A Breath of Air In Harlem

In the 1930s, Robert Moses, New York City’s master planner, stripped Harlem of open space land along the Hudson River, replacing public access to the waterfront with the West Side Highway. In rather sharp contrast, Moses’ engineers simultaneously created Riverside Park further south for the benefit of the white middle class.

Seventy years later, the state of New York finally built a waterfront park for Harlem, known as Riverbank. Was it restitution for what had clearly been discriminatory planning? It depends on your point of view.

Riverbank is certainly an engineering marvel. The park sits on the roof of North River Sewage Treatment Plant, a 28-acre concrete leviathan along the Hudson. North River processes the sewer slop of most of Manhattan’s west side, replacing direct dumping. The plant has won awards for helping clean the river, and the park has given much-needed recreational opportunities to asphalt-bound city dwellers.

But despite the goodwill, there’s definitely something in the air. A smell. At the plant’s completion 14 years ago, the air it released stank and sickened area residents. Nationally known Queens College-based scientist Barry Commoner conducted a study that found design defects in the North River plant and indications of harmful sulfur hydroxide and sulfur dioxide emissions, which were exacerbating Harlem’s asthma epidemic.

In 1992, the city and state of New York agreed to spend $55 million in a five-year plan to correct design defects and monitor the air. The result? “It still smells, but not as bad as it used to,” says Sara Allen, whose apartment is nearby. “Two days ago I had to shut my windows when it came up strong for awhile.” Although the plant set up eight air monitors to police dangerous emissions, reporting has been spotty.

“After all these years, we still have not yet had a comprehensive presentation on all the emissions,” L. Ann Rocker, Allen’s neighbor, wrote in a three-page letter to commissioners. Rocker chairs the North River Community Environmental Review Board (NRCERB), the local watchdog group that attracted Commoner and the Natural Resources Defense Council, prompting the subsequent repairs.

Meanwhile, government authorities are considering ending the air-monitoring system, pending a “a six-year review of technical data,” wrote New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner John Cahill to Rocker last March. The six-year review is promised for fall. But as long as sewage flows to Harlem, “Monitoring our air needs improvement and not removal,” says Rocker. “The park was an appeasement. But we want to know what we are breathing.”