How 5 N.Y.C. Neighborhoods Are Struggling With Climate Change

New data projects are linking social issues with global warming. Here’s what that means for these New York communities.


Some of the effects of climate change on New York City neighborhoods are clear: extreme heat. Persistent flooding.

But as city leaders explore which neighborhoods are most vulnerable to a warming world, they are also focusing on less obvious factors like poverty, chronic health conditions and language barriers that can deepen the impact of climate change.

Several new data-gathering efforts are helping shed light on how socioeconomic issues can add to a community’s overall risk as droughts, floods and wildfires become more extreme and sea levels rise.

The findings indicate that in the city, the neighborhoods most unprepared for climate change have a lot in common: They are poor; have congestion and histories of redlining or industrial pollution; and for many of their residents, English is a second language.

“You find these same situations in all these locales: very little tree covering, heavily exposed pollutants and projects and industry that’s been zoned to be placed there,” said Mychal Johnson, a founding member of the nonprofit South Bronx Unite, which helped develop the U.S. Climate Vulnerability Index, an expansive mapping project that compiled public data from across the country.

And in April, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Climate & Environmental Justice published a similar project and interactive map.

Using these tools and other similar indexes, here are some of the most vulnerable regions in the city.

The Cross-Bronx Expressway cuts off the South Bronx from the rest of the borough, with cars and trucks — over 187,000 daily — spewing pollution.

The construction of the thoroughfare in the middle of the last century displaced 60,000 residents and helped condemn much of the area around it to poverty, as well as elevated rates of asthma.

Disproportionate levels of health consistent with high levels of poverty make climate change harder on residents of the South Bronx, said Earle Chambers, an epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Extreme heat, a major issue in the South Bronx, is especially tough on those with chronic illnesses. And New Yorkers with asthma were in danger last summer when wildfires in Canada turned the skies red over New York. Those with financial hardships were further challenged, visiting emergency rooms — a guaranteed way to seek treatment regardless of income or insurance — in record numbers.

In the South Bronx, where 94 percent of residents are Black or Hispanic, the percentage of residents living below the poverty level is about twice the city average, as is the percentage of adults 25 and over who did not graduate from high school, according to a census analysis of neighborhoods in the South Bronx region, including Grand Concourse, Melrose, Mott Haven, Point Morris and Hunts Point, by Social Explorer, a demographic data firm.

Adult asthma rates in the South Bronx are significantly higher than the city average — 6 percent compared with 3.8 percent citywide — and over a third of residents are obese and considered to be at risk for diabetes and heart disease.

Living near a congested highway can produce a domino effect of challenges, said Arif Ullah, the executive director of South Bronx Unite.

“If a child has asthma or heart disease, there are more absences from school, which means a risk of not graduating, which could affect job prospects,” Mr. Ullah said. “It’s just a very vicious cycle.”

Ritchie Torres, the Democratic congressman who represents the area, along with Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, secured $2 million for the city and state to study covering parts of the expressway with parks and other amenities.

Such a project would help “right the historical wrong” of the expressway being built in the South Bronx to begin with, Dr. Chambers said.

Red Hook, an isolated, low-lying waterfront neighborhood, still affected by an industrial history and by emissions from a nearby cruise ship terminal, also has a shortage of trees.

In 2012, hundreds of trees were felled or damaged by Hurricane Sandy, which flooded the area and knocked out the power and water at the Red Hook Houses, New York City’s second-largest public housing complex. In order to make repairs there, officials cut down about an additional 400 trees.

Trees serve as a buffer for storm water, filter the air, provide oxygen and store carbon dioxide. In addition to shading people, they also shade buildings, which helps reduce energy consumption.

But trees struggle to thrive in Red Hook. The water table is high, meaning the ground is often saturated, and most of the soil is red clay, which can be dense, making it difficult for trees to take root.

(NYC Parks, which is behind a citywide tree-planting and maintenance effort, has planted 565 trees in the neighborhood since 2015, and intends to plant 40 more this spring.)

Some residents have taken it upon themselves to nurture the street trees. Red Hook Conservancy, a nonprofit, organizes groups to clean out tree beds and nourish them with mulch or compost.

Students are doing their part, too. Six graders at nearby Harbor Middle School undertook a project to design and build guards to protect tree beds.

Lynn Shon, a teacher at the school, led the project. “Students looked at data and discovered that flooding, sea level rise and extreme heat were problems disproportionately impacting Red Hook, along with the urban heat island effect” (when cities tend to be warmer than rural areas), she said. “They were able to identify trees as a high-leverage solution.”

Shantae Johnson moved to Edgemere five years ago because of the cheap rent, she said. Ms. Johnson, a single mother, was on a tight budget, which revolved around feeding her seven children.

She soon realized there were no grocery stores in the flood-prone neighborhood. In Edgemere, a beach community, a simple chore like food shopping is already a major operation. But as flooding becomes more commonplace, navigating the waterlogged areas makes the task even more onerous.

“We have the double whammy effect,” said Sonia Moise, president of the area’s civic association, referring to flooding from two directions: the Atlantic Ocean to the south and Jamaica Bay to the north.

Every week, Ms. Johnson would lug her shopping cart onto the subway and travel from the Rockaway Peninsula in southern Queens to Union Square in Manhattan (over an hourlong trip) to do her grocery shopping.

“It took a toll on me,” she said.

But two years ago, Ms. Johnson caught a break. She stumbled upon a community garden during a walk. Soon, she had her own patch of land and was growing spinach and basil. She harvested so much squash last summer that she filled her freezer and gave away the rest.

The garden changed her life, Ms. Johnson said. “I get friendship, community, food and an oasis,” she said.

The Garden by the Bay is a precious resource in amenity-poor Edgemere, where the closest grocery store is over a mile away, Ms. Moise said.

The food desert here is just one problem, said Jackie Rogers, the president of the 15,000-square-foot garden, which has five community plots and 23 for individual use. “We check all the boxes when it comes to deserts,” she said. “Food, transportation, education, recreation, lack of infrastructure.”

On the food front, there is some good news: This fall, a 20,000 square-foot grocery store is scheduled to open. It will be part of a mixed-use affordable housing complex with over 2,000 apartments.

Ms. Rogers would like to see more amenities and infrastructure upgrades — like more raised streets — first. “I’m sounding the alarm,” she said. “We need resiliency here.”

During extreme weather, staying informed is key to staying safe. But for New Yorkers who do not speak English or lack internet services, doing so can be a challenge.

Public libraries can help. And in the event of a storm or flood, many libraries go into disaster relief mode, becoming communications hubs and distribution centers for clothing, food and medicine.

“Librarians are always collaborating to connect people to resources, that’s what we do,” said Emily Drabinski, president of the American Library Association.

But in Throgs Neck, an isolated community with little public transit, there is just one library for tens of thousands of people. The Throgs Neck Library, housed in a squat one-story building in the poorest part of the neighborhood just off the Cross Bronx Expressway, offers limited services.

Yet the need is there, said Leida Velazquez, the branch manager. Over the past year, she has seen an increase in patrons using the computers, as well as requests for assistance in applying for identification cards, jobs and food stamps benefits. “I’ll print applications for them,” she said.

With the recent influx of migrants, there is also a strong demand for English classes at the branch. But the building is too small to offer them, Ms. Velazquez said, so she often refers people to the Bronx Library Center. Getting there requires two buses and takes over an hour.

The demand for library services and support in this area of Throgs Neck underscores its need. According to Social Explorer, nearly a third of residents in the census tract closest to the library are below poverty level. And about one out of four residents has no other computing device besides a smartphone. Nearly half of people 5 and older speak a language other than English at home.

Across the city, budget cuts have caused many branches to make do with skeletal staffs and outdated HVAC systems, which could hamper their ability to function as cooling centers, said Lauren Comito, the executive director of Urban Librarians Unite. And more cuts could be on the way.

“If we want libraries to prepare for climate disaster, we will need more funding and to train staff,” she said.

In the late 19th century, more than 50 oil refineries sat on the banks of Newtown Creek, a 3.8 mile waterway between Brooklyn and Queens. Now, the Brooklyn side of the creek is home to one of the largest oil spills in American history, and of two of the city’s four Superfund Sites (areas so toxic they qualify for government intervention).

But for Willis Elkins, the executive director of Newtown Creek Alliance, an environmental nonprofit, the most urgent threat to the area is a 117-acre storage facility.

There, two large tanks store liquefied natural gas, which can be converted to fuel for heating during cold-weather emergencies. “Liquefied gas is incredibly volatile and dangerous to store and transport,” Mr. Elkins said.

“The liquid gas is not even 1,000 yards from where we live,” said Elisha W. Fye, the vice president of the resident council of Cooper Park Houses, a public housing complex that sits next to the site.

Area residents have concerns about groundwater flooding people’s homes with toxins. Remnants of coal tar, a substance that was used when the site was an oil refinery, still bubble up at low tide, said Mr. Elkins, who added that other chemicals have also been detected around the site, which sits in a flood zone.

Mr. Fye, 70, has been part of several successful community efforts to block upgrades to the site, which is owned by National Grid, a company that provides gas to 1.9 million customers in New York City and on Long Island.

Several activists and energy experts want the site to shut down. But National Grid maintains that the site provides energy reliability in the event of extreme weather, and that the Greenpoint facility “meets or exceeds all safety regulations,” Karen Young, a spokeswoman for the company, said.

National Grid is investing millions in a new fire suppression system for the site; its old one was flooded and destroyed during Hurricane Sandy. And it is seeking millions more in proposed rate hikes for other upgrades.

If approved, residents in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island could see their monthly heating bills increase by more than $65 by 2026, and local gas infrastructure would remain in place well into the 2080s, which is against the state’s climate goals, said Kim Fraczek, the director of the Sane Energy Project, a group that has helped shut down several of National Grid’s expansion efforts.

Ms. Young said that most of the revenue from increased rates would cover federal and state safety mandates.

But Ms. Fraczek would like to see a more specific accounting, she said. “It’s an economic issue, it’s an environmental justice issue.”


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