BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | The issues were green but the passions — among both opponents and supporters of Carlina Rivera — flared red hot at an environmental forum for Congressional District 10 candidates last week.
Councilmember Rivera somehow managed to duck the pink-suit-clad Reverend Billy and a group of protesters outside the venue, The Cooper Union’s Great Hall, possibly by bypassing the event’s entrance on Astor Place and instead entering the building at E. Seventh Street. But once inside the forum, Rivera was frequently heckled by a group of East River Park protesters sitting in the front rows. Whenever she mentioned the contentious East Side Coastal Resiliency project, which has already destroyed half of the 46-acre park, they let her have it.
Around 250 people packed into the Great Hall for the July 19 event co-hosted by the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund and The Cooper Union. More than 500 others have watched it online.
Seven candidates, or around half of the crowded field, participated, including, along with Rivera, Elizabeth Holtzman, Pete Gleason, Dan Goldman, Quanda Francis, Yuh-Line Niou and Jo Anne Simon.
Earlier that morning, following weak poll numbers, former Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had been slated to attend, dropped out of the running for the Aug. 23 Democratic primary. Congressmember Mondaire Jones, who was also expected to join, instead had to be in Washington, D.C., for a vote.
The recently redrawn district includes all of Manhattan south of 14th Street, plus parts of Brooklyn, such as Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and Borough Park.
In her remarks at the forum, Rivera stood by her support of the $1.45 billion E.S.C.R. plan, which is clear-cutting the current East River Park in order to raise it by 8 feet to 10 feet to put it above the floodplain. In the face of the protesters’ angry shouts, she spoke above them in a determined, firm voice. The megaproject, she stated, “is actually rebuilding a park and fortifying it for future generations.”
Speaking at the environmental forum, Carlina Rivera declares she is “uncompromising” and took a needed, bold step for environmental justice by supporting the East Side Coastal Resiliency project. (Video by The Village Sun)
She said that New York City Housing Authority residents in District 10 are at risk of coastal flooding and that there is a pressing need for “environmental justice.”
“It will happen again,” she said of a devastating hurricane like Sandy, which crippled Downtown Manhattan when it hit in October 2012.
Low-income, traditionally underserved areas in low-lying areas were “disproportiately affected” by Sandy, she said, adding that those communities then came together and “made a decision” on what had to be done.
“Every single local elected official in the Downtown area supports this plan — they’re just sometimes too afraid to say it,” Rivera declared. “I am clear, direct and I am uncompromising — you have to be a little bit bold to take care of our community. And that’s the type of congressmember I will be.”
Supporters and opponents often both erupted at her remarks, filling the hall with their competing shouts, forcing moderator Danielle Muoio Dunn of POLITICO New York to say a word here or there to quiet everyone down.
At one point, a Rivera supporter — a very large man in a motorized wheelchair — reached out and angrily slapped a small protest poster out of the hand of Harriet Hirshorn, who is the videographer for the group East River Park ACTION. A security guard came over and warned Hirshorn not to show the poster again or she would be kicked out. Hirshorn said she told the guard that Rivera supporters were also brandishing posters but he said he didn’t care. Hers said: “Carlina Rivera is killing 1000 trees in an environmental justice neighborhood.”
Carlina Rivera predicts a storm like Hurricane Sandy “is going to happen again,” and says that low-lying areas with low-income, underserved communities need protection. As she speaks, one of her supporters reaches out and whacks down a protest poster held up by Harriet Hirshorn, the videographer for East River Park ACTION. (Video by The Village Sun)
While the protesters chanted various slogans, Rivera’s backers — including public housing tenant association leaders — often just simply shouted out, “Carlina!”
Goldman, for his part, said the city must protect against coastal flooding, though adding, to applause, “but we need to be transparent about how we go about it — communities need to be included.”
Goldman apparently was referring to how, without consulting the community, the de Blasio administration unilaterally switched from an earlier version of E.S.C.R. — which mainly called for building a protective berm in East River Park along the F.D.R. Drive — to the current, park-elevating plan.
In her remarks, Holtzman stated, “To rebuild, you shouldn’t destroy,” again winning applause from the East River Park activists. “I’m a tree hugger,” she noted.
Liz Holtzman pronounces, “To rebuild, you shouldn’t destroy.” (Video by The Village Sun)
Gleason, in perhaps the night’s most memorable zinger, told Rivera, “George Washington said, ‘I cannot tell a lie — I cut down that cherry tree.’ Carlina — admit it was wrong to cut down those trees.”
Rivera, however, recalled how she was on the front lines after Hurricane Sandy and witnessed the hardship the flooding caused to the East River communities in the East Village and Lower East Side, including its impact on high-rise public housing complexes.
“I was organizing after Hurricane Sandy,” she stressed. “I was in those buildings, on those stairways.”
But there was plenty of discussion of other environmental topics, too, in addition to East River Park, including more sweeping issues. Rivera, for example, said the city, in general, needs to “move to offshore wind, electric cars, green infrastructure… . Pedestrians and cyclists really are our priorities.”
Niou said, “We have to pass the Green New Deal.”
At one point it sounded like Holtzman, who was generally very sharp, referred to it as “the Clean New Deal.”
Gleason said New York Harbor needs heavy-duty anti-flooding infrastructure to counter rising sea levels.
“We need to build storm-surge protection equal to what Rotterdam has,” he said, adding, “Governors Island should be turned into a wind generator. Also on Governors Island, we can build desalination plants.”
Pete Gleason advocates for installing massive, movable storm-surge barriers in New York Harbor, similar to ones currently in use in the Netherlands in Europe. (Video by The Village Sun)
Gleason noted with alarm another problem, which he said he had witnessed when he was in the Coast Guard: foreign ships “stealing freshwater” from the upper Hudson River.
“In the next 20 years, water will become a commodity,” he predicted.
Goldman stressed his track record of working with federal government, including when he was the lead counsel in the first Trump impeachment. The key to being an effective congressmember, he said, “is getting things done in Washington.”
“It’s in Republicans’ self-interest to reduce climate change,” he said, adding the challenge is to convince the G.O.P. that, in the long run, cleaner energy is more beneficial. Similarly, he noted, Republicans started to scrutinize “mass incarceration” once they realized it was cheaper not to imprison so many people.
He touted the aggressive steps he took during the impeachment.
“I have used that approach against Donald Trump and I will do it on climate change,” Goldman vowed.
On the issue of congestion pricing, which would affect vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street, the candidates were all generally supportive of the scheme. However, due to the federal government’s requiring the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to conduct various analyses for the plan, the initiative’s start has been pushed back to 2024. Whether or not to support any “carve-outs” for certain groups of drivers — who would not have to pay the toll — has been a major question around the plan.
“I fully support the congestion pricing plan and I don’t support any carve-outs,” Goldman stated. He added he also supports the idea that people should “transition to scooters, e-bikes” and other low-impact modes of transportation.
Assemblymember Simon declared that she had been “onboard, boldly ahead for years” on the issue of congestion pricing, even before former Mayor Mike Bloomberg started pushing the idea.
Rivera said she supports the new traffic fee, though adding, “I do think we should incentivize electric vehicles.”
The councilmember also praised the 14th Street busway — which was the city’s first — saying more of them are needed around the city.
“I truly believe transportation is the great equalizer,” Rivera said.
She also proudly noted that she “authored and introduced” the city’s Open Streets program, calling it “a model program. … We need more of it in District 10,” she declared of the car-barring streets plan.
Niou said she supports congestion pricing, too, though noting, “Every single issue is a disability issue, and I really want to center that, as someone who has a disability.”
Instead of a carve-out, however, Niou suggested a tax break for families with disabled members. In general, she noted, environmental issues are “intersectional,” impacting multiple demographic groups and issues.
Niou also said that public housing, “by design,” was built adjacent to highways, increasing low-income residents’ asthma rates.
Asked to comment on the younger generation’s zeal and urgency in addressing climate change, the candidates praised their energy and commitment.
Holtzman, who was first elected to Congress 50 years ago, recalled of young civil rights activists of the 1960s and ’70s, “They weren’t frightened by the cattle prods and they weren’t frightened by the dogs. Without them we couldn’t have done it. I saw young people stop the war in Vietnam.”
Asked if they compost their household waste, most of the candidates said they do. Niou said she “puts stuff in a bucket,” stores it in her freezer and drops it in a receptacle of the Downtown Alliance business improvement district.
Rivera said she brings her compostable waste to the Lower East Side Ecology Center collection site in Union Square Park. However, that remark just set off another round of boos and shouts from the protesters since the LES Ecology Center has a building in East River Park.
On the thorny infrastructure issue of the decrepit Brooklyn-Queens Expressway’s “triple cantilever” skirting the edge of Brooklyn Heights, Holtzman said fixing it would only be a “band-aid.” The real question, she said, is “How do we cut back on traffic?”
“We need to find a way to make the roadway go underground with the park on top,” Goldman opined.
At one point, Niou noted she doesn’t drive or have a car, sparking approving applause from the anti-fossil-fuel audience.
Simon criticized the city’s rezoning of the low-lying area along the Gowanus Canal for development, noting, “The marshland still knows it’s marshland — even though it’s been filled in for 100 years.”
Less well known locally than the other candidates, Quanda Francis is in her second run for office after a bid for mayor last year. An accountant and data scientist, she noted how she overcame hardship growing up in public housing and getting pregnant at age 17.
On an environmental issue that has outraged Chinatown residents, the “megajail” construction project, Francis said, “I went to Chinatown. When they said they don’t want jails, I heard them loud and clear.”
Of all the candidates, Gleason got the most blowback from the audience for a couple of comments he made. In answering whether he supports congestion pricing, he said that first violent crime on the subways must be brought under control, so that people will return to the transit system, prompting boos and derisive howls from the audience.
“I do support congestion pricing,” he said, “but once we get a grip on the crime that is running rampant in this city.”
At another point, Gleason said, “We’re Democrats, we’re not the Working Families Party,” triggering a young member in the crowd, who furiously objected to his criticism of the W.F.P.
h/t @LilahLMejia– elevates the facts abt the east river project.
While it’s true no one died during Sandy (talking pt of the other side)-our seniors including my mother was in the dark for 8 days & helped other seniors to make sure they were okay in the 26fl complex. pic.twitter.com/jwlnZT774T
— Naomi Peña 🇵🇷🇩🇴 (@NaomiPenaNYC) July 20, 2022
After the environmental forum, Naomi Peña, the vice president of the Lower East Side’s Community Education Council District 1, tweeted a photo of Carlina Rivera community supporters, including activist Lilah Mejia, holding sign, and Damaris Reyes, the executive director of GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side), left. Peña’s tweet praised Rivera’s leadership while slamming what she called “transplant narratives” by protesters against the E.S.C.R. project. (Twitter)
While Mondaire Jones could not attend, he issued a statement that was read aloud and mainly focused on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court is on a rampage,” he said, “and I am leading the fight to stop it.
Similarly, Holtzman added, “Basically, the Supreme Court’s out to destroy the New Deal,” adding there should be “an investigation” into whether two of the associate justices should even be allowed to sit on the court.
After Rivera made her closing statement at the end of the forum, a burst of thunderous applause and cheers from the audience clearly showed how her supporters had turned out in numbers.
Afterward, a beaming Susan Stetzer, the district manager of the East Village’s Community Board 3, praised Rivera’s performance.
“She was inspirational and I’ve never been so proud of her,” she told The Village Sun. “I’ve watched her develop from when she was on the community board.”
Stetzer said Rivera could have wilted under the protesters’ outbursts but stood strong.
“You do what you believe in,” she said. “You do what’s right. It’s hard sometimes.”
Stetzer likened Rivera’s stance on the park to “Profiles in Courage,” John F. Kennedy’s book about eight senators who bucked their own political party on key issues, despite consequently suffering harsh criticism and losing popularity.
Traditionally, Stetzer — a former president of Coalition for a District Alternative, Rivera’s home political club — refrains from commenting publicly on local politics due to her community board position. But she said she was at the event as a private citizen. If Rivera wins election to Congress, it would be the highest office a candidate from within CoDA has ever obtained.
Also in Rivera’s camp is activist Susan Howard, a longtime leader in the struggle to wrest the vacant old P.S. 64 building, on E. Ninth Street east of Tompkins Square Park, from developer Gregg Singer.
“It was de Blasio’s plan,” Howard stressed of E.S.C.R. “It wasn’t Carlina’s plan. It was the only plan offered.” Of the earlier “Plan A,” she said, “It wasn’t offered — it was no longer an option.”
Howard also claimed that the rest of the city councilmembers, under the leadership of then-Speaker Corey Johnson, would have simply overruled Rivera if she opposed the resiliency plan.
“I was very disappointed by what happened tonight,” Howard said of the protest during the forum. “Majority-white activists trying to shame a person of color — it’s not effective organizing.”
But the East River Park activists say the battle is not over. Reverend Billy, real name Bill Talen, who has been leading weekend sermons about the park at his new Earth Church in the East Village, said they recently did a count, and that 505 of the park’s trees are still standing, despite hundreds of others having been chainsawed down. They will protect those trees, he vowed. There is a lot of fight left in the E.S.C.R. opponents, he assured.