BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Sumac mocktails, a Twitter flap, a police raid gone awry on said sumac slingers and the future of East River Park hanging in the balance. … Could you ask for anything more in a local news story?
Carlina Rivera recently cruised to victory in the Democratic primary election for City Council District 2.
However, two days before voters trekked to the polls to cast their ballots, a small band of Lower East Siders traveled to a Kips Bay street corner, where they pitched a pavement picnic outside the councilmember’s new digs. They said they wanted to talk to her about a critical issue in the election — the East Side Coastal Resiliency project and the fate of East River Park.
The event was dubbed Cocktails With Carlina, riffing on Rivera’s recent move from her native Lower East Side to the allegedly tonier Kips Bay. In an ironic toast to the pol’s new home, they sipped light drinks made of fragrant sumac picked in East River Park.
As for those mocktails…at one point, two police officers came strolling around the corner. They said they had been tipped off by an anonymous resident’s complaint about people drinking alcohol on the sidewalk, and so the group could not hold the event there. But the officers were promptly told that the beverages were nonalcoholic from plants in the park.
“Do you wanna smell our breath?” someone asked.
“So you guys made the lemonade?” one of the cops asked, sussing out the situation.
He asked if he could take a photo of the signs the protesters had posted on the wall behind them — perhaps to prove he had been there — and then snapped a shot. Then the two cops left, disappearing back around the same corner as quickly as they had come.
Meanwhile, across the street around the other corner, a police car was posted. After all the protesters eventually left, the vehicle sat there for a little while, then drove off.
Clearly, this cocktail party had some security.
At any rate, before the cops showed up, the protesters unrolled a 50-foot-long scroll of butcher block paper on the sidewalk. Written on it were constituents’ questions to Rivera, asking why she supports the city’s resiliency plan that would bury East River Park under 8 to 10 feet of landfill to raise it to create a flood barrier.
The protesters support an earlier anti-flooding plan that would not raise the park but would instead provide protection with berms and floodwalls near the F.D.R. Drive.
About a week earlier, the park advocates had held a similar event, Breakfast With Carlina, on the Lower East Side, outside the building where the councilmember lived — or so they thought. They had bagels. They spread out the long sheet of then-empty butcher block paper. They provided magic markers to locals, who quickly filled up the scroll with questions they wanted to ask Rivera about the embattled park plan and why she supports it in the face of staunch community opposition from some quarters.
However, a resident of the Pitt St. building came outside and informed them that Rivera no longer lived there. According to Harriet Hirshorn, who videos East River Park ACTION’s protests against the resiliency scheme, the man admitted he had been slipping notes under Rivera’s door saying he opposed the plan.
O.K., fast-forward eight days to Cocktails With Carlina in Kips Bay. The group stressed they were not there under the auspices of East River Park ACTION but as concerned individuals. ERPA has had to be careful as a 501c3 nonprofit that it is not engaging in political campaign activity, which would be illegal.
One of the cocktails crew, Emily Johnson, is Yup’ik, a member of the Native people of Alaska. A Lower East Side resident for the past five years, she has strongly embraced the cause of saving East River Park from the resiliency plan.
“I’m a choreography, body-based, social-justice and decolonization worker,” she said. “I’m a land and water protector and that’s really how I see my role with East River Park.
“No other neighborhood is having their park destroyed for their resiliency — only our neighborhood,” she stressed.
A startling handprint of red paint covered Johnson’s mouth and the lower half of her face.
“The red is in honor of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, trans and two-spirit…in direct connection to colonial expansion,” she explained.
Since 2017, Johnson has hosted outdoor fire events at the Abrons Arts Center at the Henry Street Settlement.
Also among the mocktails set was Magda Napoleon, one of the three daughters of Roberto Napoleon, the late longtime Baruch Houses president. Her sister Camille Napoleon, who is a tenant leader at Baruch, supports the current E.S.C.R. plan.
“Camille is for it, I’m against it,” Napoleon said. “I believe we need resiliency — just not the current plan.”
Napoleon no longer lives in Baruch Houses. But she noted that the New York City Housing Authority is ringing the sprawling complex with floodwalls of its own, leading her to ask, “So why lift up the park 8 feet?”
“People on the ground floor and first floor can no longer look out their windows,” she said. “They’re looking at a wall.”
In short, she feels the city’s resiliency approach seems like overkill.
“I’m going to be 53 years old and Sandy was the only storm like this I saw in my life,” she said.
While it has been confirmed that Rivera definitely has moved north of 14th St., so far, she’s not publicly saying why she did it. Some even speculate she might be eyeing a congressional run and wants to position herself better for it.
Napoleon, personally, said she does not see it as a big deal that Rivera has left Loisaida, where she grew up and which is her base.
“I think she has more privacy here,” she shrugged. “She lost that a long time ago Downtown. So people are either, ‘Love you!’ when they see her or go that way ,” she said, pointing off to her side, as if to show someone taking evasive maneuvers.
“I think that’s a personal decision — for her personal sanity,” she said. “As long as she’s within her [City Council] district.”
District 2 stretches up to the lower E. 30s.
However, regarding the resiliency plan, Napoleon stated, “Carlina is being too dismissive of the opposition.”
The park issue is not going away, she noted. But, then again, neither is Rivera, who was the prohibitive favorite and wound up winning about three-quarters of the primary election vote versus Erin Hussein. Hussein, who campaigned vocally on saving East River Park, admittedly did get about double the typical “protest vote.”
“We still have to work with her,” Napoleon said of Rivera.
Andrea Haenggi, a Williamsburg artist from Europe and a friend of Johnson, said COVID-19 has shown how people sorely need public open spaces to socially distance and breathe fresh air amid the health crisis.
“We have to relook this park plan because this pandemic showed us we need other things,” she stressed.
About a half hour before the Cocktails With Carlina event, another drama of sorts had played out, also involving Johnson. Rivera and Johnson had reportedly agreed to meet near Rivera’s East Village campaign office, at 13th St. and Avenue B. The councilmember reportedly had been miffed that Johnson had been tweeting about her move north in the district.
— EmilyJohnsonCatalyst (@EmilyJCatalyst) June 12, 2021
The two had bumped into each other the day before the cocktails protest, during early voting at Campos Plaza. Johnson was handing out palm cards. After introductions, Rivera reportedly requested Johnson’s address. Johnson claimed the next morning the car windshields on her block, but not other nearby blocks, were blanketed with Rivera campaign fliers.
— EmilyJohnsonCatalyst (@EmilyJCatalyst) June 12, 2021
Johnson confirmed that she and Rivera agreed to a subsequent meeting — but on the sidewalk. She showed up with a few others at the appointed spot. Rivera did end up meeting with someone — though with Pat Arnow, a leader of East River Park ACTION, the group leading the fight against the city’s resiliency plan. The two went into Rivera’s office for a sit-down. Arnow said she somehow never noticed Johnson and the others down the block just a few doors away.
“I got there early, so I went into the office,” Arnow said. “I can be a little oblivious, so I didn’t see them. I call it miscommunication.”
During the meeting, Arnow handed Rivera a letter with four asks. First, the letter requested that Rivera call for an “alienation” vote in the state Legislature on East River Park. If a park is to be taken out of commission for a significant amount of time, the Legislature is required to vote on whether to alienate it from public use. Arnow noted that the request for an alienation vote must come from the New York City Council. So far, the city has strenuously tried to avoid doing this since, for one thing, it gives the state Legislature the power to nix the project.
Second, the letter asked for an expert panel to be convened to conduct an independent review of the East Side Coastal Resiliency plan.
The letter also requested a hearing at which the bidders for the E.S.C.R. construction and the project’s budget could be reviewed, among other things.
Finally, to offset the resiliency project’s negative impacts, the letter asked for additional mitigation measures, such as increased ferry service and more bike lanes.
As for Rivera allegedly asking for Johnson’s address, Arnow said she was there, too, and that it did happen. In fact, Arnow introduced the two women and encouraged a hesitant Johnson to cough up her address, out of a sense of fairness.
“I said to her, ‘You know Carlina’s address,'” she said. However, in retrospect, Arnow said she now sort of regrets it. As opposed to the Yup’ik activist, “Carlina’s a public figure,” she noted.
Meanwhile, a Rivera spokesperson said he and another aide were with the councilmember when she bumped into Johnson and Arnow at Campos Plaza on June 19. He denied that Rivera asked for Johnson’s address, saying she just asked broadly about where she lived in the district. As for the claim that Rivera campaign workers then blitzed Johnson’s block with Rivera fliers the next day, the Rivera aide said the campaign had been “fliering all over the district.” He also said Rivera was not the one who made the complaint to police later that day about the mocktail party.
Johnson also said that, apparently as a sort of neighborhood litmus test, Rivera had asked her if she spoke Spanish. She replied that she does not, to which Rivera reportedly said, “You’re not from here.” The Rivera spokesperson called that “completely false.”
The Village Sun asked Arnow if this last exchange, as related by Johnson, did occur.
“I can confirm all you said,” she said. “That sounds correct.” …
At any rate…maybe everyone could just use a stiff mocktail about now.