Monthly Archives: February 2014

Jon-Marc: The Heights (and lows) of Sustainability… A Neighborhood Conflicted

George Washington t

George Washington Bridge (Photo 1) by Jon-Marc

The Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan is so far north on the island, it is oftentimes thought to be located in the Bronx. Sure enough, it is the second northernmost neighborhood before crossing the Harlem River into the Bronx, the Inwood neighborhood being the first. Washington Heights’ geography is also such that, according to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, it is the highest neighborhood, elevation wise, of the entire island. It is also home to the George Washington Bridge, the most trafficked bridge in the world, according to the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, carrying 102 million cars a year (PHOTO 1). According to data released by Community Board 12M, whose purview includes both Washington Heights and Inwood, 69% of the population are of Latino heritage, the median household income is just $37,00.00, which is 47% below the Manhattan median, and a staggering  23% of area residents live at or below the poverty level. Of particular concern is that 31% of adults over the age of 21 do not have a high school diploma and, as the release by Community District 12 suggests, it is thought that 14% of the population is unemployed (though for this particular figure they do not cite their source). It may be due to these statistics that Washington Heights and Inwood were the only areas in the city to see an overall increase in crime between the years of 1993-2010, according to, an online news source for New York City neighborhoods.

It is easy to see why, perhaps, most individuals interviewed for this story lacked a basic understanding or a cursory interest in the topic of ‘sustainability’. Of 14 people approached, none knew the term and only four were willing to let me elaborate with a definition and questions.

“I believe that if we are to be sustainable, we must start by creating art. Without art, we can’t be a truly free society” Richard, a 57 year old disabled, four year resident of Washington Heights told me. After providing him with a broad definition of the term, lifted straight from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website (Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.  Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations) his answers took on greater depth.

“We must find alternative fuel sources. Our fossil fuel supplies won’t replenish itself [sic]. We need to invest in solar and wind power, invest in their efficiency. [Desalination] of seawater is another option.”

It became apparent that while Richard, along with the other two individuals interviewed for this story, knew what ‘sustainability’ was, they were unaware of the term itself.  Once given a prompt, in this case the broad definition, each person interviewed had ideas and even great interest but, due to their current economic circumstances, was unwilling or unable to move beyond the interested stage to the action stage.

German, a 22 year old student and lifelong resident of “the Heights” told me he has seen a lot of neighborhood changes over the years. “I mean, on the one hand, having people begin to discover the Heights is a great thing. Parts of the area have cleaned up, crime isn’t as bad. Hell, even Inwood has become a destination spot for brunch. But all that comes at the expense of losing a lot of this area’s cultural heritage. I’m all for making this area better, but at what costs? And as far as this place being ‘sustainable’, that’s a joke. No one cares. No one here recycles [or] buys products that are good for the environment. Have you seen Fort Washington Park after a summer weekend? It’s trashed beyond recognition. The residents here don’t even pick up after their dogs. They’re certainly not going to pick up their trash.”

Indeed, it is this seeming conflict that seems to be a common thread among the residents of the area. On the one hand, there is great pride in the rich history of the neighborhood. On the other, confusion at what it currently is, and fear of what it might become.

“Fort Tryon is our shining star. Did you see it before?” Gladys, a retired school teacher and 44 year resident of the area, said, referring to the park that is home to The Cloisters. By ‘before’, she means before famed entertainer Bette Midler’s organization, New York Restoration Project (NYRP), took over. “It was a dump. I mean you were afraid to go in there and there was no reason really, other than The Cloisters. Now it is the most beautiful park in the city. I have been there a thousand times and every time I go I see something new, some new plant or even animal. There’s skunks and groundhogs and black squirrels and all sorts of birds.” (PHOTO 2)

Fort Tyron Park, NYC

Fort Tryon is a testament to preserving, maintaining, and enhancing green space for generations to come. The profits from New Leaf, NYRP’s upscale restaurant that sits on park grounds, go directly back into maintaining the park. The produce and many of the ingredients used in New Leaf’s dishes come directly from Inwood’s Greenmarket and local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares.

A recent walk through Washington Heights and Inwood painted a dichotomous picture of a community taking steps at sustainability while at the same time struggling with its own need for survival day-to-day. Indeed, the greenmarket in Inwood on Isham Street was bustling, as it is every Saturday, with residents eager to purchase locally grown produce and grass-fed, free-range beef. And the market even accepts EBT payments (colloquially known as food stamps). But a cursory inspection of the market tells a deeper, albeit unscientific, story about the community.

While just 17% of the area’s residents are white, according to the 2010 United States Census, every consumer I saw there was white. Though my observations are anecdotal at best, I don’t think the particular Saturday was an aberration. In fact, every time I have been, the story remains the same. Given how poverty disproportionately affects minorities, and given that the poverty rate is so high in northern Manhattan, a singular greenmarket, with its pricey offerings, is no match for the scores of fast food restaurants in the neighborhood, with their dollar menus and “value meals”, and grocery stores with weekly specials usually featuring foods high in sugar and saturated fats. Each person interviewed for this article said that the idea of food security, or the lack thereof, caused a majority of residents to eat cheaper, unhealthier options from fast food chains rather than opt to spend their coveted EBT dollars at the greenmarket. “What do you expect people to do? Buy one zucchini from the [green] market, or four 2 liter bottles of Coke. Really, it’s a no-brainer,” German lamented.

Just feet away from the greenmarket, at the entrance to Inwood Hill Park, is further evidence of green space for the community. However, that supposed evidence wears thin upon further observation. As a runner, my runs frequently take me along the hills of the park, trails so obscure and hidden that it is a regular occurrence for me to run 10 miles or more without seeing another human being. It is this remoteness and obscurity that leads to illegal dumping in the park. Mounds of trash, tires, hypodermic needles and more clutter the otherwise pristine beauty of my runs. There are small streams, origins unknown, that seem to have chemicals running through them, giving the water a rainbow film-like appearance. And this water is flowing into the Hudson. Unfortunately, as of the writing of this article I could not venture up to the areas described to take pictures due to the ice and snow on the trails.

Given all the variables, Washington Heights is a community struggling in many ways. Nevertheless, it is also, if those interviewed for this article are indicative of the greater population, a community willing to work towards sustainability if given the education and tools to do so.



My neighborhood: Lori M

During my interviews of the folks in my neighborhood, I found that 3 of the four people that I spoke with told me that we lived in one of the most diverse sections of the city.  I know that the word “diversity” is one of the new buzz words of the last decade but after speaking with the people in the neighborhood, at school, in the stores, and seeing the stats I believe that my neighbors are spot-on in their assessment. 

There are just as many homeowners as there are renters living in the homes surrounding my neighborhood.  As you walk down the streets within a couple mile radius, there are many multi-cultural restaurants and churches from Greek, Irish, American, Jamaican, Catholic, Episcopalian, Islam, Methodist, Baptist, and Lutheran. There are parks, bike paths, schools—both public and private, colleges, libraries, and a couple of marinas. The music can be heard on certain days playing from the church across the street.  The neighborhood has anywhere from the Mom and Pop to corporate businesses/restaurants and thrift stores to Macy’s. We have people driving old beat up cars, SUV’s, and Mercedes, walking, riding bikes, and taking public transportation for work and play. There is one thing that I can say about my neighborhood; there are people outside all the time day or night, snow or rain, cloudy or sunshine.

The statistics below show that this area of Rochester (the 14609 zip code) is fairly diverse and they will give you a baseline for the area.

Read more:

Household type by relationship:

Households: 40,408

3,926 married couples with children.
5,018 single-parent households (791 men, 4,227 women).

83.6% of residents of 14609 zip code speak English at home.
10.2% of residents speak Spanish at home
4.5% of residents speak other Indo-European language at home
0.8% of residents speak Asian or Pacific Island language at home

1.0% of residents speak other language at home

Foreign born population: 3,041 (7.5%) (65.3% of them are naturalized citizens)

Races in zip code 14609:

White population: 20,798

Black population: 13,520

Hispanic or Latino population: 6,466

American Indian population: 115

Asian population: 419

Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander population: 6

Other race population: 97

Two or more races population: 1,150

One of the residents named Kurt is a middle aged white man who has lived in this area most of his life. He has seen many changes in the area such as a decrease of children playing outside.  He said, “I know that there are still children in the neighborhood but I hardly ever see them playing like we use to do back in the day!” He thinks that the kids today spend too much time inside with their computers and video games.

Dan is an elderly Italian man most likely around 80 years of age and he said that the neighborhood has gone from a younger and mostly white area to a ‘fair mix of different ages and color.’  I asked him what he thought was the biggest problem that he saw in our world and his answer surprised me, “I think there is still too much hate in this world!”

Liz is a Hispanic teenage girl who said that she feels comfortable in the neighborhood until the sun goes down and then she said that she will not go out unless she has someone with her.  She said that she had some problems last year with a group of white kids that she did not know.  I guess they blocked her way as she was coming back home from a friend’s house and started pushing her and calling her names.

The last person that I interviewed is Suzette, is close to sixty year old white woman who has lived in her home since her children were in grade school.  She is a college graduate with a MBA and has opened her home up to college students.  She said she knows how hard it is to attend college and still be able to afford to live so she rents out several rooms in her home for a very reasonable rate.  I know how grateful those students are to have a safe, clean place to live because I am one of her roommates!

As I walked through the neighborhood I have several concerns: 1) there are numerous people that are doing remodeling on homes that were built in the early 1900’s and I have not seen anyone wearing protective clothing as they are demoing these homes.  So what happens when they disturb the asbestos in the old tiles and wrapping on the pipes or the dust from the lead paint?  These materials have been put out by the street for removal which in turn has the potential to become a hazard to all of those around the debris, and 2) with all of the snow that we have received; the plows have piled it up so high in same places that is hard to see around as one ventures from the side street onto the main roadway.  On Hazelwood Terrace and Culver, there is a large hedge close to the street which makes it hard to see even without the leaves. On a more positive note, there are numerous neighbors who have native plants and/or rock gardens in their yards plus I saw several nice garden plots with rain barrels. Most of the homes, although they are turn-of-the-century, have newer windows and storm doors so that they are much more energy efficient and all of them have recycle bins at the curb on trash day.  Our mailperson always parks the truck and walks the entire section of this neighborhood plus there is a mailbox on the corner of Merchants and Mellville so we do not have to drive to the Post Office to drop our mail.

The surrounding neighborhoods and the homes have been kept up and are in good repair and there is a sense of pride from those people that I spoke with regarding how the people treat each other.  I have to be honest.  When I moved to this neighborhood a couple of years ago it was a part-time, transient move.  I was not looking to become attached to an area because I was looking for was a safe neighborhood that was an easy commute to the college. I felt a certain disconnect with my life and I can attribute that to the fact that I did not have a sense of belonging to this neighborhood or to my “home” neighborhood anymore because I was here more often than there. It is true that “Home is what you make of it!” I started getting involved with volunteering and exploring and I found that even though I am not a city dweller by nature my area of the city has walking trails, parks, and Lake Ontario almost in my backyard.

This assignment has helped me to see my neighborhood in a new light and I have a greater appreciation for those around me on a day-to-day basis. Although I was only supposed to interview four people, I found that once I got started with the process I kept talking to other people on the street.  I now have that sense of belonging to this neighborhood and a renewed sense of purpose to become even more involved in my community.

Lori M

About sustainability…and spark plugs

Community journalism is that spark plug that gives us the power to see a problem and generate support as a catalyst for change.   —Bernell

When I took my dog out for a walk this morning, early, the snow was falling in fat white flakes and everything was white and lovely. But four hours later, that same route was coal-gray and treacherously riddled with trash and yellow dots. It got me thinking about some of your comments, that sustainability is far, far more involved than a modification of some aspects of our individual lifestyles—that, in fact, it involves a paradigm shift on a global level.

Foremost, perhaps, is a need for our willingness to examine what has set us on the path to our current sustainability crisis. Lynn’s comment succinctly addresses this:

We have been taught that we have dominion and have every right to do what we want with nature. Consequently we now suffer from the poisonous effects of chemical and nuclear wastes and oil spills. Our inland water tables continue to be poisoned due to fracking. Our forests and oceans are experiencing large die offs and we continue to release “Franken” seeds, pesticides, radio waves, etc. into the atmosphere. Our foods are lacking in nutrition and are so different from what nature intended that we are now allergic to most of the foods our ancestors lived on for thousands of years. In fact we are so distanced from the natural world that we live like aliens on our own planet.”

 Breuk also makes a really interesting observation about the scope of the paradigm shift that the authors of our text, The Post Carbon Reader, and many of your comments, refer to, in her example of Star Trek. She writes:

“Star Trek is an interesting vision of the future because advanced technology is merged with a cultural revolution to create a better society. After World War III, the Earth is poisoned by radiation and plunged into a nuclear winter, but the first test flight of a warp drive (faster than light) ship is detected by aliens. Vulcans come to Earth to say, basically, welcome to the galaxy. It is the discovery that we are not alone in the universe that brings the human race together to finally live in peace on Earth…”

William Rees expresses a similar point, in more scientific (but perhaps less fun!) language in his explanation of “resilience thinking”, when he explains that resilience thinking, “Accepts that the human enterprise is structurally and functionally inseparable from nature. That is, the human enterprise is a fully embedded, totally dependent subsystem of the ecosphere—people live within socio-ecosystems” (Post Carbon Reader, 32).

Here’s what Jon Marc says about sustainability (all of your comments are excellent, by the way):

“I am starting to realize that perhaps [sustainability is] not so much about reducing my overall footprint as it is changing the footprint all together. What I mean by that is unless we radically change how we go about living day to day, there won’t be much living to go about – perhaps sooner than any of us realize.”

And yet, given the enormity of the task, it’s so important to remember the beauty, and awe, inherent in our relationships to nature. Spencer addresses the enormous capacity for such radical change that our natural environment embodies, in his comment:

“While I tend to lean towards more idealistic thoughts about sustainability, I have come to the conclusion that it is possible to live in a modern day society, and still take care of our earth. Mama earth is smart. She’s beautifully designed. The colors, shapes, sounds, and smells that occupy the air are magnificent. It’s really ingenious if you take the time to stop and comprehend.”

Radical change is, well, so radical that it is hard to see the forest through the trees (or the clear-cut through the stumps). Tessa Lou vividly portrays the kind of overwhelming sense that words like “paradigm shift” and “radical change” can evoke, when she asks:

“I also wonder if it is possible to so radically go about overhauling a system so based in the growth model, as The Carbon Reader suggests. I want to farther understand how the book proposes we do this, for the change would in effect encompass every layer of our economic, social and governmental system. This dilemma is something I have come up against a lot in my studies and beliefs, because I do believe that radical change is needed on many fronts in our system, in order for humans to thrive as a whole; however, I want to work for things that are actually possible.”

Certainly the questions she asks are at the heart of the matter of what sustainability really involves. All of you wrestle with this in your comments, and with the economic changes that underlie a systems-overhaul. Some examples of your thinking on economics and sustainability:

Sterling writes:

“I like to keep it simple and I think sustainability is pretty much like it says; the ability to sustain. This is in reference to some sort of ecosystem that uses resources to keep itself going. Resources can be anything money, food, labor or even something simple like clean water. What is our ability to keep these resources from drying up? Are we using too much? I think sustainability is about identifying these factors and coming up with solutions to sustain our environment.”

Spencer adds:

“What I think is holding us back form accomplishing a modern world that is also sustainable, is greed. Money can do some great things, but it can also be disastrous.”

And Lisa provides an excellent supporting statistic for her observation on money, power, and change:

“Yesterday, the humanitarian NGO (non-governmental organization) Oxfam released a report that stated 85 individuals own as much of the world’s wealth as the least wealthy 3 billion people… Money and financial value are culturally constructed concepts. And wealth is really a synonym for power. If this is true we can safely say that these 85 people have the ability to influence major corporations as well as government policies to maintain their share of power. The rest of us have dwindling amounts of power to influence levels of social and environmental sustainability…. This is where citizen journalism comes in.”

I think you hit the nail on the head, there, Lisa. In the context of sustainability, citizen journalism is tasked with the same level of responsibility as each of us individuals are: to effect a transformation of cultural consciousness. Taken as a whole, it’s an impossible task. But if we consider what change involves on a personal and local level, we can begin to see pathways to this transformation.

Bernell, for example, discusses his own significant work in creating such pathways:

“I started a computer-recycling program. Every three months we collect used computers from various companies and we recycle them and give them to low-income families and to entry-level college students. In the past 3 years of operation I was able to recycle close to 1,200 computers and employ 26 part time students whom learned how to repair computers and prepare for their A+ certification. So I’ve learned firsthand if we can just make better use of what we have in front of us we can extend our precious resources for the next generation. In short, sustainability means life for our future by governing what we use in the present.”

 Lisa further connects the dots between citizen journalism and grass-roots activism in her comment:

“My Google search of the phrase “off the grid heating” resulted in 10,500,000 results in .33 seconds! I selected the “images” tab and a myriad of photos depicting solar panels, wind turbines, stoves, battery units, and other designs I wasn’t immediately familiar with appeared. The ability for off the grid homesteaders to share their successes in finding alternative methods of providing heat and electricity in their homes is an excellent contribution to citizen journalism. These bloggers provide concrete ways of moving from the unsustainable practice of relying on fossil fuels to ushering in the post carbon era.”

And Tessa Lou, in her comments on We the Media, reflects on the potential for empowerment that citizen journalism has demonstrated when she writes:

“I think that We the Media… encourages individuals not to underestimate the power of their own voices. I love that it gives concrete examples of the power of individual reporting and ‘speaking out’, as it were. I have believed for a long time that our cultural obsession with celebrity, leaders and role models (even), is a means to disempowerment. If we believe that we must have a great leader to organize the success of a movement we are in effect useless on our own.”

William Rees, who developed the concept of the ecological footprint, writes that ”Resilience science is based on the simple premise that change is inevitable and that attempts to resist change or control it in any strict sense are doomed to failure” (Post Carbon Reader, 31).

Citizen journalism offers us each a chance to steer the cultural conversations handed down to us from big media in new directions, and to create altogether different conversations in our efforts to work toward social sustainability (see Post Carbon Reader pp. 21-23). Perhaps we have more power than we think in relation to the Goliath of corporate capitalism that seeks so entirely to resist or control change.

Himanee, a long-time professional journalist (who, I am very happy to say, will be sharing some of her experiences in professional journalism with us when we meet at the residency), implies a kind of sustainability to citizen journalism, as well a participatory model that touches upon the social aspect of sustainability, when she writes:

“I see Citizen Journalism as an aspect of helping to sustain the future of journalism. We can make it a lasting profession that is better, more connected and more responsible than the mainstream industry has been in recent decades. I am observing to learn, and I look forward to learning from all of you.”

At the same time, our power to encourage positive change through citizen journalism can only be as great as our ability to think differently about things, to think in new ways, to think across disciplines, across boundaries (like nature/culture, reason/emotion, us/them). Lori expresses this idea nicely, when she writes:

“I feel that Citizen Journalism is a grass roots format within the journalism realm in which John Q. Public can get in-depth and reliable information on what is happening around them especially when it comes to anything related to the environment. This format is like anything else on the great worldwide web…as a consumer, it is your responsibility to do your own research to verify the content of what you read and choose what to believe as fact.”

I’ll end this post by a very perceptive question by Tessa Lou:

“The dilemma here is if I then work on these small fronts that do not really address the systemic issues, but may help in small areas, am I in effect undermining my purpose?”

Anybody have any thoughts on this?