The Big Apple is Turning Green

By Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff, New York City.

New York’s urban ecology is thriving.

Out of the glitter, graffiti and asphalt a new face of New York is emerging. Slowly, the Big Apple is turning green.

It’s hard to notice what with the careening taxis and the towering skyscrapers. We discovered the city’s green sheen at a leisurely human pace. Recycle-a-Bicycle, a group that rescues the vehicles from scrap and teaches inner city kids how to fix ’em up, made us a deal: two bikes for $100. And after our two week stint they would buy them back from us for $75. Cheap, clean transport.

With wings to soar, we discovered the architecture, followed our noses to quaint cafés, and savoured our windshield-free meanderings.

Some think it dangerous. While cruising through Greenwich Village a loud explosion suddenly scared us. A passerby yelled: “Has someone been shot?” Ange was off her bike, looking stunned. Her tire had blown out.

Manhattan, though car infested, has probably the lowest rate of car ownership in North America, if not the western world. Only 22% of households own cars. With such an extensive public transit system, and easily accessible neighbourhood stores, a car is more of a hassle than anything. Yet somehow a million vehicles, many of them trucks, manage to squeeze into Manhattan daily.

A New Yorker we met on the street put it this way: “They should ban cars. It would save the island, and (hu)mankind.” There is talk of bringing the streetcar back to 42nd Street.

One of our favourite spots to hang out was Washington Square Park, a kind of carnival of improv musicians, pot sellers, rappers, tappers, slackers and tourists. It’s a colourful people place, and its recent history is instructive. Bisected by busy Fifth Avenue up until the 1970’s, the locals demanded that the park become carfree. Traffic engineers predicted mayhem and gridlock. The locals got their way, and the dire predictions were proven unfounded. What was shown was that just as more roads generate traffic, reducing road capacity results in traffic disappearing. Then people, and conviviality, reappear like magic.

New York’s subway and bus system is topnotch, with over 40% of the whole country’s mass transit in the city. They have even managed to eliminate the graffiti that used to adorn subway car walls and darken the windows. While July 4th marked the landing of a buggy on Mars, a more down-to-earth transportation breakthrough took place in New York. Actually it was down-to- water: the fare on the Staten Island Ferry was reduced to zero. Now there’s an enticement to not drive. So are the new, extra wide (10′) bicycle paths on two of Manhattan’s main avenues.

On the sidewalks next to the bike paths mobs of pedestrians share space with piles of garbage. But something has changed over the past few years. Rather than one huge mound of stuff destined for landfill, there are now piles of cardboard and paper for recycling, as well as glass, metal and plastic destined for another life. Now do you believe in reincarnation?

Friends urged us to track down Wendy Brawer, who has developed a green map for New York City which has over seven hundred sites indicated. The green map idea has inspired similar maps in dozens of cities around the world (www.greenmap.com). By bike she graciously gave us a green tour of lower Manhattan.

In Manhattan it’s a rare treat to actually touch the earth, see lilies flowering, or smell the roses. But on numerous sites in each block of the East Village there are luscious gardens, usually on squatted ground, or rented from the city for a buck. These oases have been meticulously nurtured, transformed from squalid debris-ridden lots to firefly havens. Even tiny spaces are often a delight as bright green mini-Edens. Echinacea blooms in Greenwich Village.

“The kiss of the sun for pardon, The song of the birds for mirth. One is nearer god’s heart in a garden, Than anywhere else on earth.” -Spotted on a sign in a midtown Manhattan garden.

And we saw some good educational initiatives. Numerous buildings sported a simple message: Save water, report leaks and water waste by calling this number.

The city ain’t paradise though. The noisy garbage trucks seemed to be circulating at all hours, and a few mornings we were awakened by jackhammers. It was even deafening at one of the shows we attended. Tap Dogs, a wild tap show from Australia, featured frenetic tapping up and down metal ladders, tapping upside down, or in the midst of sparks from steel grinding wheels. We were so impressed we decided to take a photo, but before we could snap it some big guy appeared out of nowhere to tell us that picture taking was prohibited. He demanded our camera, and we naively gave it to him. Then we got paranoid. Thankfully at the end of the show he returned it to us.

Not everyone is so honest. In New York bicycles disappear faster than Superman. Kryptonite U-locks come with a guarantee against theft, but New York City is specifically excluded.

Public smoking is also disappearing. Even the legendary jazz club Blue Note was not tinged with a blue haze: we heard Betty Carter with nary an ashtray in sight. As she crooned the tune My Amazon we tapped along: “Stop. Don’t cut down no more trees.”

Back outside, the streets sure could use some trees to cool down the heat and help clean the air – the second worst in the country. After a day outdoors you can wipe the grime off your skin.

But there’s hope – part of the skin of a new skyscraper under construction on Times Square will be made up of photovoltaic solar panels. The green building will itself generate electricity, and efficient heating and cooling systems will greatly reduce its energy requirements.

Someone at Earth Summit 2 told us that he wouldn’t want to live in New York: it’s too mechanical, and it’s only about money. But another picture glimmers in our minds. Atop one of the World Trade Centre towers, high above the city, basking in the sunlight, stands a small green plant that has optimistically taken root. Somehow, it seems, nature just won’t let go.

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