Published June 19, 2014
Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is considered one of New York City’s fastest-developing neighborhoods. The community, a bastion of the industrial working class, has seen an influx of artists and young professionals in recent years. Condominium towers are going up alongside the single-family homes that characterized the area for much of its history.
But look closer at what’s happening in Greenpoint and a different story also emerges, according to a new study by Winifred Curran, associate professor of geography at DePaul University, and Trina Hamilton, assistant professor of geography at UB.
The research describes how one group of long-time residents teamed up with gentrifiers and external environmental activists to push for the cleanup of Greenpoint’s Newtown Creek while preserving the area’s industrial roots.
In this effort, gentrifiers, having been schooled in the area’s toxic legacy by long-time residents, forged a new political identity as environmental justice activists whose interests were aligned with those of long-term residents. The coalition leveraged the newcomers’ skills in areas like writing and multimedia to achieve community goals.
The study’s findings appeared in a pair of articles published in late 2012 in the journals Urban Studies and Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability.
“While sustainability and green urbanism have become buzzwords in urban policy circles, too little analysis has focused on who gets to decide what green looks like,” Curran and Hamilton write in Local Environment. “Many visions of the green city seem to have room only for park space, waterfront cafes and luxury LEED-certified buildings, prompting concern that there is no place in the ‘sustainable’ city for industrial uses and the working class.”
The activism in Greenpoint is an attempt to battle the false choice of cleanup and reinvestment versus decay, and to recognize the injustice that gentrification (and previous decades of malign neglect from the city and state) represents, the authors say.
In the case of Newtown Creek, they state: “Neighborhood residents and business owners seem to be advocating a strategy we call ‘just green enough’ in order to achieve environmental remediation without environmental gentrification.”
The researchers interviewed 24 people—including long-term residents, gentrifiers and environmental activists—about their effort to clean up an underground oil plume that permeates the water of Newtown Creek and a swathe of adjacent land.
Hamilton and Curran argue that this diverse coalition, including recent arrivals, shares the goal of achieving environmental justice for long-term residents. The aim is to improve life for people already living there and to preserve the neighborhood’s industrial character—and not to make the area greener with the hope of luring future residential development.
“Our main argument is that when you look at a gentrifying neighborhood, you don’t need to accept that gentrification needs to continue to steamroll through the entire neighborhood, or that environmental priorities have to be put on hold to prevent further displacement,” Hamilton says.
In other words, gentrifiers and long-time residents need not always be at odds. In the case of Newtown Creek, Hamilton and Curran say the arrival of the creative class, including highly educated residents with professional experience in areas like graphic design and communications, played a key role in advancing the community’s environmental campaign.
The authors note that while the oil leaked into the environment in the 1950s, it wasn’t until recently that Greenpoint was able to make serious progress in the cleanup effort.
In 2008, activists partnered to form the Newtown Creek Brownfield Opportunity Area (BOA), which is eligible to receive state funding and technical assistance to redevelop the site. The coalition’s vision is to clean up the area while preserving industrial jobs. As one participant put it to Hamilton and Curran, the activists would like to see the waterfront become a “21st century industrial corridor.”
More progress came in 2010, when the federal government declared Newtown Creek a Superfund site in need of serious environmental remediation. The same year, Exxon Mobil settled lawsuits related to the oil plume, pledging to carry out a cleanup and creating a $19.5 million Environmental Benefits Projects (EBP) fund for community projects.
Hamilton believes that the Greenpoint case provides an important example of how long-term residents and activists can partner with gentrifiers to push communities’ longstanding environmental and social concerns.
She cautions, however, that it also highlights the need for government intervention to break the all-too-common tie between cleanup successes and the displacement of long-term residents. She notes that the Newtown Creek waterfront benefits from protected industrial zoning, which has provided a critical opportunity to create an alternative vision for a sustainable, working waterfront in the neighborhood.