The Green Standard Environmental reporting in the New York metro area Thu, 07 Jan 2010 14:26:31 +0000 en hourly 1 Unlikely partners connect through food recycling Mon, 04 Jan 2010 02:38:02 +0000 Laura Dodd View Photo Slideshow of Food Recycling Programs

New York City, NY—Miriam Pensac and Frank Gaddy have never met. It’s likely they never will.

Ms. Pensac is a freshman at Columbia University pursuing a double major in theatre and philosophy. She grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and was on a competitive ski team until she was 14 years old.

Mr. Gaddy is a recovered crack addict who was once homeless and served 20 years in jail for a litany of crimes, including selling drugs and a gang-related homicide.

But on a recent grey day in Morningside Heights, about a mile apart, these two people share something fundamental: their food.

What allows this logistical marvel to happen is a food-recycling program that gathers leftovers from the main dining hall on Columbia’s campus and serves them to homeless people at a nearby soup kitchen.

Every Friday, City Harvest, a non-profit organization that distributes donated food throughout the city, picks up, on average, more than 300 pounds of excess food from the University cafeteria where Pensac usually eats and delivers it around the neighborhood. The majority of the University’s leftovers go to Metropolitan Baptist Church in Harlem, where it becomes part of Mr. Gaddy’s Saturday meal.

With the economic downturn settling in for the winter and the brunt of the cold weather approaching, food pantries and soup kitchens across the city are struggling to meet demand. City Harvest reports 15% longer lines, according to Erin Hoover, senior manager of communications.

And at Metropolitan Baptist Church, which runs a soup kitchen on 138th and 7th Ave. that receives the Ivy League leftovers, it’s standing room only. “The economy is bringing more people out on the street—new faces, young faces, mothers with children. You can’t sit down in here,” Mr. Gaddy said. “The joint is packed.”

In a city where homelessness is part of the landscape, each neighborhood must fend for itself. On the Upper West Side, this operation between such unlikely partners—an Ivy-League University and a homeless shelter—is helping to feed the Harlem locals.

The man who brokered the odd-couple team wasn’t a university administrator or a non-profit executive. Rather, it was a man who knew both worlds.

Don Weems, a chef the university’s main dining hall, used to be on the receiving end of a free meal. After losing his job for «doing a lot of things I wasn’t supposed to,»

Mr. Weems lived in the streets for a year, visiting soup kitchens for the warm company and the hot food.

“I was sleeping on the train every night, and going to soup kitchens,” he said, his jolly demeanor belying his rough past. He’s a youthful 62-years-old and proudly wears a Kelly-green apron and matching chef’s hat—part of a colorful show-off wardrobe that his staff loves to tease him about.

During Christmas holidays they call him «Reindeer Don». In late October, the nickname is «Halloween Don.» Chef Weems doesn’t mind the extra attention—he keeps a yellowed copy of a school neighborhood newsletter write-up with this picture taped to the main office window.

Once back on his feet and employed at the school, he couldn’t help but notice a lost opportunity. “A lot of the food would be disposed of and it really bothered me,» he said. «It took me back to standing in line for hours.» He took the initiative to contact City Harvest and arrange for the leftover food to be picked up once a week. The kitchen staff was supportive, but not so inclined to take on the extra work that saving food requires—packing, labeling, storing. “No one wanted to pack the food because they were doing their job, so I took on that responsibility.”

The additional chores add about 30 minutes to Mr. Weems’ already hectic schedule of helping to prepare over 2000 meals per day. The kitchen staff of 40 cooks two meals—a brunch/lunch combo and dinner—seven days a week, constantly utilizing hundreds of pots and pans and six ovens. Forming part of the perimeter around the kitchen area are designated rooms for practically every variety of ingredient: produce, canned-goods, meat, dairy.

Students like Ms. Penzac, of course, rarely get to glimpse what’s behind the curtain. They file directly into the dining hall—a cavernous room with dark-oak paneling, floor-to-ceiling windows, and chandeliers—and then eat.

The former competitive skier called it quits once the 4 a.m. wake-up calls for practice became too much. “For any competitive sport you have to be a competitive person, and I’m not,” she said, resembling more of a pink-cheeked cherub than a chiseled downhill racer. She traded the skis lessons for singing lessons and is now studying acting—in the classroom and on the silver screen. To prepare for her thespian career, she has seen the classic, A Streetcar Named Desire, «about a million times.»

Ms. Pensac managed to tap into a competitive mode, though, when it came to academics, helping to secure her a spot at the university: she made straight A’s in high school and scored in the 99 percentile of the ACT, a standardized test required by admissions offices.

Now, shuffling between classes and acting lessons, the freshman grabs a bite at the dining hall. Awaiting her and her peers are infamous “Freshman 15” temptations (the extra weight new students put on by “eating with their eyes”): freshly prepared hot food buffet, complete with gluten-free and vegan options; pizza and sandwich bar; make-your-own waffle station; made-to-order burgers and hot dogs; and a dessert area showcasing cakes, cookies and frozen yogurt with all the toppings.

Most students have an idea of where the excess food ends up. “I was aware, to a degree, that they were packaging this food for homeless shelters, but that’s the extent of what I knew,” said Ms. Penzac, snacking on a salad of tofu, beets and spinach.

Dining hall administrators have been well aware of the social responsibilities of food recycling. Recently, they implemented green initiatives as well. Trays were eliminated in 2007 to reduce food waste, which had an immediate affect on resources. “Dining Services is able to save 3,000 gallons of water waste each day and at least 50 lbs of food waste,” according to the Dining Services website.

Students took action, too. Early in the semester student Eco-Reps, an environmentally-minded group of undergraduates, chose to educate the incoming class with a more literal demonstration. Every day for a week, the group stood by the dirty-dish conveyor belt and collected food scraps before they were thrown out. Total weight of wasted food in September? 160 pounds.

To underscore the waste-not message, a large sign hangs over the drop-off station: “What Did You Waste Today? You hold the Power to Prevent Waste!”

Meanwhile, down below in the basement kitchen, the staff noticed a difference, especially Chef Weems since he started in 1996. “They don’t eat like they used to,” he said.

At the end of the week, a City Harvest truck makes the rounds around the Upper West Side. When it eventually pulls up to the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Harlem, about 30 minutes later, disheveled men stream out of the basement and form an assembly line, patiently passing each aluminum tin of food to the next guy. The soup kitchen serves one free meal six days a week to approximately 75-100 people, all from donated food delivered by City Harvest.

Metal fold-up chairs and tables fill this stark-white dining hall. A Proverb’s Bible verse framed on the wall reads “Fathers Save your Sons. Mothers Save your Daughters. God Save Us All.” A few boxes of browning bananas and limes are near the front, which a few people snack on. One woman inhales four bananas under five minutes, then returns to her crouched position, hugging her knees. Piles of bread are stacked on tables and in shopping charts.

Everyone is welcome here; no questions asked. “We serve the homeless, destitute, people just hungry and smell it off the street,” said John Hayes, a volunteer who re-heats the donated food. “We’re just like a family.”

Mr. Gaddy, known as ‘Slim’ around the center, is grateful to be part of that family because for nearly two decades, he was part of an each-man-for-himself type family—jail. “Rounded off, I did about 20 years. I have four felonies and 14 misdemeanors,” he said, including petty larceny, narcotic sales and “one body”—street talk for homicide.

During that time in his life, he’d do just about anything to support his habit. “If I could sell your ass, I’d sell it to get me a bag of dope,” he said curtly.

And when Mr. Gaddy tired of that “hustle,” he was often tempted to commit another crime just so he could get locked-up again where there was food and a place to sleep. “I thought about it plenty of times. I’d think I’d take a garbage can and go down on 34th street and throw it in Macy’s front window and stand there and wait for the police.”

To fill his empty stomach, he’d show-up for a free meal at the soup kitchen. He didn’t know where the food came from, and he didn’t care. “We don’t know nothin’ about where the food comes from or who it’s donated from. Only thing we know it comes here,” he said, “and given out to people who need it.”

Now Mr. Gaddy is clean and has an apartment in the Bronx. Along with the other volunteers, he helps to run the soup kitchen. His official role is distributing numbered tickets to people as they file in. His unofficial role is as proof of hope. He offers a hug and gentle word of encouragement to those who look like they’re having an especially rough morning because he knows he’s just one bad decision away from reverting to that life.

A few subway stops to the south, Ms. Pensac, the student who aspires to become a theatre actress, will most likely never know Mr. Gaddy. She’ll probably never meet Chef Weems either. But in a large city grappling with a large hunger problem, three strangers on the Upper West Side are more connected than they think.

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Slideshow: Food Recycling, from our plate to yours Mon, 04 Jan 2010 02:23:08 +0000 Laura Dodd

Untitled from Laura Dodd on Vimeo.

Read the original story.

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New York Butchers Bring Pasture-Raised Meat Closer to Home Tue, 22 Dec 2009 21:39:37 +0000 Melissa Muller As a child in a breezy Sicilian cliff-side village, I had a room with an unforgettable view. My balcony window framed layers upon layers of flowing countryside hills. Staring out at the terrain, I previewed the mandarin oranges, prickly pears, olives and tomatoes that we later used as ingredients in our meals. That view would make a perfect postcard for the locavore food movement now taking off in the United States today.

Although the view’s intensity waxed and waned depending on the season, one aspect of the landscape remained constant: the daily arrival of the stooped old herdsman and his shepherd dog from behind a flock of wooly-backed sheep, and the tinkling of their bells as they paraded by. Now my days in Sicily are limited to fleeting vacations, as I live full-time in New York, where my view is of a closed-in courtyard, and the tinkling of sheep’s bells has been replaced by the honking of car horns. I can only dream of that timeless Mediterranean view.

But with a rise in availability of “local” pasture-raised livestock, I have started to feel as if I’m hearing the delicate ringing of those bells from my apartment window, especially when the intense tang of the lamb on my dinner plate now recalls the taste of the meat I used to get from my Sicilian cousin Filippo, the butcher. The bells have never been ringing so close to my home in the Big Apple.

Over the last decade, a handful of chefs cooking at so-called farm-to-table restaurants introduced New Yorkers to the delights of eating local meats, vegetables, cheeses and delicacies. Eateries such as Blue Hill, Savoy and Gramercy Tavern made a name for themselves by offering the cream of the crop from the farmers’ market on their menus. But those local bites, albeit succulent, came at a steep price and were geared to an elite clientele.

Thanks to the growth of the greenmarkets and the introduction of community-sponsored agriculture—a program which fosters participants to become minor shareholders in local farms in return for a weekly bag of seasonal produce—legions of urban dwellers are eating more locally grown fruits and vegetables.

The availability of meat from local farmers remained limited until farmers’ markets introduced such meat into the city, where it is sold directly to the public. Now, two butchers, Dickson’s Farm Stand Meats in Chelsea Market and The Meat Hook in Brooklyn, offer meat exclusively from local farmers. Not only is the meat more economical than the locally produced meat offered at farmer’s markets, but it is sold fresh, not frozen.

Dickson’s Farm Stand Meats is run by 30-year-old Jake Dickson, who is usually clad in a spotless butcher coat and a vintage shirt and tie. New York State-raised pork, beef, lamb and poultry are sold at the white-tiled shop, which has quickly become a fixture among Chelsea Market’s gourmet shops.

I was hooked after tasting the full gamut of Dickson’s local delicacies. Making meatballs with the shop’s ground beef or lamb is a culinary delight.  Like the meat from Sicily, its flavor is prominent and it remains moist. It’s not the first time I’ve cooked with meat from pasture-raised animals, but this local meat is far superior. Dickson is adamant that his local meat tastes better because of the breed of the animals, their diet and their humane lifestyle. But just how local is local?

In the vernacular of the locavore, when referring to fruits and vegetables “local” means food that travels no more than 100 miles from farm to fork. Food that travels in excess of 100 miles is considered “regional,“ not local. Local food is considered eco-friendly because it leaves a smaller carbon footprint. When it comes to meat, however, the word “local” takes on new meaning. Even livestock that is raised within a 100-mile radius must detour to the slaughterhouse and butcher before arriving in the city. Hence, there is no fixed mileage count for meats to be considered “local.”  Dickson’s “local” meat travels no more than 400 miles from farm to fork.

All of Dickson’s lamb and beef comes from upstate New York farms, such as Stony Brook Farm, located nearly 200 miles outside of the city on the outskirts of a quaint town called Schoharie. Stony Brook is run by 36-year-old Bob Comis and his wife. Disgusted by the stomach-churning practices of the industrial farm industry, Comis became a vegan; five years ago, he and his wife moved to the Schoharie Valley, where they humanely raise their own animals.

Photo by: Zach Phillips

Photo by: Zach Phillips

Among other breeds, Comis raises Icelandic sheep, a centuries-old breed that he says “has not been ‘improved’ by the introduction of genetics from other breeds.” While he claims that many other breeds produce meat just as good, the Icelandic sheep are stronger and take care of their offspring. Bob’s sheep—which are fenced into the largest open areas around the grassiest parts of the pasture and rotated—are grass-fed, meaning their diet consists of fresh grass and hay, which contains nutrient rich clover and alfalfa.

Less than 20 miles from his farm, Bob has found a slaughterhouse that handles the sheep gently to reduce the animal’s suffering. “If the sheep I raise are treated poorly at the slaughterhouse, then I have failed in my effort to raise sheep according to the highest welfare standards,” says Bob. Interestingly, meat sold at the greenmarket travels a greater distance than when sold at Dickson’s, because after going to the slaughterhouse, the meat is sent to the butcher, then back to the farm and then to the greenmarket. Comis’ meat is delivered directly to Jake Dickson’s store from the slaughterhouse.

According to Jo Robinson, author of “Pasture Perfect,” a book about the benefits of grass-fed livestock, the difference between meat from pasture-raised animals and mainstream meat is “like night and day.” Supermarket meat tends to come from industrial meat-producing factory farms, where animals are kept in prison-like pens with little room to move.

Beyond the living conditions, the difference between such factory farm and pasture-raised animals lies in the diet. Most beef found in American grocery stores and eateries comes from livestock raised in factories, where they are injected with hormones and fed corn and other grains in order to fatten them up quickly. Since cattle are ruminants, meaning their three-tiered stomachs are built to digest grass, a grain-rich diet can be harmful. In most cases, the animals require antibiotics to stay alive until they are slaughtered.

Pasture raised animals are almost exclusively grass-fed, although some are fed grain for the last weeks of their lives in order to boost the marble or fat that collects in their meat. This more natural diet requires little to no use of antibiotics. Grass-fed animals are not only healthier, but according to Robinson, “their meat is significantly more nutritious for humans than feed-lot meat, containing higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants.”

However, Robinson does not make a distinction between the nutritional value or taste of grass-fed meat that is raised locally and that which comes from father distances. “It’s about how they are raised and what they are fed, not just the fact that they are closer to you,” says Robinson, adding, “Surely, I tasted grass-fed meat that I didn’t like.”

Riccardo Buitoni, chef and owner of Nolita’s Emporio, serves a N.Y. strip steak on his menu that comes from a breed of cow called Piedmontese, which has evolved in the Alpine regions of Italy since the Stone Age. This is the only breed that has a documented genetic tenderness that produces “uniquely lean and tender” meat.

Raised on a farm in Montana, the meat reminds Riccardo of the meat from his native Italy, and he says it “downright tastes better.” While many of the items on the rest of Riccardo’s menu are locally produced, the meat is not. At home, Riccardo and his wife espouse a local food diet. In the restaurant, he incorporates this personal philosophy “whenever possible” saying, “Italian food tastes best when local fresh ingredients are used.” However, he justifies purchasing the Piedmontese beef because of its unique texture and flavor and closeness to the “real Italian taste.”

Locavores choose local food over other food in order to lower the impact on the environment, boost the local economy, and simply because local food is often fresher and tastier. Locavores, like the famed Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma, continue to speak out about the damaging effects that livestock factory farms have on the environment. Livestock are responsible for a high percentage of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. While some environmentalists promote vegetarianism in order to reduce such emissions, others like Pollan support eating locally raised pasture-fed animals rather than giving up meat altogether.

Brent Young, a butcher at Brooklyn’s newly-opened The Meat Hook, says that the environmental justification for eating locally raised animals is “a selling point.” While he acknowledges the “smaller carbon footprint” of eating local meat, Young believes “it really comes down to the [meat's] superior taste.” His response to the environmental impact of the meat industry is to “eat less meat,” an ironic statement, coming from a butcher.

The idea of eating less meat harkens back to my Sicilian roots. In Sicily and other Mediterranean cultures, meat is not usually the main dish. Rather, it serves as an ingredient in other dishes, and is usually eaten only on special occasions. My cousin, Filippo, the butcher, sums it up succinctly, saying, in his deep Sicilian dialect, “With a little meat, you can feed a feast.”

For recipes, maps, interviews with farmers and more, visit:

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Graffiti, Manure and Environmental Justice: Making the Case for Community Court Tue, 22 Dec 2009 19:56:03 +0000 Katherine Olson  

It is nearly freezing out, but Robert Johnson and Bill Adelman are sweeping Times Square clean one block aMCC defendants paint over a graffiti-covered hydrant.t a time. They’re here as part of punishment handed down by the Midtown Community Court, and aside from their electric-blue court-issued vests, the two have little in common.

“I shoplifted, I tried to take 11 pairs of jeans,” baby-faced Johnson pauses, reconsiders. He’s young, good-natured and swaggering. “Twelve, no, 13 pairs of jeans, out a store.” Rather than serve jail time, “I can clean this up instead. I’m doing this on the outside; I ain’t doing this on the inside. I can walk clean, look at the girls goin’ past, talk to the sound wave [reporter’s recorder], feel the fresh breeze. I be cleaning up, as well.” Johnson steps around a pile of horse manure. “Look, watch the doo-doo! You guys wanna pick that up?”

 Adelman doesn’t hear him; he’s across the street sweeping alongside other vest-clad workers. Surrounded by a throng of camera-toting tourists, he scuttles cigarette butts into a bin. The middle-aged divorcee violated an order of protection, entered his former home while his ex-wife was there. She called the cops. “I had a chance to leave, but I refused to leave,” he says. “Do I prefer this to being in jail? Of course, I mean, that’s a no-brainer, right?” As to the attention-drawing vests and hovering court supervisor, he smiles and says, unconvincingly, “I’m not easily humiliated.” 

Humiliation is part of the punishment. Adelman and Johnson are part of the court’s restitution crew, which puts low-level offenders to work cleaning streets and painting over graffiti in midtown. From public urination to disorderly conduct and open-container violations, the crimes are minor but offensive; the sentences brief but befittingly public.

 Today, the streets the crew sweeps are walkable, its avenues bulging with tourists, its towering glassy condos fetching some of Manhattan’s higher rents. But midtown looked very different for the majority of its history; in the early 1990s, some might even say it looked like hell. Back then, trash piled up on the corners, hookers combed the streets for johns. Squeegees cleaned windshields with dirty rags and filthy water while cars were held up at stoplights, forcing drivers to pay for the unwanted service—bills only, or risk having their insufficient spare change thrown right back through the window. 

Jeff Hobbs remembers the old neighborhood. As deputy project director at the Midtown Community MCC defendant paints a fire hydrant.Court, he “like[s] to think the court has played a role” in its transformation. The first community court in the U.S., Midtown was founded in 1993 in response to these quality-of-life crimes, as a trial in community justice. No longer experimental but established, today it hears misdemeanor and summons cases and issues community-service sentences as an alternative to prison time.

 “Small problems can erode the quality of life,” Hobbs says, “and make it miserable for families” to live here. Worse, crime “creates a domino effect”: one minor incident leading to a larger one until the entire community is ravaged by offenses small- and big-time alike. The bright blue vests offenders wear as they pull weeds, paint sawhorses and scrub public furniture make justice visible, and hammer home Midtown’s simple, tough-love philosophy: Pay back the community. 

In Times Square, restitution crew supervisor John Pettiford eyes the sweepers. A stocky 23-year-old from Brooklyn, he uses his size to daunt the defendants, and his people skills—a medical-school hopeful, he speaks Spanish, Portuguese, a little Arabic and some Swedish—to connect with them. He says the program is “a mutualistic [sic] thing… it’s not about how laborious the work is. You’re not only rehabilitating your community but yourself as well.”MCC defendants paint over graffiti.

 Pettiford’s crew is constantly rotating—the average sentence consists of two six-hour days—and is usually comprised of first-time offenders who are stable enough to be trusted in public, drug-free enough to respond to his humor and watchful eye. They are  “the least of all evils… These are generally good people; they’re out here, trying to fix a mistake. It’s a humbling experience to be outside in Times Square, helping out the community that you disturbed.”

 But the regulars who file through the court’s metal detectors are often plagued by greater demons, and require greater support. Prostitutes, drug addicts and homeless people who commit low-level violations within the court’s jurisdiction—from 14th Street to 86th Street, between the Hudson River and Central Park—find themselves here. The court offers a range of programs to address underlying problems: a parenting class for incarcerated fathers, a job-placement program, GED classes and volunteer work. Treatment includes drug rehab, sex-worker therapy and health education and a homelessness partnership.

 Director Hobbs walks through a typical scenario. Take a drug addict, a familiar figure in this courtroom. The team “doesn’t want to send him back out there to commit a crime and get drugs. Send him to a clinic and get help. Send him MCC defendant paints over graffiti. back downstairs to the court and get resentenced. Because sometimes people are afraid to admit in the courtroom, ‘The reason why I’m stealing is because I got this big drug habit’.” When the court’s counselors meet one-on-one with the defendant “and he says, ‘To be perfectly honest, the reason why I did this was XYZ,’ we can say ‘Hey, guy, it’s not going to help you by cleaning the streets. What you need is some type of intervention. You need a drug-treatment program, and maybe we can help you.”

 Judge Richard Weinberg, a tank of a man with a mass of thick graying hair and a boyish grin, presides. Warm and low-lit, his courtroom is filled with defendants awaiting arraignment, police officers dotting the exits, guns swinging idly at their hips. This particular afternoon, a scruffy homeless man, murky eyes filled with cataracts, shuffles towards the stand. He has been arrested for trespassing and is here for his arraignment.

 The counsel and Midtown’s resources coordinator—a position nonexistent in traditional courts but necessary here, she recommends in-house programs based on defendants’ problems—approach the bench and whisperingly inform the judge that the defendant is nearly blind. The judge has already consulted the man’s criminal history and background, as he does for every defendant, from a printout.

 Across the bench, the defendant leans on the stand, a court-appointed attorney at his side. After reviewing the case, Judge Weinberg hands down the decision: one day of community service and a strong recommendation for the Court’s homeless-outreach program. Almost tangentially, he says that if the defendant fails to serve his sentence, he will face fifteen days in jail. The goal is, Weinberg says, “to get [defendants] some help.”

 Still, as Hobbs says, Weinberg is “a law-and-order judge” who is not afraid to issue jail time, especially for repeat or violent offenders. During that afternoon’s arraignments, a defendant on parole for another crime approaches the stand. Weinberg reviews his history—he had previously been arrested for robbery and kidnapping—sets bail and issues him a court date downtown. Weinberg turns, out of everyone’s earshot, and recalls the words of his mentor, a conservative, Republican judge: “It’s nice to be nice, but who pays the price?”

 The road to hell is paved with good intentions. In the Court’s early days, sentences included work at We Can Recycle, a neighborhood program that offered cash in exchange for bottles and cans. Drug addicts and dealers soon realized that, as Hobbs says, “There was cash to be made,” and users began collecting cans to be redeemed for drug money while dealers waited nearby. Prostitutes followed the money, in search of clients. We Can Recycle in effect created an “insane asylum,” Hobbs says, and the Court stopped including it in sentencings.

 Today, the court works with other environmentally-friendly organizations to both punish defendants and help them find jobs: NYC Community Cleanup, a citywide organization that, with the Department of Sanitation, puts 15 defendants to work daily cleaning abandoned lots, littered public spaces and buildings. Times Square Alliance, a business improvement organization, hires former defendants at minimum wage to clean streets and answer tourists’ questions. And Action Carting, a “green” waste-management plant, this year alone hired ten recycling workers from the court’s programs to sort paper, plastic and glass for processing.

 Midtown operates differently from the NYC Criminal Court downtown, where the average arrest-to-arraignment time is 30 hours. Midtown’s turnaround time averages 17 hours, and defendants usually begin sentences on the same day as arraignment. Defendants downtown often are sentenced to “time served,” meaning that their time in jail awaiting arraignment is the extent of their punishment. Additionally, traditional courts don’t have the resources, specialists and internal programs at their disposal that Midtown has.

 An integral part of the court’s mission is its relationship with the neighborhood’s resident watchdogs. Victoria Watkins is one of the most rabid. She trolls the neighborhood and offers street-by-street recommendations for restitution projects. “There is civic pride in putting a fresh coat of paint on a rusty, graffiti-covered fire hydrant. Public safety is improved… the environment looks cleaner and safer,” she says in an email. Watkins’ suggestions have resulted in the crews painting over 30 mailboxes and 25 fire hydrants. “Graffiti cleanup is dirty work and an activity most citizens would not do unless mandated. Would you want to paint a gritty mailbox in hot, humid weather while pedestrians and cars pass by?”

 Back in Times Square, Adelman and Johnson might argue that cleaning the streets, one by one, in the cold is just as punitive as painting in New York’s oppressive summer heat. But both of the men finish their assignment, return their supplies and remove their vests, and, eventually, head home. It is unlikely that they’ll meet again outside of this little, now swept-clean, patch of Times Square.

 Despite Midtown Community Court’s many missions—arbitration, environmentalism, counseling—regardless of the defendant, regardless of the crime, the court’s staff insists community justice boils down to just one essential. “It’s all about engagement. The big word, the flavor of the month, the crème de la crème, is ‘engagement,’” says director Hobbs. “Because you have to meet people where they are.”

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Green Jobs Sprout, But Critics Question Their Sustainability Mon, 21 Dec 2009 04:58:03 +0000 Cezary Podkul
Amelia Mae Steward looks on as Tahlia Williams, a weatherization worker, replaces one of her lightbulbs.
Amelia Mae Steward looks on as Tahlia Williams, a weatherization worker replaces a lightbulb at her home in Canarsie.                                                                                                                                                 

On a bright, cold December morning, as a big white truck pulls up to Amelia Mae Steward’s red, brick townhouse in Canarsie, her preacher’s promise suddenly becomes true.

She had heard during a Sunday mass in September at her Baptist church in Brooklyn that there was a government program that would send out technicians to refit, or “weatherize” her home with more energy efficient insulation and technology – for free.

Skeptical at first, she went to an informational meeting and eventually decided to apply for the government’s Weatherization Assistance Program. She easily met its low-income approval criteria: the 69-year old retiree subsides on a monthly $1,180 check from the Social Security Administration, yet her gas bill alone last year totaled more than $2,500.

“I wish it would come down at least half,” she says in a booming Southern drawl that fills her whole kitchen.

Patrick Goodluck, the supervisor for the crew of five technicians who had just arrived at her home from Community Environmental Center, a weatherization contractor, gives no assurances. But they’ll aim for “as low as possible.”

Goodluck’s crew is one example of how a variety of energy conservation measures are keeping workers busy across New York during one of the most difficult economic times in the country’s history. Boosted by federal stimulus dollars, reinforced by state job training measures and local green building laws, weatherization and similar so-called “green jobs” are beginning to pulse to the economy like never before. Some see them as the beginning of a much larger industry that’s about take-off: re-fitting buildings for energy efficiency all across the US. But some critics question whether green jobs are a permanent new source of employment or a temporary boost that will fade away with stimulus spending.

The impact of stimulus spending was on full display in Steward’s home. The total materials cost for her weatherization, such as insulation, was $1,328. The total labor cost was $1,336. “This is what I have to pay?” she asks Goodluck when he shows her the invoice. “No – you don’t have to pay anything,” he answers. Weatherization is funded by the Department of Energy, which has a pool of money to give out to non-profit organizations such as the Community Environmental Center. But this year, Congress’s $787 billion stimulus bill gave the Department an additional $5 billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program – an amount is making a big difference to local weatherization providers.

“It has multiplied by probably about six times the amount of weatherization funding that we had before,” says Richard Cherry, president of the Community Environmental Center, based in Long Island City. “That has made it possible for us to obviously do a great deal more work [and] hire more people.”

His organization received $16 million in weatherization stimulus monies earlier this year and another $12.5 million just this month. Usually, the Center receives about $4 million in regular weatherization funding, Cherry says.

Goodluck, the man in charge of the Center’s crew of 22 weatherization technicians, says that by year’s end the Center will have hired about 13 or 14 additional technicians.

Ruby Carrasquillo, a resident of the Lower East Side who joined the Center on September 21st, got her job after she completed a weatherization training program at local chapter 10 of the Laborers’ International Union of North America in Chelsea. Having previously worked in sales, she is now one of two women on the Center’s weatherization crew, which is peppered with a mix of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Barbatians, Trinidadians and other Carribbean Islanders.

“This is a green company. This is where the money is at right now. If you’re looking for a job, you need to switch over,” she says.

The Center pays beginning weatherization technicians in the low-to-mid $30 per hour range, not including benefits such as health insurance, says Cherry. That’s nearly double the $17.10 hourly wage, exclusive of benefits, that Laborers’ International chapter 10 asks for its weatherization technicians.

Myles Lennon, the chapter’s director of green operations, cautions that the Center, which employs about 16 of the union’s members, may be more of an exception than the norm. Many weatherization contractors still rely on unskilled labor for temporary positions that pay $10 to $12 per hour. He is hoping to change that by bringing skilled labor to the weatherization industry and making the $17.05 wage, or $22.10 inclusive of benefits, the standard in the market.

“If you look at the cost of raising a family in New York City, $22.10 with benefits is a real family-sustaining wage,” he says.

Green job creation isn’t just limited to weatherization technicians. David Hepinstall, executive director of the Association for Energy Affordability, an umbrella organization for weatherization providers, sees a “whole range” of positions opening up in a larger industry of re-refitting buildings for energy efficiency. Heating and cooling specialists, energy auditors, inspectors and engineers who can run complex analyses of energy systems in large commercial and residential buildings are just a few of these positions. And each requires relatively more education and training than weatherization technicians.

“Whether you come in with a GED or without, or you come in with a master’s [degree] or a PhD, there’s opportunities in this field and we do training for people at every possible education level,” says Hepinstall, who views the training as a step to a career, not just a temporary job. And these days, his organization’s classes for a nationally accredited training program are always full – a demand he is able to meet because of the stimulus funding his organization has received.

Other jobs are also being created as a side-effect of the stimulus money. Cherry says that he’s had to hire two additional accountants just to keep up with all the new demand.  “The green economy is going to fill jobs from accounting to secretaries to mechanics to engineers,” he says.

The stimulus money won’t last forever. New York is receiving $400 million from the weatherization program’s stimulus funding – enough to weatherize at least 50,000 homes, according to New York’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which oversees the program. But the money must be spent in the next two years, meaning that the demand for positions and job training like Carrasquillo’s will eventually temper down.

Perhaps with this in mind, some weatherization workers are taking steps to make themselves employable in other fields. Kellon Williams, 20, recently graduated from Manhattan Comprehensive High School and began working at the Center shortly thereafter. As he looks at a building in Brooklyn in which he replaced windows, he’s proud of the skills he’s picked up. And he feels good about helping the environment through the work he does. Still, he’s studying business administration part-time at the Queensborough Community College so he’s prepared to someday transition to a different career.

For those who don’t seek higher education, Laborers’ International’s Lennon thinks there will be plenty of opportunities in similar occupations. During his union chapter’s three-week-long weatherization training program, workers learn things like window replacement, caulking, sealing, duct work, using various tools and workplace safety. “A lot of those skills are easily transferrable to construction,” he says. “So if for whatever reason weatherization suddenly went away, when the housing market comes back up and there’s more development . . . all those construction skills can be put to work.“

Lennon also points to other programs that could create long-term demand for these skills. For instance, Governor Paterson recently signed into law a new program called “Green Jobs/Green New York,” that will give small loans to businesses and home owners to help them pay for weatherization services. The goal is to create 14,000 jobs, weatherize one million buildings and ultimately save New Yorkers $1 billion on their energy bills, according to the program website. And New York’s City Council this month passed a package of green building legislation that will require buildings to undergo periodic energy audits and make changes to their ongoing maintenance to make them more energy efficient.

But some policy analysts question whether “Green Jobs/Green New York” and similar programs provide more than a passing benefit to the economy. James Taylor, senior fellow for environment policy at the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based free-market think tank, concedes that “the government might be creating some short term jobs” through such measures. In the longer term, though, he believes they may be “more of a drain than a benefit on the economy” because green jobs direct resources away from more productive sectors of the economy. He cites inexpensive and efficient energy sources like coal, oil and gas as three sectors that may shrink and lose jobs, forcing people to pay more for their electricity.

“That’s going to take money out of people’s wallets,” he warns, adding that consumers could in turn spend less and slow down economic growth and job creation over the long term.

For Steward, the 69-year old retiree having her home weatherized, the opposite could well be the case. “I’m seeing my money come back to me,” she rejoices as she watches Goodluck’s crew members at work. Four toil away infusing her garage walls with layers of insulation, while a fifth is busy installing energy efficient light bulbs across her home.

And so for now the green jobs are arriving apace – and it’s beginning to show. As Goodluck drives away from Steward’s home, a radio commentator loudly celebrates the day’s big economic news: the US unemployment rate has fallen to 10 percent, down from the 26-year high of 10.2 percent reached in November.

“We’re heading in the right direction! I love it!” the commentator blares as Goodluck heads to his next site.

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Documentary filmmakers are hungry for change Sun, 20 Dec 2009 06:34:37 +0000 Melissa Muller Byline: Melissa Muller

Seven new documentaries about the sustainable food movement were previewed last night at the “Hungry Filmmakers” festival, a showcase for the burgeoning crop of films on farming. The recurring theme in all of them: no farms, no food, no future.

One documentary, “What is Organic About Organic?” directed and produced by Shelly Rogers, was highlighted at the event at Anthology Film Archives, along with excerpts of the six others.

While a grad student at New York University, Shelly Rogers took a class on socially relevant documentary filmmaking. For the final project, she produced a fifteen-minute exploratory film about the obstacles facing organic farmers. Although Rogers, a native of rural East Tennessee, had no prior connection to the growing grassroots revolution against conventional farming, she felt “a responsibility to the farmers,” to let their stories be told, not wanting to “let them down.” So she got a grant, raised funds and drove a small crew around the country to produce a full-length version of her project. In the process, she became an advocate in her own right for a healthier and environmentally friendly food system.

Four years after undertaking the project, Rogers’ film is near completion and ready to hit the film festivals. “What’s Organic About Organic?” travels from farm fields to government meetings to industry trade shows, to highlight the negative effects of conventional agriculture and to explain why buying organic food is not only a personal choice but also a social responsibility. Moreover, the film illustrates that our health and the health of the planet are interrelated.

Organizers of the sold-old event include Ms. Rogers and Jimmy Carbone, the owner of an East Village eatery and bar, Jimmy’s No. 43, which supports the sustainable food community. Cathy Erway, author of the well-known blog, “Not Eating Out in New York,” curated the films, and Anna Lappé, a best-selling author of works on sustainability and food politics, moderated a panel discussion. The audience had an opportunity to continue the conversation and mingle with filmmakers at an after party hosted at a jam-packed Jimmy’s No. 43, where local food producers presented an array of gratuitous local delicacies.

Documentaries about the food industry are coming out in groves, which is why the organizers have already scheduled another Hungry Filmmakers event to take place on 23 February 2010. Mascha Poppenk, a co-producer of another of the event’s featured films, “Grown in Detroit,” looks upon the onslaught of food industry related films as a way to spread the word about the grassroots movement. She says, “what’s great about documentaries is there’s no competition, we are all helping each other.”

For most of the filmmakers present, these films are their first attempt at filmmaking as advocacy for the food movement. However, one of the films, “Big River,” produced by Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney, is a sequel to the filmmakers’ 2006 documentary, “King Corn,” which explores the magnitude of health problems that result from the American corn industry. “Big River” takes the viewer on a journey down the Mississippi River, from the American heartland to the Gulf of Mexico to trace the damaging effects of corn production on our water system and on the environment as a whole, aspects of the industry that the first film did not touch upon.

“Big River” co-producer, Ian Cheney, says “often documentary filmmakers blow all their energy on the filmmaking process,” and are unable to find the energy to promote their films for advocacy.

Just Food, a New York based not-for-profit organization, which connects local farmers and urban dwellers, is in the planning stage for using these and other food related films as “visual advocacy” in the near future, says Jacquie Berger, Just Food’s Executive Director.

A big challenge that the filmmakers face is getting these films out of the circle of people who are already aware of these issues. Rogers says “reaching an audience outside of the obvious choir is a challenge that we all face in this circle, not just filmmakers.” These food movement events bring out “the same people over and over,” says Rogers, adding “while it’s great to see old friends,” in order for the films to make a difference, she is “relying on the choir to spread the word.”

Films screened at the “Hungry Filmmakers” event include:

“What’s Organic About Organic?”

By Shelley Rogers

“Big River” and “Truck Farm”

By Curt Ellis & Ian Cheney

“The Greenhorns”

By Severine von Tscarner Fleming

“Grown in Detroit”

By Manfred & Mascha Poppenk

“Faces From the New Farm”

By Liz Thylander, Kat Shiffler & Lara Sheets

[As yet untitled film on climate change and the food system]

By Sara Grady

The next Hungry Filmmakers is scheduled to take place on 23 February 2010.

Check the “Hungry Filmmakers” blog for more info on upcoming events and links to filmmakers websites:

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Greening the Big Apple Sat, 12 Dec 2009 20:58:54 +0000 Cezary Podkul IMG_0606

Councilman James Gennaro enjoys a Newtown Pippin on the steps of city hall.

As City Councilman James Gennaro took to the microphone at a crowded public hearing last month to argue against natural gas drilling near New York’s upstate water reservoirs, the rowdy auditorium that had just mauled the deputy mayor during his remarks grew quiet. This man they let speak.

The tall, salt-and-pepper-haired Queens native proceeded to read a statement off a printed script, eyeing every word studiously through a pair of thick spectacles he put on just for the occasion.

Shortly after he finished speaking, Gennaro took a seat on a bench in the lobby. There, in between conversations with supporters and journalists, he pored over the speech, marked up with blue ink, and pondered aloud what he could have done better. “What word couldn’t I say?” he thought out loud. “I had to make a change on the fly. ‘Ironic’ worked. ‘Iconic’ was a no go,” he added, concluding: “I did ok.”

The younger James Gennaro might well have disagreed. Both he and his older brother John suffered from a stuttering problem growing up. And though John will freely admit that Jim’s stuttering was much worse, his little brother has nonetheless thrived in a career where public speaking is as important to him as a hammer to a carpenter or a violin to a violinist.

Now in his seventh year as the chairman of the New York City Council Environmental Protection Committee, Gennaro has become an outspoken champion of some of New York’s most important environmental initiatives, including the 2007 act that mandated a 30 percent reduction in the city’s carbon footprint by 2030. He’s done so by campaigning long and hard both in the legislative chambers as well as in the streets to make sure he got every vote he needed. He’s made countless speeches and given innumerable interviews, in each one trying to balance his concern over the patterns of his speech with the passion he feels for the environment.

He hasn’t always succeeded, but the competitive spirit has helped him overcome numerous obstacles just as he has managed to tame his speaking impediment. It’s also landed him in some trouble and caused some who know the geologist-by-training to question his temperament.

Gennaro says he inherrited his competitive nature from his father Lou – a jeweler by trade who also loved baseball and once tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He used to play the game with his sons on family outings up in the Catskills. “We were playing for blood. It was really, really serious,” Gennaro recalls. “To go back to the dugout and face him, that was not pretty.”

Renee Lobo, a Queens community activist who challenged him for his seat in 2005, considers him a tough, all-or-nothing competitor. “We sparred,” she says. When she called to congratulate him after losing the primary, she says he asked her, “’How dare you run against me?’”

“I definitely thought he had anger issues at the time,” Lobo recalls. “I think down the road he learned how to manage his anger.”

Lobo says she admires Gennaro’s environmental record and now sees him as a friend and ally. After a long post-election silence, the two met again at a city council hearing in 2008. Lobo then suffered a broken leg while Gennaro was hobbled by a broken ankle. Gennaro recognized her and initiated some small-talk over their injuries, she recalls, and the two bonded and have been on good terms ever since. Lobo even supported him in his ultimately unsuccessful bid to unseat State Senator Frank Padavan (R-Queens), who’s held the 11th senate district seat since before Gennaro was a freshman geology major at Stony Brook University in 1975. The race triggered a recount since only a few hundred votes separated the two men.

“It was courageous to go up against someone like that. And to get that close was nutty,” says his brother John. He credits the near-win to his brother’s all-or-nothing attitude: “He has no ‘plan B.’ He just plans on winning.”

In previous campaigns, his competitive attitude ignited controversy. In 2007 the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board fined Gennaro $2,000 because an aide who volunteered for his 2003 re-election campaign used his government office computer, printer, and paper for the campaign, the board said. Gennaro took responsibility for not having known about it. “The lesson learned is that I am responsible and accountable for everything and anything my people do. The buck stops with me no matter what. This episode etched that credo into my bone marrow,” he wrote in an email.

In the legislative chamber, Gennaro can also be a formidable competitor, doing everything he can to get serious consideration for his bills – no matter how big or small. On a rainy Monday morning in November, for example, he called a news conference to hand out dozens of Newtown Pippins, sour green apples native to Queens, as an effort to urge city council members to pass his resolution naming Pippins the official apple of the “Big Apple.” Boxes of apple muffins destined for the city council also quietly piled up, prompting a reporter to ask whether he is attempting to sweet-talk his colleagues into backing the bill. Gennaro smiled, bit an apple and demurred. But he stuttered a bit when asked why the seemingly innocuous proposition hasn’t passed city hall months after being introduced.

“You know, it’s just there’s a lot of very important business that the city council has to do and something like this is something that is never going to be, you know, [a] front-burner issue,” he answered.

Among the “front-burner” issues was a proposal before City Hall this year to force building owners in New York City to audit and re-fit their buildings for energy efficiency. Also sponsored by Gennaro, the bill faced intense opposition from the city’s real estate industry, which has argued that the measure would force them to make expensive upgrades but not realise any of their benefits. “You want the entity that bears the cost to get the benefit. And in some cases that just wasn’t the case and that’s just patently unfair and we’re not going to pass a bill that’s not fair,” says Gennaro. Ultimately, he stood next to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn at a City Hall press conference triumphantly announcing the bill’s passage. But it ostensibly lacked the initial re-fit language.

Despite these setbacks, Gennaro has had more than his fair share of legislative successes. He chuckles as he points out he needs an intern just to compile his record, which includes committing the city to green building principles, the 2030 carbon reduction targets and standing firm against any encroachments on New York’s upstate water supply.

“He really has been in many ways the conscience of the city council on a broad array of environmental issues,” says Eric Goldstein, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who has known Gennaro for 20 years. Most notably, says Goldstein, “he’s really been the ‘Paul Revere’ of drinking water protection in New York.”

The sentiment was echoed by some of those who attended the public hearing at which he spoke last month. As he sat on the bench outside the auditorium, a visitor from West Virginia, a former commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, and one of Goldstein’s colleagues from the Natural Resources Defense Council all paid Gennaro a visit to thank him for protecting the city’s water resources.

He hesitated over a word here or there. But he did not need a script to keep the lively conversation going well after other city council members had already left.

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Reinstating the Pigeon’s Good Name Sat, 12 Dec 2009 20:22:48 +0000 Laura Dodd Carla Gould studies pigeons near Central Park.

Carla Gould studies pigeons near Central Park.

On a busy corner of Central Park, shivering tourists clench their overcoats and frantically hail taxis. Seemingly impervious to the cold and commotion, environmentalist Carla Gould sits alone on a bench, her eyes fixed on a cluster of pigeons at the foot of a nearby statue. She’s motionless except for the occasional scribble on her notepad.

Except for a Canadian accent, the 30-year-old is effortlessly New York chic—tall and slim with dark hair and delicate features that show subtle traces of well-applied iridescent make-up—perhaps an unconscious tribute to her subject, the pigeon.

She has come here with one mission: to revitalize the pigeon’s reputation. New York City is her laboratory, and these so-called “rats with wings” are the focus of her thesis: “Re-contextualizing the Pigeon Through Space and Interaction.


Carla Gould

Ms. Gould is a visiting fellow at New York University’s xClinic, a research center that focuses on how health is affected by environmental factors, such as human interaction with pigeons. Instead of advocating pharmaceuticals, the clinic’s research emphasizes action plans – even ostensibly unpopular ones like Ms. Gould’s.

On leave from her undergraduate studies in Toronto, Ms. Gould finds the human-pigeon dynamic to be romantic, despite the bird’s reputation as a pest. “It’s a rich relationship that has been ignored,” she says with conviction.

The first step in her evangelistic action plan is “to change the public perception of the pigeon,” she says. Most people believe that guano, or pigeon excrement, carries disease. Gould strongly disagrees, so she’ll start her mission by “showing how much of a misconception this guano fear is.” In the clinic’s two-room office in Manhattan’s East Village, she has begun writing a handbook about the many virtues of guano, including its use as a fertilizer.

The second step is to inspire an attitude adjustment since many think the pigeon is a nuisance. “We haven’t learned how to properly cohabitate with them,” she says. But given two minutes, she says she can change skeptics’ minds and show that city life and nature are not mutually exclusive.

She usually begins with a story about the pigeon’s work as a revered messenger during World War I. Because of their innate ability to fly long distances, “carrier” pigeons were often dispatched to deliver military intelligence to base camps and were credited with saving lives. “I get teary-eyed when I talk about it,” she says.

She then segues to its journey to America. Early settlers brought pigeons as a sign of affluence and a delicacy to eat. “The story captivates people,” she says. “People will say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s incredible. They’re not just freeloading off my AC unit and shitting on my front door.’”

Natalie Jereminjenko, xClinic’s founder and Ms. Gould’s supervisor, is also pro-pigeon. “The pigeon is a critical tool to understanding urban health,” she says. The two paired up when Dr. Jereminjenko gave a speech at the Ontario College of Art and Design, where Ms. Gould is a student. Afterwards, Ms. Gould approached her and pitched her pigeon project, to which Dr. Jereminjenko responded with an invitation to work at the clinic.

Six months later, Ms. Gould moved into a crammed sublet a few blocks from the NYU campus. Her typical day may include her two-minute tutorials on the street, or testing pigeons’ food preferences (breadcrumbs trump French fries).

She’ll spend hours on some afternoons observing a flock of birds. Occasionally, it’ll be an impromptu session, as Chris Denda, her boyfriend, learned on a recent visit from Toronto. “We’ll be walking down the street and she’ll stop without telling me. I turn around and she’s ‘interacting’ with the birds—looking at them, ‘being’ with them,” he says. “I don’t think they even notice her. They probably think, ‘Oh, it’s Carla again.’”

The flock might not notice Ms. Gould because a component of her research involves pretending to be one of them. During a 30-minute “pigeon embodiment exercise,” Ms. Gould and her xClinic colleagues stood in a stairwell near the office, closed their eyes and opened their minds to what it would feel like to be a pigeon. They arched their backs and cocked their necks to impersonate a tail and beak. Extended arms became wings, shifting back and forth as if in flight. The exercise prompted giggles in the beginning, but soon the group fell silent. “We imagined how the legs would be positioned and how to walk accordingly. It was nuts because you’re growing a tail in this peaceful state,” Ms. Gould says.

“Channeling” pigeons is far afield from Ms. Gould’s initial career track. After weathering through academic probation in high school, she and her parents agreed vocational training suited her off-beat nature more so than the formal higher education route. She studied hair and make-up and got a job as a make-up artist on Canadian Idol. Six years later, the show-biz glamour had worn off and she decided to give higher education another shot, enrolling in an industrial design program at her art school in Ontario. This time, it stuck.

Ms. Gould concedes the pigeon is an unlikely muse. “A lot of people laughed, and I thought it was funny at first, too. But I was passionate about this story that was unfolding,” she reflects.

New York is one research stop on an itinerary she hopes will take her around the globe for her studies. She has created a survey designed to compare the pigeon-human interaction in Boston, Vancouver and Hawaii. The 20-point questionnaire will gather scientific data, such as pigeon population sizes and locations, plus photos and anecdotal evidence from her observations.

Surveys aside, the bigger picture is a harmonious human-pigeon living environment, says Ms. Gould. She envisions a scenario where air-conditioning window units are someday used as platforms for pigeon families, and apartment residents collect their guano to fertilize rooftop gardens.

While the goals are conceptual for now, the potential impact is considerable. “This is not just a playful little design project,” says Dr. Jereminjenko, Ms. Gould’s supervisor at the xClinic. “This has real implications to your health, to my health, everyone’s health.”

Her success may be hard to quantify, says her professor and advisor, Carl Hastrich. Ms. Gould’s objective is “not a tangible, sellable result,” he says. Her aim is to increase awareness, but “how do you know when you’ve created a dialogue that’s successful?” he asks. “How you measure success is an open-ended adventure.”

Ms. Gould is not the first pigeon advocate. She freely acknowledges that “a few people” have put pigeons on the map, citing two mainstream books called Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan and Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird Pigeon as required reading.

“I really want to be a part of what happens next,” she says.

Some of her future research is still on ice. Tucked away in her freezer are two birds—a woodpecker and sparrow—awaiting a dissection to compare its wing structure to the pigeons’.

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Fighting for 9/11 Environmental Justice Sat, 12 Dec 2009 20:21:57 +0000 Jill Watanabe One bright fall day Kimberly Flynn addressed a small crowd in downtown Manhattan. In the shadow of the badly damaged Deutsche Bank building, they waved brightly colored handmade signs in English, Chinese and Spanish, demanding recognition and treatment for ailments they believe are related to 9/11. Enlarged print-outs of bar graphs and numbers conveyed the results of a limited community survey, an attempt to quantify the physical and emotional turmoil of their lingering illnesses.

“Congress and Mr. President, hear our call for responsive legislation,” Ms. Flynn urged, clutching an old microphone and peering out over black, thick-rimmed glasses. “Take responsibility for this continuing public health disaster.”

It is a scene that Ms. Flynn, a one-time actress, plays out across the city in community meetings, rallies and hearings. Her script – demanding proper clean-up, recognition and treatment of illnesses that appeared in the wake of 9/11 – holds the words she has come to live by. In the years since that September day, lower Manhattan has embarked on an arduous recovery, rebuilding new office towers, businesses and lives. Still, Ms. Flynn insists, the recovery is far from over.

A decade ago, Ms. Flynn worked as a dramaturge, alternating as an actress, drama professor and theater consultant. Between work on projects like Anna Deveare Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, Flynn volunteered with ACT UP New York, an AIDS social justice coalition. It was only New York’s aggressive 1999 pesticide campaign against the West Nile virus that sparked Flynn’s initial foray into environmental activism.

That evening began like any other. Ms. Flynn finished up dinner and left her Upper West Side apartment for a nightly stroll along Riverside Drive. But as she walked through the park, she paused at the odd sensation of a tightening in her chest. “I’d been keeping track of the spray schedule, and I thought to myself, ‘are they supposed to spray Riverside Drive?’” she recalls. “Then I thought, ‘no, they weren’t.’”

Joggers got drenched in the pesticide, she said, and parents and nannies pulled their kids from the sandboxes and fleed the park. Shocked, she called the city’s office of emergency management. She says all she heard was “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” followed by: “What are you gonna do about it? Sue us?”

She did. Ms. Flynn joined the No Spray Coalition, a group opposed to the pesticide campaign, as a paralegal and research assistant in its lawsuit against the city. By September 2001, Ms. Flynn had gotten a strong-enough introduction to the nuances of environmental justice that she began to set her sights on other issues. She worked with colleagues from the No Spray Coalition to order private lab tests of the World Trade Center dust. When those tests revealed toxic levels of asbestos, Ms. Flynn and her colleagues sprang into action, educating the community about the dangers of the dust through fliers and meetings.

Even without any close personal ties to the disaster, Ms. Flynn says she simply reacted as many New Yorkers did. “I feel like there was such a dire need to step in and offer whatever skills we had,” she says. “I would have been useless removing rubble from the pile. But what I did know how to do was to organize the community.”

Eight years later, Ms. Flynn remains at the front of an environmental movement facing dwindling funds and shrinking ranks. Now a petite 53-year-old with fading, gray-streaked brown hair, Ms. Flynn readily acknowledges these challenges. She blames them on what she calls “compassion fatigue.”

But her own fatigue is something else entirely. Asked to estimate the number of hours she devotes to 9/11 each week, Ms. Flynn draws an anxious pair of hands to her temples. She runs through a list of roles at 11 different community groups and settles on 40 hours. Her days are filled with phone calls, meetings, research, drafting fliers and legal testimony and planning outreach, events and agendas. When pressed, she admits the workweek often creeps upwards of 50 or 60 hours.

“She lives and breathes this fight,” says Esther Regelson, secretary of the 9/11 Environmental Action committee that Flynn founded in 2002. “She’s given up quite a lot to do this, and she will see it that way if you point it out to her, but she tries not to stop and look at that, because it will interfere.”

Ms. Flynn balks at any discussion of her sacrifices because she believes they will never compare to those of individuals directly affected by 9/11. Still, the ones she will discuss are hardly trivial. Nearly all of her 9/11 work is done on a voluntary basis, meaning she’s lived without a steady salary for over eight years. So as the money from her theater days has been running out, she’s taken on debt and adjusted her standard of living.Recently relocated from the Upper West Side to an apartment building blocks away from Ground Zero, Ms. Flynn lives on her own and admits her dedication has left little time for social life.

Despite Ms. Flynn’s dogged commitment, the question of what, exactly, her efforts have yielded remains. Rob Spencer, who co-chairs a community advisory committee with Ms. Flynn, calls her “a pivotal player” in the fight for environmental justice.

“There’s no doubt about that,” he says. “I think she’s ensured that the struggle will move forward in ways very few other folks have.” He points to her role in the successful battle to ensure a safe demolition of the Deutsche Bank building. Ms. Flynn, he says, was instrumental in raising awareness of the dangers standard demolition posed and convincing key community players to get involved in the issue.

But Mr. Spencer also acknowledged that tangible victories seldom emerge in her chosen causes. “It’s very difficult in some of these struggles to look at the victories as ‘We won this,’ “ he says. Instead, Mr. Spencer contends that the victories are in the process, and largely about raising awareness and strategizing the most effective ways to demand change.

And by Ms. Flynn’s own admission, victories are rare and nearly always fleeting. They are the times when a protest outside a taping of the David Letterman Show caused the talk show-host to cross-examine former Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Todd Whitman on the agency’s post-9/11 policies. Or the release of the 2003 Environmental Protection Agency Inspector General’s Report, which reflected the inadequacies of the agency’s response to 9/11 that Flynn and others had pointed to for nearly two years. “But she definitely won’t stop and take a breath,” says Ms. Regelson. “She’ll be celebratory, but she’s always ready to move on to the next thing.”

Ms. Flynn is now focusing the bulk of her attention on the launch of the 9/11 Pediatric Outreach Project. Flynn’s goal is to increase awareness of 9/11’s impact on the health of children and adolescents, and the resources WTC’s Environmental Health Center at Bellevue Hospital can provide for pediatric patients. She’s hoping they’ll be able to secure grant money for the initiative, which would provide her with some kind of income, no matter how small or temporary.

If not, there will be more debt to incur and new sacrifices to be made. But Ms. Flynn is undeterred. “I don’t know whether you can still call it an obsession,” she says. “People still have that fire in their bellies from the first flame of outrage. It’s not hard to ignite that again.”

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Big Ideas, Many Challenges at NYC Model School for Green Jobs Sat, 12 Dec 2009 20:00:34 +0000 Lisa Held A bulletin board at the School for Green Careers encourages students to think about green jobs.

A bulletin board at the School for Green Careers encourages students to think about green jobs.

In a classroom decorated with student posters on deforestation and global warming, a group of 9th grade students are debating a law that would ban fast food chains from within two blocks of a school. Most of them balk at the idea of being kept from the choice teenage fare, but one student raises her hand and argues, “The mayor just wants a healthier city for the kids.”

The lesson is part of a unit on healthy, eco-friendly food in their Citizenship and Sustainability class, a required core course at the brand new Urban Assembly School for Green Careers on the Upper West Side.

“We were learning about…water…like, what was better, bottled water or tap water,” a confident student named Gina tells me, “In the end, tap water is still better.” Another student, Chris, points to a bulletin board above their heads and explains that they are covering everything pictured- water, waste, food, energy, transportation, and climate change.

This class is part of the School for Green Careers’ ambitious mission to “give students access to the 21st Century green economy by developing their problem-solving skills and their knowledge of green industries and environmental issues.”

The school, which is a joint venture of the city Department of Education and the Urban Assembly, a non-profit organization that aims to improve urban education for underserved middle and high school children, was created to fill a need for “green-collar” workers created mainly by the Mayor’s PlaNYC.

“PlaNYC creates jobs,” said Ozgem Ornektekin, the Department of Education’s Director of Sustainability, “This school will prepare students for those jobs.” Ornektekin explained that while education officials are not looking to create a separate curriculum for environmental education, they are finding ways to incorporate it across other parts of the curricula. The school for green careers is acting as a model for how the city will prepare students for green jobs, she said.

And the school may have emerged at just the right time. According to the NYC Green Collar Jobs Roadmap, which was published this October by Urban Agenda and the Center for American Progress, the New York City economy is creating thousands of green-collar jobs through PlaNYC initiatives such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions through building retrofits and weatherization, planting trees, and remediating contaminated properties.

“At the moment, however,” the roadmap stated, ”New York City does not have the training, recruitment, pre-employment and job-readiness infrastructure and business services in place to reach our ambitious sustainability goals, expand our green-collar workforce, and further develop the city’s emerging, high-growth green sectors.”

That’s where the School for Green Careers comes in. While the 100 9th graders attending the school are currently all taking the same three core courses- Literacy (Reading/Writing), Integrated Algebra, and Citizenship & Sustainability- they will later choose from two tracks within the school: green buildings or green spaces.

The students who choose the building track will focus on careers such as building maintenance engineering, energy auditing, building retrofitting, and green roof installation. Those in green spaces will be pointed towards jobs like landscape horticulture and architecture, urban farming, forestry management and brownfield remediation.

The students are also currently taking electives, many of which are environmentally themed, such as sustainable eating/cooking, gardening, and a mentoring program in which 14 students communicate weekly with mentors in the City Parks Department.

Alexandra Rathman-Noonan, the school principal, was especially excited about the gardening prospect, since the school has full access to a previously neglected garden on the corner of 84th St. and Amsterdam Ave. “It has been in disrepair for a while,” she said, “we’re hoping to revitalize it.”

But the School for Green Careers, which is also a demonstration site for an effort to revamp and improve the city’s technical schools called the Mayoral task Force on Career and Technical Education Innovation, also faces considerable challenges in carrying out its ambitious plan.

During class students shouted to each other across the room while the teacher spoke, talked amongst themselves, wandered into class an hour late and completely ignored the lesson for more captivating activities like ‘rock, paper, scissor’.

“I can see the focus just disappearing into the air,” one teacher told them as she attempted, unsuccessfully, to rouse a sleeping student. Her struggle to keep the students on task demonstrates the complex reality of schools such as this one, which have historically been dumping sites for teenagers who have not done well in traditional learning environments.

“We serve a very high-need population,” the principal explained. According to Rathman-Noonan, more than 20 percent of the students are special education, and the same percentage are English-language learners. She estimated that close to 90 percent of the students qualify for free lunch, meaning their families live at or below the poverty level.

In a 2008 report, The Mayoral Task Force reported that approximately 110,000 students were enrolled in the career high schools or programs, and 47 percent of those programs earned a C or below on the city’s school report cards.

The career schools tended to have lower graduation rates than the citywide rate, and the students enrolled came primarily from minority communities. In 2008, only 5 percent of the students enrolled in these technical schools were white.

The task force was chaired by former NYC Mayor David Dinkins and Sy Sternberg, the Chairman and CEO of NY Life, and their recommendations included meeting 21st Century standards, expanding paths to graduation, engaging industry leadership, preparing students for postsecondary success and increasing access and opportunity.

Within expanding paths to graduation, they laid out a specific plan for model sites, stating that through the creation of career schools based on a new design, they would “model the opportunities, challenges, and outcomes deriving from intense industry partnerships and state policy innovation.”

“The emphasis here is really getting kids into the workforce,” said the Urban Assembly’s President and Founder, Richard, Kahan, “It’s not about graduating kids who know a lot about the environment.”

In this regard, the larger Urban Assembly model of using a theme to help students make connections between what they’re learning in the academic world and the real world outside is crucial, according to Rathman-Noonan. “As a career and technical school, this school takes that one step further,” she said, “Many of our partners are potential employers for our students.”

But how will all of this really play out over the next four years as the school grows to its full size and delves into the more in-depth portion of its curriculum? How will they manage to prepare students who can barely sit still in class for immediate entry into green-collar jobs with specialized skills or for college-level training?

Rathman-Noonan acknowledged that it is a tall order, but said that there are two specific ways the School for Green Careers will tackle this issue and become a true model for both career and technical education and green-collar job training.

First, they will focus on what she calls “higher-order skills” that are consistent across the workforce and college. “So, thinking, collaborative group work, problem solving, research…those types of skills that once students have them it makes them a good learner in no matter what context,” she explained.

In the classroom the desks were pushed together in clusters of three or four, and students worked together to write speeches debating whether the fast food ban was justified or paternalistic. They were instructed to agree on a side and then to support their argument with relevant facts. They elected one person from their group to present the speech, and then the rest of the class evaluated each presenter in categories such as the quality of their argument, posture and eye contact.

Second, while most traditional technical schools were very large, the School for Green Careers has the advantage of being a small school. “We’re really building on personalization and knowing students well,” Rathman-Noonan said, who has everyone at the school, including the students, call her “A.J.”

In fact, all of the teachers are addressed by their first names. At one point, when Rathman-Noonan encountered a student wearing a hat (which is not allowed) in the hallway, she put her arm around his shoulder and personally picked the hat off of his head. He wriggled from her and shrieked, “Aww…come on, A.J,” in a voice that conveyed an extreme degree of familiarity.

This early in the game, however, it is unclear whether familiarity and personalization combined with a new approach to technical and academic training will be enough to prepare the students at the School for Green Careers for successful green-collar jobs in the future.

For now, Rathman-Noonan, said, “Our goal is to have every student graduate, if not in 4 years, than in 5…and for the students to be assessed as college ready, all of them…and then to have a specific post-secondary plan.”

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