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Bloomberg Project Wastes Millions While 22,000 New York Children Remain Homeless -- What Will de Blasio Do?

12/12/2013 08:45 am ET | Updated Feb 11, 2014
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The New York Times is currently publishing a series of articles about a homeless girl and her family. Brilliantly written by Andrea Elliott, "Invisible Child," describes a year in the life of 12-year-old Dasani as she tries to grow up and get an education while living in a shelter in Brooklyn.

I have visited shelters like these and Elliott accurately details the fear, hunger, despair, neglect, danger, and, perhaps worst of all, the humiliation that a child like Dasani endures. An epic injustice is being allowed to gnaw away at this beautiful, determined child and many Americans accept it as normal and unchangeable.

According to UNICEF, the United States has, as Elliott notes, "the highest child poverty rate of any developed nation except for Romania." According to the U.S. Census Bureau, New York is the most unequal city in America. At one end of the spectrum, at least 50 billionaires live here. At the other end at least 50,000 people are homeless, 22,000 of them children.

These are the "two cities" Bill de Blasio spoke of when running for Mayor. If he is serious about trying to bring them a little closer together, he should start by helping kids like Dasani. They are blameless, hungry, and in danger of toppling off the city map altogether.

I understand that money alone is not going to solve this problem. I understand it is hard to pry private money out of greedy hands except during elections. I understand that city government has only so much money to spend. But I also know that the city is wasting a large sum of money on something that benefits no one. Bill de Blasio knows this too and we may hope that he will want to grab it and use it to at least attempt to fulfill his promise.

I'm talking about an old Bloomberg scheme to build an unneeded marine transfer station at a cost of between $225,000,000 and $500,000,000. According to an Independent Budget Office report, this is just the start. To operate the place will cost twice as much as the current system, which actually works fine.

The 91st Street Marine Transfer Station is just south of East Harlem and is far more intrusive and socially unjust than stop and frisk. It is designed to last 80 years, but if it is built it will be shuttered in 10 because it was always dangerous and is now outdated. It is supposed to load garbage into barges (garbarges?) to be towed out of the city by a company with whom the city has already signed a 20-year contract.

Things have changed since the idea was first proposed, not least its mistaken basis.

Many private garbage sites are located in industrial zones in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Environmental justice groups in both boroughs believed the private garbage trucks caused poor surrounding neighborhoods to suffer more pollution than Manhattan. Manhattan, it was proposed, should build several of its own garbage transfer sites to relieve the problem. This was not unreasonable if Manhattan could find cheap industrial waterfront land to build on, and if indeed it was less polluted.

When pollution monitors were installed a few years later, it turned out Manhattan was -- and remains -- the most polluted borough of all. This is actually not surprising when you consider the enormous number of people from the outer boroughs who come in to Manhattan to work (and to create pollution and garbage), stressing an already highly congested area containing more densely occupied skyscrapers than anywhere else in North America.

When it became apparent that the pollution-relieving 91st Street site was being built in a particularly polluted area even for Manhattan, and that four blocks north the asthma rates were and remain the worst in the city, you might expect the thing to get cancelled. But no. The garbage site advocates pressed on and Bloomberg, who must have seen the irony of all this, nonetheless let it slide. He had to because he needed outer borough voters to get re-elected and he didn't want to risk offending them by appealing to reason, a known method of suicide in politics.

But he did not let all things slide equally.

There were three other proposed marine transfer sites in Manhattan, all of which were in its few remaining industrial zones. These have stalled completely. Real estate developers want to build luxury condos along the rivers, not garbage sites, and as we saw in the last election, real estate is the most powerful force in the city. If you want a laugh, look at who is on the board of the "non-profits" set up to protect Hudson River Park, that front garden of the white and wealthy. Among them you'll find many real estate brokers, developers, and builders. You'll also find an actual employee of Bloomberg's.

On the east side of Manhattan, the South Street Seaport was the best place for a marine transfer station because it is a marine transfer station. That's what a port is. But forget about it, it's gone: encouraged by the city, real estate developers are planning a massive luxury apartment complex and a bigger and better shopping mall.

This leaves just one garbage site to relieve outer borough illusions of environmental injustice. Yorkville and East Harlem are so densely residential, there's no more room for development. Perhaps when de Blasio moves up here he'll get the picture. To build here you'd have to knock down an enormous public housing project and kick the people into shelters, and that might be a bit much even for this crowd to pull off. Consequently real estate interests have not tried to stop the dump at 91st Street. Let children and public housing residents endure this last stinking outpost of a failed idea -- there's better waterfront land further south and along the spacious Westside anyhow.

The most important thing that's changed, however, is that environmentalists and forward thinking modern cities have realized conclusively that the best way to handle garbage is not to drag it out in unprocessed form in either trucks or on 19th Century barges. The trick is to reduce the amount entering the city and then make recycling mandatory and as easy as possible.

As a result of these policies San Francisco, for example, currently recycles about 80 percent of its garbage and is aiming for 100 percent. New York is around 15 percent.

Recycling takes care of a city's garbage with minimal shifting of the environmental burden elsewhere. It helps the world, not just the city. This is the future. This is what's worth spending money on.

And yet, despite it being an anachronism, despite its burgeoning cost and its danger, the one remaining garbage site continues to be built in almost surreal proximity to a thousand public housing units and in the worst flood zone the city has to offer.

Most appalling of all -- to return to where we started -- it will harm children. Although the city admits hazardous waste will end up at the site, the short ramp will be only 12 feet from a soccer field and swimming pool where 34,000 city children a year come to play and to learn how to swim.

Were it not for a little quirk known as "grandfathering" (some evil old grandfather, this one), it would be unquestionably illegal. I can find no other New York garbage site that has ever been built in the middle of such a densely populated area, nor one so incredibly close to so many children. Putting aside all other arguments, this is why it is genuinely and profoundly immoral to build one here. It could be in the Outer Boroughs or Outer Mongolia, Kansas or Kuwait, it would still be morally wrong to put something this toxic and dangerous this close to children and poor people.

It is irredeemably wrong, unarguably wrong, shamefully wrong. Forget the unknown toxicity of future garbage, children are going to die from other causes. You can't drive 400 garbage trucks a day into an area that is entirely residential except for having more schools than any other district in the city, nor drive 400 trucks a day onto a ramp that literally divides one half of the athletic facility from the other without children getting run down. No one disputes this.

When these deaths become a scandal, or when the dump gets hit by a massive flood, or when the expense becomes intolerable, it will get closed and torn down. It's a lethal, expensive, anachronistic boondoggle -- and anyone who supports it is either stupid, uninformed, or corrupt. I hate to be so blunt, but it's true.

The only long-term beneficiary of this extravagant Grand-Guignol will be Covanta Holding Corporation, the company contracted to haul the garbage away and incinerate it upstate and elsewhere.

Described by one source as "a New Jersey-based conglomerate with an eccentric past," perhaps because at one time it invested in an Argentinian casino, Covanta has been so anti-union the National Labor Relations Board became involved. Covanta has also been heavily fined on numerous occasions for violations, including releases of dioxin, which is highly toxic and can be fatal.

When both science and environmental policy are changing so fast, it seems a little odd to me to commit to a 20 year contract, particularly when Covanta was recently on the verge of bankruptcy. According to well-compensated Covanta's CEO, Tony Orlando, the 20 year New York contract will make the company much more secure. The same cannot be said for Dasani, whose family has sometimes been so afraid of going to the shelter bathroom at night they chose to use a bucket in the room they shared.

An expensive human scandal surrounds us. Thirty-three less prosperous countries take better care of their children than we do. It's unreal, it's shocking. Read "Invisible Child" and the shock becomes very real and very human. Then ask yourself if you want your money spent on pointless and expensive infrastructure that is harmful to kids when so many are already in such bad shape. But think fast because the dump is being built and each day it becomes more expensive to cancel. Think fast because as Andrea Elliott says of children in shelters, "With each passing month, they slip further back in every category known to predict long-term well-being."