Yes, in My Backyard! Brooklyn Waterfront Neighborhoods are Leading the Fight for Sustainable Industry

Image Source:    Climate Central

Image Source: Climate Central

All over New York City, the condo-ification of waterfront neighborhoods has become synonymous with gentrification. Despite predictions that sea level could rise over six feet by the year 2100, developers persist in a futureless frenzy of last minute leveraging and brazen buck-making that currently puts half of New York’s residents in harm’s way. (Check out New York’s interactive sea level tracker to see which neighborhoods are predicted to slump underwater and when.)

But for working class neighborhoods like Red Hook and Sunset Park, there’s a double threat. Since the end of World War II, New York City has hemorrhaged industrial jobs, going from 1 million to 80,000 in less than a century. As a result, many workers in waterfront neighborhoods—often immigrants or people without college educations—found that their main source of middle class income was gone, which pushed them toward the poverty line just as rent prices started shooting up. But there’s more.

As the ocean menaces, many Brooklynites have less money, fewer options and fewer resources for fighting back or relocating than ever before.

That’s why advocates from workers to policy wonks are beginning to think of environmental justice in new ways, marrying two issues that used to be at eco-odds: climate security and industrial jobs. Instead of parlaying their coastal communities for a few easy bucks, residents and representatives are declaring Industrial Business Zones and sustainable terminal plans that encourage a working waterfront, preserve high-paying blue collar jobs, and shift industrial activity away from its pollution-heavy past and into a greener future.

Take Red Hook, for instance. Long a shipping epicenter, the neighborhood’s main terminal has stood underused for the past few decades. But now, local advocates and politicians have put their weight behind a revamped Sustainable South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, which would employ 250 workers, shift freight cargo to waterways and take 11,000 cars off the road, and open up New York’s only deep-water port in the Eastern harbor. Not only are shipping operations more adaptable than housing to shifting sea levels, they can also serve as both green manufacturing and green energy production centers. And pushing for industrial jobs pushes businesses like Industry City from turning its properties into condos that are industrial in brand only.

For example, major offshore wind developers are already looking at South Brooklyn as one of the only remaining areas in New York that could support offshore wind power. But if workers closed the loop and also produced the parts for the wind turbines, that would bring another 1,000 jobs into the community. And while wind power may have ecological drawbacks (and while community control of that energy is vital) the idea of providing good, green and unionized manufacturing could be one way to reverse the course of environmental injustice faced by poor communities. Instead of low-income neighborhoods bearing the brunt of both pollution and climate change, these neighborhoods can become leaders in the green economy while preserving jobs and maintaining community. And oh--it’s also a bulwark against gentrification.

No solution by itself is perfect, but the best solutions address more than one thing at a time—in this case, creating jobs, countering climate change, and resists gentrification. If our communities are going to be successful in their fights against developers, polluters and bottom-line businesses, we have to start thinking about how the problems—and the solutions—are interconnected. In fact, that’s exactly what environmental justice is all about—refusing to pit people against the environment or the environment against people.

Want to learn more about the environmental threats faced by Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, and get involved in solutions? Check our Environmental Justice in Gowanus tour.

Ash Sanders