie Grassi, from the Mayor’s Office of Climate Resiliency, whether a neighborhood park, whose renovation will cost taxpayers more than $1 billion, should offer residents longer protection than that. Ms. Grassi said the new park will be engineered to support an additional two feet of landfill, should more extreme weather make that necessary. “You have to start somewhere,” she offered.
Mr. Bouw basically agreed. “The park is an incremental step,” he said. “From an engineering and landscape design perspective the new plan is an improvement. Is it perfect? No. Did the city handle this well? No. Is it everything that ought to happen? No. But we don’t have time to wait for the perfect.” Or as Mr. Tran phrased it, “The process worked in the imperfect ways local government works.”
“People from the neighborhood wanted to see themselves in the process,” Ms. Ortiz said.Credit…Daniel Arnold for The New York Times
I left Mr. Bouw and headed back north to watch workers installing the first riverfront fortifications. Around 23rd Street, a crew in yellow vests and hard hats removed old sewer pipes and assembled new drains. A different crew maneuvered concrete molds on either side of a new 10-foot-high flood wall along the riverfront. That’s where I found Ahmed Ibrahim, senior construction manager for the fortifications north of 15th Street.
“This is a special project,” he told me. “I live in Staten Island and saw how desperate people there were during Sandy. Their houses flooded. Some of them lost everything and moved away. This project is special because nothing like it has been done here. But it’s also special because it shows we can build flood walls and new parks.”
Maybe. When the federal government chose to subsidize the BIG U, the park was projected to be fortified by now. When the mayor announced the new design, the completion date was set for 2023. Then community members objected to closing the whole park at once, so a phasing plan was adopted for construction that pushed the completion date to 2025. Then came Covid and various lawsuits.
Now the city says, barring further legal or other delays, East River Park should be done in 2026. Whenever it is finished, Ms. Ortiz told me, she plans to sit with her daughter by the river, in the shade of a new amphitheater, and watch the boats sail by.
The Headway initiative is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is a funder of Headway’s public square.