THE BLOG
12/10/2014 05:07 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

The New York Times + Mayor de Blasio + Real Estate = Garbage

Frustrated by media neglect of an astonishingly lethal and freaky piece of urban planning just south of East Harlem, local residents and groups are now making videos to try and get the story out. Perhaps it's working. Last week, the New York Times, prompted by this video, finally published an article on one element of the scandal.

Here are some facts.

Mayor de Blasio is building a garbage processing factory in Yorkville in the far northeastern corner of the Upper East Side. No, this is not the Upper East Side you have in mind. The dump will be a literal stone's throw from 2,200 public housing residents. The plant, including a vast, ten-story high industrial structure, has a footprint comparable to that of the Empire State Building and will operate 24 hours a day, 6 days a week.

Except on Sundays, a day and night procession of 150 to 500 garbage trucks, each carrying over 10 tons of stinking garbage, will rumble through Yorkville, one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Manhattan, then turn onto a ramp that bisects an athletic facility used by 34,000 public school kids from every borough, and dump their loads right in front of public housing. The trucks will then turn around and drive back across a sidewalk necessarily used by the children, and away through a neighborhood which, I forgot to mention, is not only one of the most polluted and asthmatic in the city, but also has more schools and hospitals per square mile than any other.

This is absolutely and completely unprecedented. There is no other garbage site in the entire city that is remotely like this one.

To give just one very small example. The city euphemistically calls these riverside garbage-churning dumps, "marine transfer stations." If you look at this report, you'll see that in total there are only 33 units of public housing within a quarter mile of all the city's other marine transfer stations combined. There are well over 1000 units of public housing within a quarter mile of the Yorkville dump! (In totaly, over 22,000 people live within a quarter mile of it.)

The residents of Yorkville are, of course, grateful for any coverage, but the New York Times wrote mainly about the location of the ramp leading to the dump. This is like reporting on a mechanically flawed plane that's about to take off by speculating on whether it's best to load the passengers in from the back or the front.

I have written two non-fiction books about two absurd occurrences in American history. I'm thinking of making an account of this surreal project my third. It's a big, Bonfire of the Vanities-like tragi-comedy involving good intentions gone totally awry, odd financial entanglements, a linguistic scam, a credulous or corrupt press insistently blind to objective facts, a misplaced inverse snobbery so off the mark it verges on racism, the enormous power of real estate, Dumb And Dumber-like incompetence and obstinacy, environmental deceit, arm-twisting via campaign contributions, a weird near-fatal accident, wild overspending by city government, and some of the most bizarre alliances in the history of urban politics.

It reveals just about everything that's wrong with government and a lot that's wrong with journalism. How local reporters have managed to get this story so wrong and miss so much is a mystery.

The tone of most of the reporting -- not just the Times -- has been so snide, patronizing or dismissive it has often verged on racism. The Times reporter, to use one of the mildest examples, used a quote describing the dump as a "nuisance." A barking dog is a nuisance. This thing will radically diminish the already diminished quality of life not enjoyed by 2,200 public housing residents. But what enrages these residents most of all is how the press, by going along with the heavily sold myth that this dump is being built in the fabled Upper East Side, enables de Blasio to brag about environmental justice and how he's sticking it to rich white folk when actually he's using a regressive grandfathering ploy to dump thousands of tons of garbage on low income families of color five blocks south of East Harlem.

(Grandfathering is a way to legally revert to a time before laws protected people from things like this dump. If that's progressive, then so is Joni Ernst, the terrifying hog castrating Republican Senator from Iowa.)

The mayors's combination of sanctimony and hypocrisy is repulsive, and this video expresses the anger and disgust of his victims, "the forgotten people" as they sometimes call themselves.

De Blasio was forced to eat so much real estate money to get elected (and will need to eat more if he wants a second term) that he's as compliant as a Strasbourg goose and, for reasons that will become clear, won't be waddling up to 91st Street to talk about child safety or social justice any time soon. It's actually understandable, even forgivable. He didn't invent the rules that force American politicians into dependence on the very rich.

But why has the New York Times not been quacking in outrage about this obvious scandal? I have loved and admired this newspaper for decades. Because of its journalistic rigor and its humanism, it is, in my opinion, the greatest newspaper in the world. Watching it fall for this blatant, politically motivated bait-and-switch is beyond depressing. Having clearly done no research into how environmentally archaic the whole "new" garbage plan is, nor how dangerous, socially unjust, and environmentally unsound the Yorkville dump is, the Times' editorial board wrote in favor of it.

Whether the Times knows it or not -- and this is really the crux of the matter -- the only people who'll benefit from this dump are the city's largest and most powerful real estate developers. Public housing has already spoiled this stretch of river for them, so putting the dump here is ideal. God forbid an industrial facility ended up in an industrial zone that could be, or already has been, rezoned for luxury riverfront apartments. (Take a look at South Street Seaport, or the many unused dumps and wharfs on the far whiter and far more luxurious Westside where housing is far further from a far wider river...)

Real estate advertizing represents a significant source of revenue for the Times, and one whole section of the Sunday paper is devoted to it. But the paper's connections to real estate go far deeper than that. The New York Times Company is, or was, actually in business with one of the biggest and most powerful real estate developers in New York, Forest City Ratner. According to this Wikipedia entry, the construction of the New York Times Building was "a joint venture of the New York Times Company, Forest City Ratner (Forest City Enterprises's New York subsidiary), and ING Real Estate." According to the building's own website -- at least as of today -- the New York Times Company still co-owns the building with Forest City Ratner. (Press the button saying "Owners"). Forest City Ratner is currently trying to redevelop the Atlantic Yards.

I'm sure the old Gray Lady, even if she had financial problems, would keep her bedroom door locked at night, and if an envelope came under it would kick it back out with her arthritic toes, but even so this intimacy appears a tad dubious to some. As the Times itself reported during the last election, real estate is, by some measures, the most powerful political force in the city.

To quote briefly from the article:

"People talk about Wall Street, but even before '07, '08, it was really real estate that was the A.T.M. of New York," Steven Spinola, president of a powerful lobbying group, the Real Estate Board of New York, told me. Over the past fiscal year, city revenue from taxes on income-producing property was greater than revenue from sales and income taxes combined. Real estate-related taxes (including property, commercial rent, mortgage recording, transfer and hotel occupancy taxes) totaled $22.6 billion, roughly a third of the city's total budget. "This is one reason I believe things will go well," Mr. Spinola told me. "We have an interest in seeing that he" -- Mr. de Blasio -- "is successful, and if we are successful, Mayor de Blasio will be able to fund the things he wants to fund."

Should a New York newspaper be financially entangled with a group of people who clearly take pride in being "the A.T.M. of New York" and feel so politically powerful one of their spokesmen says, "if we are successful, Mayor de Blasio will be able to fund the things he wants to fund."? How nice.

To avoid the possible appearance of impropriety, can I ask on behalf of the residents of public housing and the children who attend the athletic facility that the Times finally give one serious reporter the time and freedom to strip away the many layers of mayoral flim-flam and concocted inverse snobbery and tell the real story of this lethal dump? I will happily help out.

This is not a local problem. The garbage site will not magically "disappear" garbage. Under the new plan, trash will get loaded onto a truck, unloaded into the Yorkville dump, reloaded onto a barge, unloaded again (probably in Staten Island!), reloaded again, and shipped hundreds of miles to impoverished neighborhoods both in and out of New York State where it will get unloaded once again and incinerated. Needless to say, these communities are protesting. Hopelessly.

Perhaps the greatest absurdity of the 91st Street MTS is that no one need suffer. It solves literally nothing. It was a vote-getting Bloomberg ploy. It can be canceled without hurting anyone: not the people in the outer boroughs who'll pay for it, but see little or no benefit from it; not de Blasio, who already has the votes Bloomberg had to fight for; not even the real estate industry which need not stop developing. The solution to the city's garbage problem lies not in 19th Century factories and barges, but in tactics that progressive modern cities like San Francisco already use: stop so much crap coming in, packaging, etc; recycle vigorously; compost; and then dispose of what's left through environmentally safe waste-to-energy plants as near to the city as possible.

The 91st Street facility was supposed to cost just over 40 million to construct. It is now thought it will come in almost 200 million over budget, and will triple the cost of garbage disposal for 20 years to come. Even employees of the New York Times are going to have to pay for this -- and then pay again to have the place torn down when the first tragedies occur, or when science, evidence, and good reporting triumph.

Further Notes:

To make the job easy for reporters, here is a study that exposes the false premises on which the project is based and shows how environmentally counterproductive and dangerous it is. Here is a link to my first blog on this subject, Bloomberg's Last Dump, and here's the first of four more recent blogs I wrote about some of the more amusing aspects of this lunacy. And here is a heartfelt parental video objecting to the dump.

The New York Times Building website still says the New York Times Company co-owns the building with Forest City Ratner, but this Bloomberg.com article says the New York Times Company sold its ownership stake in the building to pay off some debts. It seems that it may now be a mere tenant of W.P. Carey & Co., a New York-based real estate investment bank. However, when the 91st Street dump was first proposed, the old Gray Lady and Forest City Ratner were certainly in business.

Correction: The New York Times reporter who wrote the recent article said that the "dispute centers on an unused garbage transfer station on the shore of the East River -- three blocks north of Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence -- which is set to be reopened soon, over residents' objections." It is not set to "re-open." Having been a nightmare in the community since the 1940s, it was closed 15 years ago, got knocked down a year and a half ago, and a much larger one is now being built in its place.

Even if the dump was in what people typically think of as the Upper East Side, and even if the only people at risk were rich and white, would that justify damaging their health and killing their children? Perhaps the New York Times' column, The Ethicist, would like to weigh in on this. So, I guess to really get a good job of reporting done, three New York Times reporters (or New York Magazine reporters?) should go up to Yorkville: an investigative reporter to explore the weird politics, an ethicist to determine the morality of this abomination, and an architecture critic to talk about the structure. This latter should look at the site, then go on to the industrial western end of Hamilton Avenue in Brooklyn where it hits the (three letters too many) Gowanus Canal and check out an identical Marine Garbage Transfer Station that has already been built. How about making a moral/social/aesthetic argument that even low income families deserve protection from aesthetic sins?

Directions for the New York Times reporters who, if things are as bad as Bloomberg.com suggests, must now take the subway: 42nd Street Shuttle to Grand Central -- change to the 4 North to 86th -- Walk 4 blocks east and 5 north, the last one alongside the river. Look left, look right -- and then I dare you to call this anything other than a scandal.