Our Town An Act of Disobedience by Daniel Fitzsimmons
YORKVILLE Eight Upper East Siders opposed to the city’s plan to build a waste transfer station at 91st Street and York Avenue were arrested last Friday protesting the Sanitation Department’s removal of trees at Asphalt Green, a popular athletics complex at the epicenter of the proposed construction.
The department removed the trees because they were blocking access to a ramp that leads to the planned Marine Transfer Station. The city plans on demolishing the ramp, and the move was seen as proof that decisions about access to the transfer station had already been made without community input.
Activists and elected officials characterized the move as a betrayal by the city, as a community task force had been set up and was involved in ongoing and regular meetings with the Sanitation Dept. on how best to proceed.
“The city made a pledge to us to discuss and address our concerns and in the midst of those discussions, they all of the sudden move forward with removing these pear trees alongside the Asphalt Green fields,” said Sean Wood, a board member of Pledge 2 Protect, the biggest and most well-organized of the opposition groups. “Part of the discussion focuses on potentially moving the ramp, so it’s absolutely nonsensical to proceed with this. We’re outraged that the city would choose to go ahead with removing the trees without first completing the conversation with the community and addressing the concerns as promised.”
P2P’s president, Kelly Nimmo-Guenther, was among those arrested. Also arrested were Carol Tweedy, executive director of Asphalt Green, NYCHA organizer Regine LaCourt, and local residents Dara Hunt, Gus Christensen, Carol Tichler, Joan Cavanaugh and Barbara Heyman. Christensen is running for Assembly in the 76th District on the Upper East Side.
Pledge 2 Protect and their supporters received wind of the city’s plans the night before, and at 5 a.m., planted themselves in front of the gate at Asphalt Green that leads to the ramp and the transfer station. Police showed up around 6 a.m. and cordoned off the area. According to Wood, a police sergeant announced three times that those who did not want to get arrested must move out from in front of the gate. Eight people stayed.
“I knew there was a possibility of getting arrested because I knew the plan was to block the gate,” said Tweedy. But as one of the leaders of the anti-transfer station movement, she felt she should stay out of jail and help direct those still demonstrating.
“However, when I had the emotional experience of seeing them start to cut down the trees, and saw all of the supporters by the gate, and Kelly [Nimmo-Guenther] said to me, ‘the leadership really has to be in this,’ I said, ‘I’m in,’” said Tweedy. “But when I left home this morning I did not tell my husband I thought I was going to get arrested today.”
Tweedy said she doesn’t regret the decision because she feels strongly about the issue.
Local elected officials also attended the demonstration, and in the aftermath strongly expressed their displeasure with the city’s actions.
“After being told that the Sanitation Dept. would study alternative locations for the ramp to the marine transfer station before starting construction, this community rightly feels betrayed that this action was taken before the study has been completed,” said Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney in a statement.
In a separate interview, Maloney said, “They had a meeting with us last week where they were saying they wanted to work with us, and they didn’t do any of it. Then all of the sudden they’re jamming this thing in through a Memorial Day weekend. I’ve been in city government a long time, I’ve never seen peaceful demonstrators arrested like that. These are Upper East Side grandmothers.”
Councilman Ben Kallos condemned the arrests and the city’s actions.
“We as a community joined together in a grassroots action to exercise our First Amendment rights,” said Kallos. “It’s a dark day for democracy when an administration is arresting seniors and NYCHA residents who are trying to protect a children’s playground from a garbage dump.”
State Senator Liz Krueger agreed the Sanitation Dept. acted in bad faith, but that the larger issue is the unsustainability of the city’s waste management plan.
“Of course the far bigger issue is that the City of New York continues down a path of wasting a billion dollars on a project with negligible impact on the environment and zero impact on decreasing residential waste in the other boroughs,” said Krueger. “If built, this [transfer station] will negatively impact more people, parks and schools than any other [transfer station] in New York City, and it will be built in one of the few remaining poor air quality hot spots in the city.”
P2P, as laid out in a report attacking the city’s 2006 waste management plan, claim that at maximum capacity, the East 91st Street transfer station would process 1.6 percent of the city’s garbage.
A Sanitation Dept. spokesperson said the eight pear trees – which were three decades old – would have been removed even if the access road to the transfer station is ultimately built elsewhere. “[The Dept. of Sanitation] is reviewing a new design possibility for the [transfer station] that would move the location of the access ramp to reduce public concern,” said the spokesperson. “But engineers are still working on that. Regardless, trees would have needed to be removed.”
The spokesperson said the trees will be replaced once construction has been completed, and provided a statement by the department’s commissioner.
As for continuing to work with the Sanitation Dept., Tweedy said she’s leery but willing. “I know that I and others who are working on this will do their darndest to make [those meetings] productive,” she said.