The Nissan Leaf, the world's first mass produced electric car, was presented as the 2011 World Car of the Year at the New York International Auto Show. Photo by Richard Drew/AP.
The New York Auto show opened to the public today at the Jacob Javits Convention
Center in Manhattan.
It’s the biggest auto show in North America. But the timing for carmakers isn’t great. The price for gasoline is hovering around 4 dollars a gallon. Fuel efficiency is on the mind of many Americans, and many automakers.
The Javitts Center is packed. But a lot people are just window-shopping. Families are here with their kids to look at the pretty cars. There’s a long line in front of the new 20-11 Porsche Carrera Cabriolet… people are taking turns sitting in the drivers seat and posing for pictures.
A tourist visiting from Pennsylvania says she’s not looking to buy, but there’s one type of car she’d consider. “I’m interested in hybrids, so I can get better gas mileage,” she said.
Carmakers have predicted this. Hybrid and electric models are the main focus this year.
James Horsefield came alone… he’s going from car to car, his hands full of brochures and catalogues, and feeling concerned. “They’re paying 5 dollars in Washington DC, I work in Washington D.C area so I’ve seen the prices go way up… so it has to be a concern,” he said.
That’s why many automakers seem to be edging away from gas altogether. There are many models of electric car on display. Kevin Smith, a Marketing executive for Lotus, is standing in front of four of the company’s sports model. One of which is electric.
“We’re currently developing vehicles that will have range-extending engines on board to recharge the battery packs while driving,” Smith said.
Nearby, BMW and Nissan are sharing their electric models. Nissan’s is called the Leaf. Despite this hopeful environmental focus to all the marketing, no one is mentioning it much but the show is falling on Earth Day. They’re also not talking much about President Obama’s speech yesterday when he admitted that gas prices was a serious issue but there’s no comprehensive strategy for the future.
The New York Auto Show will run at the Jacob Javits Convention Center until May 1st.
Commentator Linda Abi Assi speaks three languages–French, Arabic and English–and is a citizen of both France and Lebanon, her country of origin. Recently an American friend overheard her switch languages while talking on the phone with her sister, and asked Abi Assi which language she thought in. She realized thinking in one language while juggling two others is central to who she is: both a Lebanese native and a perennial expatriate.
Lebanese people have a standard greeting: “hi, kifak, ca va?” which, roughly translated, means “hi, how are you?”… using, in that order, English, Arabic and French words. It’s become a running joke in the country and was even made into a tee shirt that’s popular with tourists.
Mixing these languages is an unmistakably Lebanese trait: kind of like fighting over who gets to pay the check in restaurants, always being late, or making fun of Syrians.
Lebanese children wave French flags as they stand in front of a Lebanese national flag. Photo by Petros Karadjias/AP
We’re trilingual because Lebanon was under French mandate for more than 20 years until independence came in 1943. But the official language is Arabic, and some of the country’s best universities are American universities. I went to one of these, and that’s when I really began to speak English on a regular basis.
My first language was French, and as a teenager I sort of looked down on the mixed up Lebanese way of talking: it means we’re a nation with terrible grammar. But when I moved to Paris at 21, something awful happened… miles from home, I found myself speaking in the exact way I’d resented for so long.
Suddenly I had to always pay attention to the way I spoke in public. Otherwise, I would blurt out random Arabic words like ya3ne, khalas, eno, hek–basically “well, like, or because”… along with the occasional English word when, inexplicably, I couldn’t think of how to say it in French. To this day, “yalla” – similar to “come on” or “let’s go” in English- is part of my everyday vocabulary, not to mention I still swear exclusively in Arabic.
My age has a lot to do with the way I talk. I was born in Beirut in the late 1980s … during a civil war that tore Lebanon to shreds for almost fifteen years. When I was 2, my parents decided it would be safer to move to to France.
Despite my parents’ best efforts, my sisters and I never learned Arabic there, but when I was 9 we moved back to Lebanon. My Arabic illiteracy didn’t matter in some ways: I went to a French school and I lived in a French-speaking neighborhood. But something was missing. People often assumed I was French because of my slight French accent but I never felt French, nor did I ever feel truly Lebanese. I felt like—and I was– an outsider.
After I decided to become a journalist, I quickly realized I would never make it in Lebanon if I didn’t learn Arabic. I particularly remember a press conference given by then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora that I had to cover for a French-written newspaper. I remember how baffled I was when he started speaking Arabic. I kept expecting for someone to translate but it wasn’t long before I realized I was probably the only non-Arabic speaker in the room.
One of the first things I taught myself was the Lebanese anthem.
It starts…all for the country, for the glory, for the flag… Learning it made my patriotism kick in. I realized that mixing the three languages actually makes me feel like I belong.
It’s been two years now since I left the country so I’ve kind of lost the habit. But whenever I speak to another Lebanese person, Yalla, eno, hek, ya3ne… somehow resurface. And at last, I’m fine with that.
Linda Abi Assi is currently pursuing a masters in journalism in New York and hopes her language skills will come in handy for her future profession… as long as she can resist the urge to mix different languages in the same sentences.
People from all over the world come to New York City with big hopes and grand dreams. Jacob Anderson moved here less than a year ago to attend school, but for him, New York was already a place full of vivid memories.
Lower Manhattan, January 2011. Photo by Jacob Anderson
It was September 11th, 2002, the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, and my brothers and I were at ground zero, yelling at a man. He had tried to sell us one of those glossy commemorative magazines, with all the grisly pictures from a year before, from the first plane crash to the final collapse and
everything in between.
The reason we were angry, and in New York in the first place, was because our grandmother was on board that first plane.
Tim, Matt and I faced off with the guy. “Our grandma died, and you’re making money off it?”
I don’t remember what he yelled back, but we’d made our point. This was our tragedy. Not his.
Barbara Keating was 72. She’d been visiting my aunts and uncles in Massachusetts. She was flying home to Palm Springs, California.
She was the kind of grandma that I only saw once or twice a year. As a kid, I always thought of her as distant and old. She spent a lot of time sitting on the couch, reading. Or drinking coffee and doing crosswords. But as I got older myself, reading and crosswords seemed more appealing, and so did she. I felt like I was just getting to know her.
I was 21, living in the suburbs of Chicago. I found out about the attack from my friend who called me to cancel breakfast. She had grown up in Long Island. Her mom had worked in the towers years ago. The first TV I saw showed Manhattan completely enveloped by a brownish cloud, after the second tower had collapsed. It wasn’t until around noon that day that the school chaplain’s secretary pulled me out of class to call home. My dad picked up on the first ring, and told me the news.
I became a minor-celebrity at my small college. I was the only one anyone knew who knew someone. People grieved vicariously through me.
But I was disoriented. I didn’t know where to put my own sadness. I certainly couldn’t put it in New York. It was too far away, too alien, too abstract.
That started to change when I first came to ground zero, with my mom in October 2001. I surveyed the jagged rubble. The wind whipped up ashes and dust, and I inhaled. I sat through the service in a plastic folding chair, studying a postcard of the old skyline, figuring out where the towers had been relative to the other buildings, and how tall. I tilted my head back and tried to pinpoint the exact location in the sky my grandma had died.
But the most important part of that day were the people I saw. A thick man’s stone face cracked into tears. A wailing woman fainted. A mother stood with her son and daughter, who were both around my age. They just stared into the mess. They were strangers, but didn’t seem like it. Seeing their pain let me feel mine more fully.
A fireman took our bouquet and hiked out to a pile of debris. I watched him, and when he laid the flowers down I said goodbye to my grandma. The fireman came back and handed me a fist-sized chunk of concrete from one of the towers. I took home a piece of the city, and some part of me became a New Yorker that day.
But still, before I moved here nine months ago, I thought of 9/11 mostly as a personal loss, which I happened to share with the country. But I’ve come to realize it is the city’s tragedy too. I love living in New York. When friends from Chicago ask me why, I tend to slip into cliches–there’s just this energy, I say. A pulse. But I think another reason the city stimulates me so much is that I’m always paying attention, watching and listening for some glimpse, some snippet to help me understand what it meant when the pulse stopped that day, and what it means now.
I live near Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. A few weeks ago I was walking through the park, past the new ping-pong table, and one of the guys playing announced the score with extra enthusiasm: “9-11!” It got a chuckle out of his opponent, and a silent one from me too. It’s been almost ten years now, and living here for the last year has made me even less defensive, more receptive. Some people here make jokes, which I take as a form of remembrance. Some people make a buck selling pictures from that day. I might be able to tolerate them, too. New concrete has been poured at ground zero. I’m studying my new city like I studied that postcard, orienting myself.
I haven’t talked to a lot of New Yorkers about September 11th. It’s enough for me to know I’m not the only one who knew someone, and it feels like being home–a place where I’m normal.
This month an icon of New York club culture was resurrected for one night: The Paradise Garage. The club opened in a parking garage on King Street in 1976. It was the members-only headquarters of the underground dance scene for over a decade.
For black and Latino members of the gay community, it was also a place to feel accepted and safe. For DJs, it was and is remembered as a venue where legends launched their careers … and where house music burst onto the New York City scene. Artists like Madonna, Patty Labelle and Whitney Houston performed there before their names meant anything in pop culture.
But in the mid-1980s, AIDS began to decimate Garage members. When owner Michael Brody himself fell ill, the club was forced to close its doors.
Linette Lopez takes a look at how the legend of the Paradise Garage lives on, and who is keeping it alive.
On an early spring night in Greenwich Village, over a thousand people were gathering for a family reunion. Some of them hadn’t seen each other in years, and they were eager to reminisce.
“When I was 19 years old in 1980, we used to go there and dance,” said one former member. Rob and his friends are waiting to get into the Paradise Garage anniversary party. The line outside host club Le Poisson Rouge stretched down Bleeker Street, buzzing with excitement.
At the door, a tall black man dressed in leopard print from his top hat to his platform shoes is peering under his sunglasses at a list of ticket holders. His name is Ricott. The party organizers put him up front because he was once a character at the Garage. They knew the faithful would remember him–or vice versa. Ricott remembers a lot.
“Boy George came one time,” Ricott said. “He had on pumps. Now this Boy George, in the 80s one of his pumps broke. And he was out there on the floor hopping around,” he continued laughing.
Inside, former Garagers, now middle aged, sing along to the music, playing tambourines and blowing whistles. To join the Garage family they had to answer questions… “Are you gay friendly? Are you open minded?” The membership cards issued at the end of successful interviews were valuable. Ricott says every night non-members loitered outside to bribe cardholder.
“They would pay you 3,4,5,600 dollars to get them into the club,” Ricott said. “And trust me, we took the money.”
Until the 1971, it was illegal for gay New Yorkers to publicly assemble to drink or dance. The change in law coincided with the rise of dance clubs in New York nightlife. The Paradise Garage was conceived as a club for black and Latino gays. But owner Michael Brody welcomed anyone who was accepting of that to join the party–which went from midnight to midday.
David DePino was a protege of the Garage’s resident DJ, Larry Levan. He says at the Paradise Garage he and Levan played for two different dance floors, a lounge, and a rooftop. It was a large space, but DePino says the club still felt intimate.
“It was a house party basically, you came to my house I feed you, you have beverages,” DePino said. “There was no charge for anything once you got inside there was no liquor. It was juice, food, the movies the movie theater was free.”
These amenities cost Garage members a monthly fee of under $20. For the first year the club wasn’t even finished, and hosted “construction parties”. For the first five years there was no sign outside. There was also no doorman to choose who was in or out of this club- quite the opposite of its glamorous contemporary.
“Studio 54 was glitzy, Garage was not glitzy,” DePino said. “Studio 54 was beautiful, mirrors and lights and this and the Garage was dark and incredible sounds and lights that enhanced your dancing, not lights that you would stand around and watch.”
There was a reason for this: owner Michael Brody thought that when dancers saw themselves in mirrors, they became self-conscious. The Garage was about escaping all that. You entered the club up a ramp that was lit like the hull of a space ship. Inside the pitch back walls and floors were insulated to prevent sound from escaping. Music blared from what was widely considered the best sound system in New York City, says New York DJ Bruce Tantum. Tantum also edits Time Out New York’s Nightlife section, and says Larry Levan was an innovator even on New York’s vibrant DJ community.
“What set him apart from almost every DJ then and DJs still to this day was the chances he would take,” Tantum said. “He would play any kind of music, didn’t matter what it was.”
Levan became a one-man scene with a cult following. Garage goers remember him as flamboyant and wiry with a flair for the dramatic. They say they could tell how he was feeling from his sets. Record labels took notice, and asked him to remix songs for them. The late Frankie Crocker, a radio jockey at R&B station WBLS, used to go to Paradise Garage to hear Levan play and leave the club with unlabeled, unreleased records to put on the radio. Those records became club anthems across the country, like “Is it all over my face” by Loose Joints.
Tantum says Levan and the Garage also championed a new kind of music coming out of Chicago… house.
“We tend to forget but house was pretty much exclusively a gay only music back then,” Tantum said. “The Garage and Larry were among the first New Yorkers to pick up on it. A lot of that was because Larry was such in important figure he was just getting the music before anyone else.”
And musicians wanted to play the Garage. Popular disco acts took the stage. Loletta Holloway and Grace Jones gave frequent performances. Some, like Mick Jagger and Diana Ross, just went to hang out with Levan. Again- no alcohol was served. But revelers might be taking amphetamines like poppers, sniffing ethyl rags, or spiking the punch with LSD. All to enhance the sounds of Garage favorites like the Peech Boys.
The free-for-all atmosphere of the Paradise Garage didn’t end with drugs: the club was also known for promiscuous sex. Robert Fullilove teaches Sociomedical science at Columbia University. He studies how minority communities are affected by the spread of HIV/AIDS…dating FROM the start of the epidemic in the 1980s. He points out that the unusually inclusive membership of the Garage meant more partygoers were exposed to the virus.
“It’s clear that the intersection of all these different demographic groups, the connections that were made between all these networks, provided a unique way in which people in which HIV could find new folk with whom they could interact,” Fullilove said. “And as a result of these interactions, created the perfect conditions, the perfect storm for the spread of HIV.”
Fullilove says that, at the time, a lot of blacks and Latinos viewed HIV/AIDS as a problem exclusive to gay white men. So they weren’t taking measures to protect themselves. And the virus spread rapidly. DJ David DePino watched this happen right before his eyes.
“I buried 15 friends in one month,” DePino said. “They had all these different excuses on why they weren’t coming out and then they would come out once and you wouldn’t see them for 2 or 3 weeks and then you’d hear so and so passed away.”
Outside the walls of Paradise Garage, the white gay community was rallying fight the disease.
In 1982, Mel Cheren, one of the initial Paradise Garage investors, donated his downtown bed and breakfast to Gay Men’s Health Crises (G-M-H-C), an organization founded to stop the epidemic and raise awareness about HIV’s transmission.
He also got Garage owner Michael Brody involved, and that same year the Garage hosted New York’s first AIDS fundraiser.
Brody himself was diagnosed with HIV in 1987. At the same time, the Garage’s lease ended. But the neighborhood was becoming residential and the landlord did not want Brody to re-sign. Brody was too weak to scout for another location, so the Garage closed its doors.
The Paradise Garage logo is a man flexing his bicep tattoed with the club’s name. When Brody died, Mel Cheren inherited the rights to it. Later, when Cheren was diagnosed with AIDS, he made his own plans for the logo, says Krishna Stone of the Gay Men’s Health Crises.
“He wanted the Paradise Garage trademark to forever be connected to AIDS activism and fundraising and true to his word that trademark was bequeathed to GMHC after he died,” Stone said.
The man on the logo is also holding a tambourine in his hand. His head is bowed, and the instrument resting next to his ear. Stone says that represents his close connection to the music.
“We really need to keep coming together as a community,” Stone said. “And keep dancing and singing to the songs that were played in these clubs because we all know the words, a lot of the folks who go to these parties. It’s a way of building community to keep doing the work.”
Gay Men’s Health Crises maintains other deep connections to the Garage: Larry Levan’s DJ protégés volunteer their efforts too. David DePino says it’s because what he witnessed in the 80s changed him forever. He’s still not sure how he survived.
“I was always the chubby one in my group and maybe if I wasn’t the chubby one and I had the beautiful body and all that I would’ve been more promiscuous,” DePino said.
He says he spins at these reunion parties to celebrate with those who are still here.
“Because we came through a war,” DePino said. “AIDS was a war, it was a battle.”
This is part of why DePino has mostly retired from DJing now. He says memories of friends he’s lost haunt him when he looks down at a dance floor. He’s interested in the new generation of DJs making their way. Some of them are carrying on the legacy of the Garage.
On a deserted industrial street in Bushwick, Mister Saturday Night is throwing one of its moving underground parties. They pop up in New York about twice a month–advertised mainly through word of mouth. Attendees come to dance until dawn. DJs Justin Carter and Eamon Harkin created the fictional host to throw a party that’s liberating and positive. Sometimes that means partygoers show up in Power Ranger costumes or clear a section to dance by themselves. Harkin knows that the Garage originated parties like this in New York, but no one here is nostalgic.
“I don’t really know what it’s like other than the legend,” Harkin said. “We’re not trying to replicate it, we’re trying to do something that is interesting and exciting for New York right now.”
New York right now is not a place of secret mega-clubs and mysterious epidemics. But people are still hungry for what the Paradise Garage gave them at its best. Inside Mr. Saturday Night, the music is front and center. People sip drinks and smile as they dance with their eyes closed. The floor is packed with 500 dancers, and there are no mirrors.
THE HISTORY OF HOUSE — FROM DISCO TO BURNING MAN
Play through or click on icons throughout the timeline for more information and samples of house music over the years.
A participant checks his calorie scorecard during a diabetes prevention class at a YMCA in Indianapolis. Photo by Michael Conroy/AP.
A recent study shows that by the year twenty-25, as many as 15 percent of New Yorkers could be dealing with type 2 diabetes. The Institute for Alternative Future’s study says it could mean an almost 50 percent increase in a little less than two decades.
As part of a nationwide effort, the YMCA is expanding its 16-session Diabetes Prevention Program to several locations in New York City. The goal is to help people at risk of developing the disease prevent it through better nutrition and exercise.
Diabetes is a chronic illness. It occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, a hormone meant to control blood sugar. There are two types: type 1 is usually diagnosed in childhood. Type II is far more common, and often begins in adulthood. It’s usually caused by lifestyle with diet, family history and age being the biggest risk factors.
“Diabetes is an insidious disease especially type II diabetes, so you can have it without having any symptoms,” said Ronald Tamler, a diabetes specialist at the Mount Sinai Diabetes Center.
Diabetes is an irreversible diagnosis, but it’s not unavoidable. Tamler says people who have pre-diabetes, a condition that precedes type-2 diabetes, have to take significant steps to keep from developing it.
“In many cases, it’s preventable,” he said. “Not only is it preventable but it’s preventable without taking any medication; changing your life has a bigger impact than any medication – isn’t that important, isn’t that fascinating?”
The answer to avoiding diabetes is to eat less and exercise more. But that’s easier said than done and changing one’s habits takes a lot of commitment… and a certain push.
On a Wednesday night, Kerry Watterson is getting on a treadmill at the Vanderbilt Y, on East 47th street. He pushes the buttons and starts a slow jog.
“I’ve been coming 2 to 3 times a week, typically to do cardio, circa-training, the pool… some classes,” he said.
Watterson’s decision to get healthy was mainly motivated by fear. He watched his mother struggle with diabetes for 20-years, and that prompted him to get tested.
“About 2 and a half years ago, she ended up in a wheelchair,” Watterson said. “So my brothers and I were talking about how we have to change our futures but we all sat around and did nothing, apart from my older brother who lost 100 pounds on his own… so I decided I needed to do something about this.”
Watterson’s motivation came just in time. He was officially diagnosed pre-diabetic… so he turned to the YMCA.
Pilot programs for the Diabetes Prevention Program have already been operating at two of the city’s YMCAs for the past six months, including the Vanderbilt Y, where Watterson goes. He started the 16-week group-based program in August of last year; he’s since lost 22 pounds.
“It was hard,” Watterson said. “I’m 35, I’ve been overweight for 25 of these 35 years but I recognized I needed to make a change; otherwise I would end up like my mom in that wheelchair, and it wasn’t good enough for me.”
Watterson says he has some more weight to lose, but he’s keeping with the program. Jack Lund is the president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater New York. He says what differentiates the Y’s program from other diabetes program is that it’s fairly accessible to all, including communities of color and low-income communities where the prevalence of type II diabetes is almost double the national average.
“It amazes me that so many New Yorkers are pre-diabetic and yet almost 93 percent don’t even know it,” Lund said. “So there’s an enormous amount of public awareness that has to occur and it has to occur through channels, in neighborhoods, through trusted institutions like the Y and others.”
Lund says the Y is uniquely positioned to tackle the problem…
“One of the nice things about the New York City Y is we’re in every neighborhood and we’re in all 5 boroughs and we have about 150 satellite sites around the city,” Lund said. “So we really do have a fairly strong presence in every community.”
The YMCA of Greater New York has already started to implement the program in all of its centers across the city. To qualify, individuals must be overweight and have already been diagnosed with pre-diabetes by a physician.
Today the United States began deploying remotely operated combat planes, called Predator Drones, in Libya.
These drones have been operating in Pakistan for some time.
But there are still ethical and logistical concerns about fighting a war in the Middle East from a control room in Nevada.
Robert Owen is a former combat pilot and Professor of Aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. He says it’s important to remember that these aren’t robots with the power to kill – there is always a human being in control.
Every year, New York City dumps billions of gallons of raw sewage into its waterways. Not only is that unpleasant — but the city could face hefty fines if it doesn’t clean up its act. The city has recently come up with a new plan to address the problem — a plan based on so-called “green infrastructure.” It’s not going to stop sewage from overflowing entirely. But as Willow Belden reports, experts and community groups alike hope it will make a major difference.
Interactive graphic by Jonah Comstock.
Story by Willow Belden
Second Avenue in Brooklyn is a noisy, industrial street that dead-ends into the Gowanus Canal. There’s a maze of buses parked at the end of the cul de sac.
Hans Hesselein picks his way around the pot holes and steps out into a small, grassy park on the southeastern bank of the canal. A big green sign warns visitors not to swim. The Gowanus polluted with toxic chemicals, and this spot is a discharge point for sewage.
Hesselein says he was here last summer during a downpour — and he saw sewage pouring into the canal.
“There was just this huge, violent swelling of water rippling the surface,” Hesselein said. “And this pitch black cloud, filled with all kinds of floating debris just spread across the water like an oil slick.”
This spot on the Gowanus Canal is one of hundreds of locations around the city where raw sewage is discharged into the water. (Photo by Jonah Comstock)
Most of it was human excrement.
“And it smelled,” Hesselein said. “Oh my goodness — You can imagine what it smelled like. It was all sewage.”
This spot on the Gowanus is one of more than 450 places across the city where raw sewage is discharged into the water. It happens whenever it rains hard.
Here’s how it works:
Step one: It starts raining.
Step two: The rain runs off of rooftops and streets and sidewalks … and flows into the sewers.
Most of New York City has what are called “combined sewers.” That means rainwater from the street mixes with wastewater from your bathroom and kitchen.
As a result, any time it rains, the sewage treatment plants have to deal with a lot more liquid.
“The systems — the treatment plants — in New York are generally able to treat twice what’s called the dry weather flow,” saidKevin Bricke, the director of environmental planning and protection at the regional office of the EPA.
Even with a moderate rainfall, the city gets significantly more than that.
When the capacity of the system is exceeded, the excess volume — i.e. rainwater mixed with raw sewage — overflows into the waterways around the city. That’s called “combined sewer overflow” — or CSO. The city’s waterways get about 30 billion gallons of it every year. That’s more than 45,000 Olympic swimming pools full of sewage.
Signs like this one warn visitors about sewage discharge points near parks and beaches. (Photo by Jonah Comstock)
Some of the release points are near beaches, so when it rains, swimming is off limits. And people who live and work near discharge locations say the smell is sometimes nauseating.
But there’s a bigger problem. A legal problem.
The Clean Water Act makes it illegal to dump contaminants — including sewage — into U.S. waters. Cities can get permits allowing them to discharge some waste — but they have to prove that they’re working to remedy the situation.
“The city of New York is already in the process of developing what are called long-term control plans,” said Bricke. “These are their plans to abate combined sewer overflows and achieve the goals of the act. … They’re doing that under an order that they have with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.”
Until recently, the plans focused on increasing the capacity of the sewer system — building more tanks and pipes. That’s what’s called a “gray infrastructure” approach.
It’s expensive, though. A recent upgrade to a plant in Brooklyn cost five billion dollars.
And there’s another problem. Carter Strickland, director of sustainability at the city’s Department for Environmental Protection, says gray infrastructure treats the symptoms — not the disease.
“The fundamental cause of our wet-weather issues in urban areas is the fact that when you build a dense city … you have a lot of impervious areas,” Strickland said. “You cover things with roads and roofs and whatnot. … So address the fundamental root cause of the problem, we need to make our impervious areas effectively pervious.”
In other words, we need to make New York City more like a natural environment, where the ground — not the sewer system — handles the rainwater.
That’s what the city is trying to do now: Not focus exclusively on gray infrastructure, but instead add what’s called “greeninfrastructure.” The new plan includes measures designed to stop storm water from entering the sewers in the first place.
“Green infrastructure gets to the root of the problem in a way that gray infrastructure doesn’t,” Strickland said.
There are several different types of green infrastructure.
One is being tested right now on a parking lot in New Jersey. The lot is made out of “porous pavement,” which is designed to let water seep through into the ground below.
Pat Pozzolano is in charge of testing the pavement for the EPA — to see how well it works. He picks up a plastic container with a precisely measured amount of water and empties the bucket onto the porous concrete.
The water disappears into the pavement almost instantly.
“That was 3.6 liters, and that flowed through at a little over five seconds,” Pozzolano says as he scribbles numers in a notebook.
Mike Borst, a chemical engineer with the EPA, says the pavement is tested every month.
“None of these have ever demonstrated runoff,” Borst said. “All the water that has hit it has gone in.”
Up to 960 inches of rain per hour can flow through porous concrete, which Borst says is 100 times more than almost any rain event.
There’s another way to get water to go into the ground: Get rid of the pavement, and replace it with “rain gardens.”
Rain gardens are gardens that are specifically designed to absorb stormwater.
The Gowanus Canal Conservancy is planning to rip out part of the sidewalks on this block and install rain gardens to absorb stormwater. (Photo by Jonah Comstock)
Hans Hesselein, who works for the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, is about to install a series of rain gardens, not far from where he saw the sewer overflow last summer.
He walks up the street away from the Gowanus.Workers bustle around the open doors of warehouses. Vehicles stand idle on the sidewalks. There’s not a tree in sight. Not yet, anyway.
The Gowanus Conservancy is planning to put in seven long, narrow gardens along the edges of the street.
“We hope to absorb all of the rain that falls on the sidewalk and the street itself, and channel it into basic rain gardens with street trees and shrubs,” Hesselein said.
The beds will be slightly lower than the surrounding areas, so water will flow off the pavement and into them. They’ll only take up half the width of the sidewalk. But if Hesselein’s calculations are right, the two and a half blocks where they’re installed won’t send any water into the sewers.
The city’s Department of Environmental Protection is funding this project and several others that community groups are undertaking.
The city also has more than 30 green infrastructure projects of its own in the works. It’s making green roofs — which are basically rain gardens on top of buildings. And blue roofs — where they essentially turn the roofs into swimming pools.
“We have pretty much every technology that’s practical built on a pilot scale, and we’re starting the monitoring this spring,” Strickland said.
Monitoring — to see how effective green infrastructure is.
The city expects that it will actually work better than gray infrastructure — and cost less.
DEP has estimated that building more tanks and pipeswould reduce CSOs by 30 percent. Add in green infrastructure,and they say we’ll reduce sewer overflows by 40percent.
Environmental experts say that’s plausible.
“Green infrastructure can be very effective in terms of volume reduction for stormwater management,” said Robert Roseen, director of the Stormwater Centerat the University of New Hampshire.
Roseen is working on a study about green infrastructure, and he says cities like Chicago and Portland, Oregon are successfully reducing their CSOs — and saving money — through green measures.
“Cost savings for CSO management with green infrastructure are often in the 20 to 30 percent ranges,” Roseen said. “And when you’re talking billion dollar price tags, that’s a lot.”
But green infrastructure isn’t a panacea.
Combined sewer overflows are particularly noticeable on Newtown Creek because the water is nearly stagnant. (Photo by Jonah Comstock)
Porous pavement may be good at keeping water out of the sewers. But Mike Borst, the EPA engineer, says that in the few places where it’s been used on roadways, it’s fallen apart three times as fast as normal pavement.
Some environmental groups also worry that the city’s green infrastructure plan doesn’t go far enough.
Katie Schmid, director of the Newtown Creek Alliance, likes the idea of green infrastructure. In fact, her group is redoing a park in Bushwick to add more soil and trees.
Schmid says the trees will help soak up stormwater in the Newtown Creek watershed. But she’s concerned that initiatives like this won’t be enough to solve the creek’s problems.
“You can make a huge difference with green infrastructure if you commit to it, you make every street tree pit capture stormwater, if you green enough city property as you can,” Schmid said. “But the caveat to that is that we need more than a big difference on Newtown Creek. We are radically under any sort of attainment standards. … And you have decades and decades of sewage just sitting on the bottom of the creek.”
The city’s green infrastructure plan would only keep ten percentof the rainwater out of the sewers. And environmental officials like Kevin Bricke say that even that is going to be hard to achieve.
“It’s much easier to implement green infrastructure measures when you’re doing new development, which you’re not going to find a lot of in New York City,” Bricke said. “When you’re retrofitting in an existing area, you can still achieve some objectives but not the same level of objective.”
The city is trying to encourage private individuals to help out by adding green infrastructure to their property. There’s a tax break for green roofs, and a fee that parking lot owners have to pay if they don’t manage their stormwater runoff.
The DEP is also giving out grants for green infrastructure projects, like the rain gardens by the Gowanus Canal. The deadline for applications is next Friday. And the groups that are selected will have a year to carry out the projects.
Where are the sewer discharge points (and public beaches) near you? Click for a larger map. (Map courtesy EPA).