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District 12 suggests, it is thought that 14% of the population is unemployed (though for this particular figure they do not cite their source).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 DNAinfo.com, 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 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.