North Shore, Staten Island
Staten Island Community District 1 (CD 1), the most densely populated and ethnically diverse section of Staten Island, covers the entire area north of Staten Island expressway. Its poverty and rent burden levels, as well as racial and ethnic makeup, are more similar to other parts of New York City than the rest of Staten Island. There is a Significant Maritime Industrial Area (SMIA) located along its shoreline that is one of the busiest working waterfronts in New York City. While SuperStorm Sandy had devastating impacts on the South and East shores of the island, the damage in the North Shore was relatively light but resulted in significant amounts of environmental contamination. Wastewater processing was compromised due to damage to the Port Richmond Water Pollution Control Plant on the waterfront, and flood waters coming through industrial and brownfield areas led to surface and soil contamination.
The North Shore Waterfront Conservancy of Staten Island
The North Shore Waterfront Conservancy of Staten Island (NSWCSI) is a community based organization “formed in 2000 by a group of environmentally concerned citizens living near the manufacturing zones located on the north shore of Staten Island. We are committed to the revitalization of our communities and waterfront making them sustainable, healthy and viable” (http://www.nswcsi.org/board-staff/about-us/ ). It was incorporated in 2003 with a 501-C3 Charitable Status.
NSWCSI’s mission is to advance and promote increased safe and sustainable public access to the waterfront; to build healthier, greener communities along the Kill Van Kull; to advance public policies and laws to be inclusive of the needs of Staten Island’s North Shore environmental justice communities and waterfront communities, while working with civic associations, neighborhoods and environmental groups, businesses, industries, government agencies and the general public, like you! (http://www.nswcsi.org/)
NSWCSI is a membership organization with a differential fee structure for seniors/students, basic/families, patrons, benefactors and corporate sponsors. They do outreach to communities through the civic associations.
NSWCSI has a board of directors that is predominantly women.
NSWCSI does not own its space. They have access to space at the Reformed CHurch of Staten Island, when needed.
Budget and main sources of funding
Most of the time, we're somewhere between ten thousand to maybe fifteen thousand [dollars]. The most we've ever had in our budget was maybe sixty-five thousand dollars. And that was just a fluke. We just happened to hit multiple grants, and they all came in around the same time, so we made it up to like sixty five thousand dollars.
Coalitions and partner organizations
NSWCSI partners with schools, academic institutions, and City agencies in conducting its activities.
When, how and why did you join the organization?
I'm actually a founding member. There is one other founding member on my board. I was president of the Port Richmond Civic Association, and going to CB 1 meetings, and talking with various people there. I met another woman -- she and I had been talking about the fact that we were having all of these businesses coming into the community that no one wanted. They're called LULUs, local unwanted land uses. She and I had been talking, and so at some point, we said we should form an organization. We started asking around to other civic leaders if they were interested in being part of a coalition where we're going to be addressing some of these businesses that are coming in and bringing in uses that we don't want, that only diminish the quality of life in our communities? That's how we began. We started with the Civic Association people with their leadership and that was the first group of the coalition in 2000. So, from 2000 to like 2003, at some point, that's when we said we need to become incorporated and we need to have our 501c3. But it really started from the Civic Association leaders.
When we initially started out everything was volunteer work, and all of us were working full time jobs. When I first joined the organization, I was the secretary. And then as the organization progressed and we continued on, I became the president of the organization and Executive Director. And only at that point in time did I start getting a little bit of a salary. Then in 2005, I started really doing NSWCSI full time instead of it being my second job.
One of the things when you're a grassroots organization is that you are accessible to everyone. You have people who have preconceived notions about who you are and what you were about until they actually get a chance to talk to you and hear why you took the stance that you did about certain issues. Once they actually hear what you're saying and they see the work that's being done to correct it, then their opinions change. But initially, you're that woman always making a ruckus, and you've got a big mouth.
The main thing is that you have to be creative when you're grassroots because you don't have an abundance of resources like the larger organizations. As grassroots, whether or not you will continue to exist each day is a bit of a challenge. And it's not just a bit, it's a whole lot of a challenge. But you're so devoted to what it is that you started out doing that you're willing to just make the sacrifices and usually they’re personal sacrifices, like you go ahead and you pay for stuff because you know there's no way that the organization can. And you just do that until your pot runs dry and then you're like, OK, we have to come up with a better way of doing this kind of thing. Hence, the 501c3 so that you can get some type of funding. And you don’t operate the way the larger organizations operate, you really are doing guerrilla warfare out here. You're showing up at meetings uninvited. You're getting the message out there. And even when they try to deter you, you just brush it off. You just let those insults roll right off and keep going. Because it's a worthwhile cause and you feel like it's going to make a difference to that organization.
Foundation and Evolution of NSWCSI
Government was going in the direction that the industries and the developers wanted it to go in. Residents had very little input whatsoever in what was being decided, but it was ultimately affecting us, and most of the time it was affecting us directly. It wasn't even a casual impact. It was always something that was extremely severe and something that would cause people to have to readjust their lives in a way where they had not planned for. And often it was a financial burden. Every single day there was another crisis that we were experiencing that we had absolutely no control over. So, the actual mission statement is a list of goals of what we wanted to see. We wanted to have waterfront access for all of the environmental justice communities that are at the waterfront, and at that time, we didn't realize the level of contamination. So, we needed to bring attention to the waterfront in order to engage people and get them accustomed to being at the waterfront. I would say our mission was extremely innocent at the time, and we didn't recognize what we would be going up against until we actually got into the process and started talking to property owners and businesses at the waterfront and then talking with our own officials and finding out that everybody was really happy just the way that it was. At the time, nobody was interested in changing it or how it was affecting the adjacent communities, which were communities of color. They were just like it's always been this way. And I remember officials saying to me, if you don't like it, you should move.
That's what it was like the first few years. It was really grueling, but I felt that the work that we were doing was necessary, and I think in some instances it paid off. We did our environmental justice booklet. The first one, Staten Island Gold Coast from St. George to Arlington, was the grounding that made agencies and our officials sit up and take notice. Before we did the booklet, I would tell them that we have a waterfront that was filled with contaminants from A to Z in terms of everything from arsenic tests to asbestos to zinc. At the other end of the spectrum, they would just kind of blow me off, but then we did the Gold Coast booklet and we started naming names in the booklet and identified 21 sites with contamination issues.
Most of the communities on the North Shore, with the exception of a couple of them, have civic associations. So, when we want to talk to the community about something that's happening there, we would go through the Civic Association. I would say I would like to speak to your membership, so the one thing that we've always tried to do is talk to the people in those communities. We find out what it is they want and what it is they don't want first and foremost. Then we support depending on what it is that they're saying they want. If they're like, we want a really huge development here and we don't care if we kill off a whole bunch of trees, we're not really down for that. So no, we're not going to support that. But if what they're doing makes sense, it's environmentally sensible and is sensible in terms of how it will affect the community, the community itself understands the impacts. That's one of the things we really do push when we have an agency coming in, and they're the lead agency on a project, we make sure they explain to the community as much as possible what are going to be the impacts and that they don't' lowball how it's going to affect the community.
The majority of the people that participate are women. It's a little bit harder getting the guys out for meetings. They normally don't want to sit through a meeting. That whole mind melting thing isn’t what they're into. When we have a meeting, it depends on what area we're in on Staten Island on the North Shore, and that would be the number of people that will attend. Each community is very much its own individual community, and so they come out for the things that are important to their specific community. So, in one community, depending on what the topic is, you can get 100 people out, and they will be as rowdy as all get based on what is being discussed. In another community, if you get six or seven people in the room, you're lucky. It really does vary, but the interesting thing is that if we have a meeting and there is some type of development going on, like when they were working on the Bayonne Bridge, which was the project from hell, initially we were lucky if we had maybe 10 people in the meeting. And then as the project progressed, more people started showing up because now they were starting to actually be impacted by what was happening with the raising of the Bayonne Bridge, which was just horrible. The things that have been done on the North Shore to the people of the North Shore, they just deserve an apology. They deserve a huge apology from the Port Authority, from the Army Corps of Engineers, from our officials who were all gung ho for this. And then when complaints started coming in, they found out how helpless they were to actually do anything to help their constituents. The people in the North Shore have taken a real beating over the years with projects that involve making the so-called ports more viable in bringing in cargo and whatnot.
In the Conservancy, now the majority of the board is women. We have one male on our board, who is our CFO and our treasurer. The initial board had more males in it but only one of them actually lived in the community. It was predominantly white and they were nice, but they weren't understanding what was going on. They would say things like, “you've got to be really humble and you've got to take baby steps”. And I was like, “our life expectancy isn’t that great, so I can't really wait on baby steps”.
Our board had to change so that I could get the work done that I felt needed to get done. So, we went through basically three changes. I needed like-minded people. I needed people that understood what these communities were going through. I needed people that were not going to be an obstacle in trying to get things done and would understand what the people in the communities were going through, the health issues that people were going through. No one has time to take baby steps. Nobody had time for that. What was happening in the neighborhoods was impacting people right then and right there, and we needed to have real solutions that we were working on so that they would get relief. And that was ultimately the main thing, giving them relief from their environment that was basically stressing and killing them in every way possible.
NSWCSI doesn’t own its space. There's a church called the Reformed Church of Staten Island. It's a beautiful old church. The first church was burnt down by the British, so this was the second church that was built in that spot. The church elder, Warren McKenzie, happens to be our CFO and our treasurer. Warren and I got to talking and we clicked. And then when it became time for us to actually have a space that we could do projects in, I asked him if we could use areas of the church to work on projects. And he said yes and even something like, if you want to set up your offices here you can. And that's what we did.
That's where we have our meetings and that’s where we do our lecture series. But I call this a dog and pony show because if need be, if the community won't come to us, I'll go to them. I pack my little case up wherever they are, and hand out materials and talk to them. I don't mind doing that because I want people to be well educated enough so that when they're being approached by a developer with a proposal to do something, they understand the impact of what is being asked of them.
I do most of my work at home. But when I need to have an office per say, if I'm inviting someone to come to the office space, that’s where we would meet. My board basically only uses it when we're doing something there. Once we started using that space, other organizations also started requesting if they could use their round room. A lot of people or organizations that want to have various events have asked if they could either use the Great Hall, which is down in the basement, or the Bible study room. It's one of those spaces where when you go in, and it's just gorgeous.
Achievements and Challenges
I started two programs. I had one for kids and we would invite students from the elementary school and their teachers and their principals if they wanted to come along with parents that were usually there. Then the other one I would be for adults which would be from various environmental organizations and civic organizations. There were at least a couple of churches. I would invite everybody and then see who would show up, who was curious enough to show up.
My major achievement was getting the U.S. EPA onto the North Shore and for them to do the remediation of the contaminated sites that we identified in the booklet that includes the John J. Jewett & Sons White Lead Company site (AKA) National Lead Industries . National Industries has a long history of lead poisoning that they never had to be held accountable for. The other one was them cleaning up Mariner’s Marsh Park. There was a coal tar site where in the summertime coal tar would bubble up to the surface and the stench could be smelled over at the public housing that's right adjacent to the park. And so they went and they did a remediation of the coal tar site. That was an accomplishment.
The other accomplishment was the Archer-Daniel-Midlands site . First of all, actually finding out that it was a Manhattan Project site and then working really, really hard to get it acknowledged by the government so that the government would take it on to clean it up. Since it was on private property, they weren't responsible. It would be up to whoever the property owner to get that site remediated. But in working with the EPA, and the EPA then working with New York State, DEC (NYS Department of Environmental Conservation), and with the Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA did the DNA of that site. Then for years, they kept saying that the radium doesn't match up to the one that was in the atomic bomb. But when they actually backtracked and went back to the uranium prior to its refinement, that's when they saw the connection in the DNA of the uranium to say that it came from that particular property. I was just so ecstatic that they took the time to do the DNA and then do the history to make that connection. The EPA has been absolutely wonderful to us.
Major challenges have been my color and my gender. When you're talking about the environment, first of all, and you're talking about it from the standpoint of communities of color, low income communities, and you're talking to a predominantly white audience, they have no connection to those communities. And their impression is that if those people are living that way it’s because they choose to live that way, not because this is something that they have no control over. So now you have to convince people who have no background knowledge of what people are experiencing. You have to convince them that what you're asking them to do, which is both in favor or against something, is the right thing to do. It's the right thing to do ethically and morally. It's the right thing to do. And they're looking at you and you're not judging them based on their gender or their color, but they're judging you based on yours. You have to try and figure out how not to make that part of the conversation that they should be listening to.
Another issue is about partnerships. At one point the schools were killing me. I would get emails and stuff from various students whose professors had sent them to me. I can't be the walking encyclopedia but within reason. At some point, one of my friends said to me nobody helped you research any of the stuff that you did. Why are you giving away your information for free? And I'm like, sometimes you just gotta do the right thing. What good is having information if you don't share it? By the same token, I have to remind myself not to let myself be taken advantage of, too.
I think that a lot of times when someone asks to partner with you they're going for the grant funding or the foundation funding, whatever it may be, and they want to use you to get to the community. They don't have an inroads to the community. So, they want you to be the inroads to the community.
I would say that on an average, what most grassroots organizations are getting is really insufficient and not enough to help us continue with our mission. So, we have to make a decision about who we partner with and how honest they are with us in terms of what they're getting and how much they're willing to share with us. I read about one of the EJ organizations in North Carolina; they were saying it should be a 50/50 split. They can't do their work without us, and they're expecting us to give up our time, our energy, our knowledge for something that they're going to benefit from. Either they're going to get a doctorate from it or the school is going to get extra funding because of it. In the meantime, if we get a gift certificate out of it, that's a lot. So, it should be a 50/50 split because that kind of work is not possible without organizations like ours that actually do the grunt work of it. And I remember having an academic say something to me once like, “Well, you should be happy that we acknowledge you”. He honestly thought that way.
Planning and Climate Change Initiatives
We've been invited to city planning activities because they'd like for you to come and sign off. They like for you to come in and sign your name so that they can say that they talked to the community and they talked to leadership in the environmental organizations and the community. And there we tell them what we think and how we think. They make us make a circle and whatnot. And then they ignore everything that we said and do what they want to do. Yes, we've been involved.
I had made a promise four years ago that I would serve on the New York City Climate and Environmental Justice Board. I thought four years ago that that would be fine, because at that point in time, my father had not shown any health issues that I needed to be terribly concerned about. And the years went by and nothing happened. And then I got a call right around December or November of 2019. They were asking if I was still interested in serving on the board. I was like, OK, but I have now moved to Ohio, not Ohio Avenue or Ohio Street. I'm talking about the state, Ohio. So, I just want to make it clear that I am two states away from New York right now. As I said I made a promise that I would serve. But I need to make sure, first of all, that everybody else on the board is OK with the fact that I'm in Ohio, that I'm not on Staten Island anymore. Even though I do come to the island and I do attend various agency meetings when I need to be in person, I will get on a plane and come because I think Staten Island is worth it. I said, if everybody's OK with the fact that I'm two states away and that I will be doing whatever it is actively, remotely, I will be at the meetings when it's necessary for me to be there. Then yes, I will do it. And so I've been serving. When they went through an interview process with me, I explained to them that I had to move home because my Dad had short term memory loss and I had noticed changes in his behavior.
The interesting thing is Irene, the storm that happened before Sandy, had an effect on the North Shore. We got water flooding in our basements. It toppled trees. We got no assistance from anyone. We were told when Sandy hit that we would get assistance for Irene and Sandy. We got no assistance at all when Sandy hit. The low-lying areas on the North Shore, those homes got flooded. They were on the industrial waterfront and had a host of contaminants of its own. We don't have a lot of apartment buildings on Staten Island, it's mostly one and two-family homes. Some may be three or four, but mostly one and two-family homes in the end. There are quite a few areas along the North Shore that are at sea level because it's just eroded to that point. And then there are others that have bulkheads that are maybe six feet above sea level. But when Sandy hit, Sandy's storm surge was up to like 11 feet. So that six- foot bulkhead, which was just made to retain soil, meant absolutely nothing. The storm surge just came right over it and flooded out those properties and anything that was alongside them and behind them.
When Sandy hit, it was interesting because I was in my home and someone down at the waterfront had an old air raid siren, and they actually set off that air raid siren so we could hear as the storm surge came in. Those big consoles on the lights, on the lamppost started blowing up like it was the Fourth of July. We had the air raid sirens and we had those boxes where the electricity was all hooked up billowing out. All of a sudden, the neighborhood started going dark, like boom, boom, boom... And then that's when the storm hit. That's when it hit full time. We were in the dark, and at that point, I just said my prayers. I thanked God for the life he gave me, and I said, if I wake up tomorrow, fine, but if I don't, my soul is yours to keep. And I went to bed and let my house rock me to sleep because I could feel my house. I was on the second floor. I remember the last message I sent out to my friends that didn't live in New York was I'm on the second floor if everything goes horribly wrong. I was on the second floor, and I let the house rock me to sleep. The house swayed throughout that storm.
The next morning, me and my friend got into my car and we drove the entire North Shore, checking on people that I knew. I made it up to the Howland Hook, which is where the Container Terminal is. Right before Howland Hook is Mariner’s Marsh. I saw one of my friends, Bill Morris, and he was walking and surveying Mariners Marsh Park to see what kind of damage was there. I asked him, are the people over in the trailer homes OK? Because we have a trailer home park on the North Shore, too. And he said, yeah, they're fine. They're good, and I said, OK, fine. I looked over at the New York Container Terminal. Sandy had picked up the containers and just tossed them. They were all over the place. They looked like Tonka toys that a kid kicked over on the living room floor. They were all over everywhere.
We drove around as far as we could because some areas were over by the creek, and it was flooded in. The water was gushing out of Old Place Creek. It was just gushing out, so I got as far as there, and I couldn't go any further. There was a van underneath the overpass that had flooded out. It was stuck there, and there was a turtle that was trying to swim in the water. I got my sneakers on and waded into the water to get the turtle out, to put it on land. Then, as soon as I turned my back, he got back in. So that was the last attempt to save the turtle. So me and my soggy, wet sneakers turned around and headed back the other way.
Then we went down to where Community Board One is, from St George to Stapleton. There is a little community (Clifton) that is right there before it gets to Rosebank. On the waterfront, there's a parking lot with a small little street that you go down. Everybody kind of stopped because there was this huge tanker that had gotten loose from wherever it was and it floated on to the waterfront, and up onto the parking lot. It was sitting in the parking lot. So, they eventually had to come tow it out. The owners of that tanker never claimed it because they would have to, I guess, pay a fine or a fee. I don't know what happened, but they never claimed the tanker. It made the Staten Island Advance’s front page.
When we left that morning to do the tour of the North Shore, people were already sitting stuff out at the curb for sanitation to pick up because basements flooded out during Sandy. I had to give the Sanitation Department props because when they finally made it to my neighborhood and were picking up, I talked with one of the guys. He lived on the South Shore. He had lost everything. He only had the clothes that were on his back... You feel horrible because, the people on the South Shore, they got hit the hardest. We got some flooding, but they got hit the hardest. They lost homes. They lost lives. They lost everything that they owned. But it was one of those things where we have been telling our officials since 2005 when Katrina hit New Orleans that we were not resilient and that if we were hit with a storm similar to Katrina, that we were going to be in serious trouble. We were going to lose some property. We were probably going to lose some lives. And in the worst case scenario, we were going to be devastated. We had been telling people this because we watched what happened in New Orleans on television. Everybody did. And all you had to do was just follow the trend of how hurricanes were hitting on the East Coast to know that it wasn't going to be a matter of if but a matter of when. And so our time came in 2012.
We did another booklet and we identified the sites that were contaminated. We identified the areas along the waterfront that were at sea level, the areas that are maybe above sea level, but only by six feet, because that's the maximum height of a bulkhead. We identified the fact that our waterfront did not have any kind of resiliency buffer other than the few tidal wetlands that still exist. There were no man-made buffers, and we were extremely vulnerable to sea level rise, storm surges, and flooding, and even the man-made buffers were not for climate change. They were just basically made to contain the soil on the properties that they were at. But these places, these businesses and industries during the next storm, when you have sea level rising and storm surges, were going to be flooded out again because there was nothing to keep them from not getting flooded out. And even with those rip rap bulkheads, there aren't any berms, and they're not connected to each other. You might have a business with a bulkhead, and even if that bulkhead were to hold a little bit, if the property adjacent to them is flooded, the water can just go around and behind them. Identifying the waterfront in the booklet was like having a gap tooth smile. There are spaces in between where water can get through. We were basically asking the City, what is your plan to protect us? We were asking that question back in 2012. Here we are in 2020, and we still haven't gotten the response.
Visions for the future
I hope that at some point we will find someone who is interested in doing the work that we do and would like to continue it. So far, that person has not materialized, but I'm ever hopeful that there is someone out there who would like to do this kind of work, that understands the importance of this work, that is going to be dedicated to this work.
I was like, is there anyone who's interested in doing this kind of work? Nobody ever was because it doesn't pay enough. First of all, there's not enough money to tempt someone to do this. They say people got bills. They had a family to support. So, they're not going to be self-sacrificing and empty out their 401k to collect whatever it is that is in their bank account, in order to try and help people that on some days recognize what you're doing and on other days have other things on their mind. No one really stepped up. And in addition, I really would like to see people of color take more of an interest in the environment in general and not shy away from it. They're the ones who are going to be most impacted by this whole thing with climate change, just as we are the ones that are impacted by the Coronavirus. I really would like to see that. But once again, that has not happened and everybody's caught up in the day to day stuff.
New York is going to have another crisis. That's also an issue because New York City always seems to be going through another crisis. It's always like another reel of the Perils of Pauline  with New York City. You think that you've just gotten over that hump and it's going to be OK now, and then something else happens. I would love to see New York City stabilize so that it is not going to get another crisis of some kind.
Lessons from NSWCSI and Women’s Leadership
If you care enough and if you're persistent enough, you can make things happen. It doesn't matter how many doors people slam in your face or won't let you in. My grandmother used to say there's more than one way to skin a cat, so you go around them. You go under them. You go over them. But you do what you have to do.
Now, in terms of accountability, my house that I lived in was in Port Richmond and everybody knew where my house was. Everybody. Any time anybody had any kind of grievance about anything, and normally it didn't have anything to do with anything that we were doing, they knew exactly where to find me. It was kind of one of those things where I would be at home and the doorbell would ring and I would open the door up and it would be someone that someone had referred to me because they felt that I could help them with an environmental issue. Staten Island is a different breed of animal, you know.
Once people know that you are competent at something, they don't have any hesitancy in finding you and asking you to help them. I think a lot of times it is because of that whole thing that went down with the Nicholas Avenue nine and a half -acres, which was part of the Archer-Daniel-Midlands. There were three properties that were owned by that same company. People had heard various things about me. So when they would meet me, I wouldn't be like any of the things that they had thought that I would be like.
You have to try and figure out how to press the empathy button and hold it long enough so that you can get done what you need to get done. When you first walk into the room, the first thing that you're seeing is a room full of people. The first thing they're seeing is a Black woman. From that point, you have to take them to another level. But that's initially what you're being judged on. I would say that every room I've ever gone into, the people in that room probably know more about me than I know about any of them because they've taken the time to Google me. If it's a government agency, they probably do a background check, if you know what I mean. So they know. They know my history. They know about my education. They know who my parents are. They know what schools I went to. So they've done their research to make sure that I am who I say I am. And then after that, it's like, well, how sincere is she about what it is she's talking about? How knowledgeable is she about the issue she's talking about? There's nothing that's more interesting than when I go into a room and I'm talking about wetlands and preserving wetlands, and it's like, she's actually talking about preserving wetlands. She's Black and she's a woman and talking about wetland conservation and preservation. And I'm like, yeah, I talk about those things...
 See description of the site at: https://response.epa.gov/site/site_profile.aspx?site_id=4943
 See a story about this site at: https://disarmament.blogs.pace.edu/nyc-nuclear-archive/nycs-nuclear-geography/nuclear-weapons-devt-sites-ny/former-archer-daniels-midland-company-warehouse-remediation-under-consideration/
 The Perils of Pauline is a very popular series of early US silent films telling a continuous story, released in 1914. At the end of each film the main character Pauline, played by Pearl White, was shown in great danger, so people went to see the next one to find out how she escaped. After its success, many other similar series were made (https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/english/the-perils-of-pauline) .