Climate activists from the #GasFreeNYC coalition and elected officials gather at City Hall Park on Wednesday, December 15, 2021 in New York City. Photo: Brittainy Newman/AP
A summer storm in New York City has once again proven how unprepared our neighborhoods are for intense rains and other climate-induced extreme weather. In Washington Heights, where I live, there were puddles at crosswalks with nowhere to drain. When I finished work on July 18 and returned to our basement apartment around 5 p.m., my mother was emptying the water that was seeping into our entryway. She had been there almost three hours.
I waited outside until the water drained enough so I could jump over the steps to get into my house. I’m used to it. Our house floods almost every time we have a big storm. Hurricanes and tropical storms are the worst, but even a heavy rainstorm, like the one last month, brings puddles to my house and elsewhere in upper Manhattan.
As climate change causes increasing and irreversible damage to communities like Washington Heights, what are families like mine supposed to do? Just get used to it and hope the next storm won’t be as strong? Due to poor sanitation management in some areas of the city, trash and debris are more likely to accumulate on the streets, which can put a strain on the city’s sewage system during storms. storms. Additionally, bacteria from waste can enter stormwater runoff and impact the health and well-being of our local ecosystems, vegetation and residents.
While our city needs improved infrastructure, waste matters too. With intensifying climate change and more massive storms, one solution is to ensure that garbage does not clog sewers, thereby preventing flooding by improving the quality and consistency of sanitation.
Keeping the streets of Washington Heights clean is a matter of climate justice.
When I think of environmental and climate justice, I consider the long history of youth resistance, transformation and leadership. Specifically, I’m thinking of the summer of 1969, when the Young Lords (a political and civil rights organization), responding to an overflow of trash on the streets of El Barrio, or East Harlem, turned a haven not collected in street barricades. They set some on fire, and the incident became known as the Liberty Garbage Fires.
Fast forward half a century, my peers at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School and I have dedicated ourselves to the youth-led Clean Air Green Corridor that empowers black and brown high school youth to reinvent and recover public spaces. We are working to transform five blocks along 182nd Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway into a hub for building community power, healing, climate change resilience, and grassroots action in Washington Heights. We have our work cut out.
Because climate change means severe storms will increase and they will disproportionately impact marginalized communities in floodplains.
According to the Rainfall Ready NYC Action Plan, “New Yorkers can expect rainfall volumes and intensities that our city’s infrastructure was not designed to capture.” Because low-income neighborhoods of color, like Washington Heights and Dyckman, have less green infrastructure than more affluent neighborhoods, residents of these neighborhoods face the most severe effects of climate change. Simply put: if the city doesn’t invest in my community’s environment, my family’s house will deteriorate.
Keeping our streets clean is also about racial justice.
I’ve lived in upper Manhattan, east of Broadway, my whole life. Many low-income, Latinx, immigrant, mixed-status, and Spanish-speaking New Yorkers live there. Asthma rates are high. The conditions, cleanliness and access to sanitation services on our streets do not compare to those on West Broadway, where the population is less dense, more affluent and yes, whiter.
I applaud the efforts of our New York City Council member, Carmen De La Rosa, State Senator Robert Jackson, and Washington Heights neighbors – who have all come together to champion and lead community trash cleanup (in city streets and premises). parks). These cleanups recognize that city streets are where we live, work, play, pray and learn. As we continue to emerge from COVID-19 and prepare for the increasingly harmful impacts of climate change, I hope the city will respond to our community’s need for a cleaner, greener environment and invest in new valuable green infrastructure projects, like our Clean Air Green Corridor, which strives to connect six schools and thousands of community residents to open green space along 182nd Street.
I also hope this moment empowers our community members to advocate for more waste management services in our neighborhood. Regardless of zip code or circumstance, we all deserve to live in a clean, healthy, prosperous and beautiful neighborhood.
Iovanni Romarion, a longtime resident of Washington Heights, is an environmental intern at Futures Ignite. He is a proud 2021 graduate of Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, or WHEELS, and a sophomore at the University of Chicago.