When in Comes to Climate Justice, There is No “I” in Gowanus


Last month, the Carolinas braced for the full impact of Hurricane Florence, and coastal residents all along the Eastern seaboard were reminded of just how precarious their cities are in the face of extreme weather and rising seas. And as climate change continues to fuel more frequent, more monstrous storms, low-income folks and people of color are feeling the heat—and the flooding—more than others. Take Gowanus, for example—a Brooklyn neighborhood where thousands of residents live in poverty, roughly 4500 live in public housing near the waterfront, and a superfund canal stews with toxic chemicals from the many former factory sites nearby. Add to this the fact that Gowanus is located in the dead center of a flood zone, and you have a nightmare environmental scenario: a hurricane or storm surge could trap poor residents in neglected public housing as poisonous waters rise around them.

That scenario is not a future prediction; it’s already happened.

During superstorm Sandy, the Gowanus neighborhood was inundated, leaving many people marooned without medicine, water, food and electricity for two weeks as five NYCHA properties filled with rising water. And the problem isn’t going away. Scientists predict that seas could be six feet higher than current levels by 2100, putting 800,000 people in the path of increasingly supercharged storms. And the problem won’t hit everyone equally, either, since decades of racist housing policy and governmental neglect have put what amounts to a bullseye on the working class waterfront neighborhoods of South Brooklyn. That’s why, when the city announced $20 billion for post-Sandy recovery and climate prevention practices, residents of Gowanus banded together to make sure that the most vulnerable communities would be making decisions about how best to protect their own communities and prevent or lessen the impacts of future Sandy-level storms. This coalition, known as Turning the Tide, is focused on environmental justice, making the connections between poverty, race, disability and climate impacts, and working toward climate solutions that work for the marginalized.

So far, the coalition has gotten busy repairing NYCHA buildings; creating neighborhood-level flood prevention plans that include everything from elevated streets to greenways and flood walls; bringing in $500 million for local job development (since better jobs give people access to better emergency resources); reopening community centers; redirecting housing money back into the community; installing recycling at NYCHA properties; working to reduce toxic sewer discharge; and revving up a network of solar microgrids that reduce emissions and detach from the main grid in the event of a major storm. It’s these connections—between jobs, housing, resources and emissions—that mark the line between environmentalism and environmental justice. And, for poor residents in the path of storm surges and rising seas, it could also mean the difference between life and death.

To learn more, sign up for our Environmental Justice in Gowanus tour led by one of the chief organizers behind Turning the Tide.

Ash Sanders