BY NAOMI SCHILLER | My 11-year-old remarked to me last week, “It’s hard to remember what was there.” We were standing outside our apartment building at the edge of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, gazing east at the mountain of gravel, towering cranes and orange construction barrels that currently populate East River Park. The city is rebuilding the park with an integrated flood-protection system, a $1.5 billion plan called the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project that aims to guard the neighborhood against storm surge and sea level rise.
I pointed out to my child that amid the tangle of construction we could still see the small brick Fireboat House that has been, for decades, home to the Lower East Side Ecology Center. A flash of recognition crossed her face. We learned to compost, fish and appreciate the East River’s complex aquatic environment from the Ecology’s Center’s many free public programs. Even amid the confusion of construction, the Fireboat House continues to anchor the park and our memory. I couldn’t bring myself to share with my child — at least not yet — that the Fireboat House is now also on the chopping block.
On Jan. 11, the Department of Design and Construction told Manhattan’s Community Board 3 that the city might renege on its plan to repair and fortify Lower East Side Ecology’s home in the Fireboat House. Instead, the city might demolish the 80-year-old building. This reversal endangers not only our connection to the waterfront’s history, but also the only dedicated community space for environmental education and community stewardship in East River Park.
Lower East Siders have been trying to come to terms with what it means to adapt to climate change. Between 2013 and 2018, community members worked with the city on a plan to redesign East River Park with integrated flood protection to shield the neighborhood from the major flooding we experienced when Superstorm Sandy pummeled the region in 2012. When the city drastically changed the design of the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project in 2018 without consulting community partners, a bitter fight unfolded about whether to endorse or protest the new plan, pitting neighbors against neighbors.
Despite this split, community members united around two things: our shared anger at the city’s disregard for meaningful community participation in decision making and our commitment to returning the Lower East Side Ecology Center to its home in the historic Fireboat House. We agreed that a park whose goal is to promote resilience in the face of climate change sorely needed to be anchored by our very own community-based nonprofit organization, the Lower East Side Ecology Center, with its decades of experience teaching New Yorkers how to practice environmental sustainability and steward East River Park.
The Fireboat House has graced New York City’s waterfront for more than 80 years. The two-story Moderne-style building was erected in 1941 in East River Park for the Fire Department’s Marine Company 66, replacing similar structures that had operated from a pier at the end of Grand Street since 1898. Robert Moses built East River Park in the late 1930s by extending Manhattan’s shoreline into the saltwater estuary. At the time, fireboats played a vital role in dousing the fires that threatened boats and the working waterfront with startling frequency. The Fireboat House serves as a living memory of the importance of the East River and New York City’s ports to the early development and expansion of our city and the F.D.N.Y.’s maritime operations. The building’s historic significance is recognized by the New York State Historic Preservation Office, which determined that the structure is eligible for the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
Since 1987, the Ecology Center has been teaching New Yorkers that our actions have an impact on our soil, air and water. The Fireboat House is the only community space in East River Park where students, neighbors, interns and educators can gather to teach and learn about our environment. The Ecology Center’s free weekend composting workshops, fishing clinics and volunteer park cleanups run out of the Fireboat House allow neighbors to connect with the river, urban nature, and each other. We need flood protection, but we also need to live much more sustainably; the Lower East Side Ecology Center teaches us how.
The city’s announcement that it is considering sacrificing the Fireboat House and replacing the Ecology’s Center home with an office trailer was the latest sign that the administration disregards community participation and grassroots initiative. Valuing community-centered sustainability and adaptive reuse no doubt presents enormous engineering challenges. But these challenges are not insurmountable. To ensure the structural stability of the Fireboat House, the first floor should be redesigned to manage flooding and the supporting piles, deck and bulkhead should be rehabilitated, as the city has indicated for years that it intended to do. The building and our park steward, the Lower East Side Ecology Center, are worth investment.
Schiller is a cultural anthropologist who teaches at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She lives with her family on the Lower East Side across from the East River Park’s Fireboat House.