Hot City: New York City Will Never Be the Same Again - And It Shouldn’t Be

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Hot City is a series of short reflections on the state of social movements in NYC, from the long hot summer of 2020 to the coming storm season and beyond. You can read the introduction here and a map of New York City's climate plans here


Although it feels like ancient history, before the COVID-19 pandemic New York City was already in the midst of an epidemic of mass displacement. Gentrification, climate change, mass incarceration, and other systems of exploitation have radically changed the buildings and demographics of the City. The full scale of displacement the pandemic will cause in the future is not yet clear, but we know from early data that COVID-19 will exacerbate those preexisting conditions that have historically contributed to exploitation and mass displacement. 

According to one estimate, as of early August there were a recorded 231,000 infections and 23,000 deaths from COVID-19 in New York City. And yet even statistics as severe as these reveal terribly little about the economic devastation that has occurred or what the new city will look like as a result. The Mayor’s office is expecting a loss of $10b in government revenue for 2020 and 2021, and has projected job losses of up to 500,000. Meanwhile, as of May 2020 the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment has remained at a staggering $3,436, which is a 2.65% decrease from last year but nevertheless daunting for anyone facing unemployment. 

People of color have proven particularly vulnerable to the pandemic because they tend to live in parts of the city that have been foundationally damaged by long-term environmental pollution or economic disinvestment. The environmental justice movement has long struggled to fight back against the structural factors that contribute to Black and brown people’s disproportionate vulnerability to many environmentally linked chronic diseases. Decades of environmental justice scholarship has demonstrated clear patterns of race- and class-based disparities in the distribution of environmental hazards. In New York City, examples of such hazards include chronic air pollution resulting from the siting of bus depots, waste transfer stations, sewage treatment plants, and incinerators in predominantly Black and Latinx communities. Such communities are also afflicted by toxic facilities such as so-called peaker plants, the dirty oil-burning power stations that switch on to generate electricity during times of high (or “peak”) demand. 

Yet while community activists and policy makers often frame the structural issues that afflict people of color in terms of environmental racism and environmental classism, relatively little attention tends to be devoted to intersecting forms of vulnerability like gender. Recent scholarship has nonetheless shown a clear link between the percentage of Black female-headed households and proximity to toxins that can generate precisely the kinds of chronic respiratory ailments that make people vulnerable to COVID-19. 

For too long the mainstream environmental movement has ignored these intersecting forms of environmental injustice, often blaming people of color in Malthusian terms for environmental degradation rather than thinking about how racism is killing the planet. IBPOC have long been confronted by extreme environmental pollution that is made possible by law enforcement in the form of brutal policing and militarization. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Big Green organizations have taken an anti-racist stance, with the Sierra Club’s Hop Hopkins proclaiming, “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.” However, despite such a cleareyed diagnosis, these same organizations continue to push market solutions that are at odds with contemporary struggles against police terror and institutional racism that have to look beyond tweaking the economy in order to create fundamental change. 

What do the often-invisible sacrifice zones where people of color live look like? The following map is one example of what the threat for displacement was before the pandemic struck. It analyzes displacement by overlaying these layers of data: 1) Environmental risks, i.e. flood zones and evacuation zones; 2) Economic data, i.e. those earning an income under $50,000 per year; and 3) Cost of housing, i.e. those spending over 50% of their income on housing expenses. The Displacement Zones – those within the red circles – are areas where all three layers overlap. By these calculations over 650,000 people meet the criteria for the risk of being displaced, mostly in the outer boroughs and upper Manhattan. According to these scenarios, the areas that are being hit the hardest by displacement have significant overlap with the neighborhoods being hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Displacement Map of New York City by Aurash Khawarzad (map in high resolution)


When we overlap data regarding housing, pollution, and COVID-19, the same general pattern holds. Neighborhoods in Upper Manhattan, South Bronx, East Brooklyn, and elsewhere have the highest number of infections and are also facing the most social and environmental justice pressures to begin with. This is not to say that they these neighborhoods are demographically identical but that they experience congruent risks. The alignment of all these forces for displacement is a powerful example of how systemic inequality influences our daily lives at the macro level, starting from the place where bodies physically reside.

What’s even more concerning, and what could be strongly related to coronavirus infection rates, is the overlap of where “essential workers” live with the aforementioned displacement zones.

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Source: https://comptroller.nyc.gov/reports/new-york-citys-frontline-workers/ 

If we take the time to analyze the job losses and health impacts from COVID-19 in relationship to where residents were already on the precipice of losing their home or were in poor health, we can develop a better response for ensuring residents aren’t displaced. The concern isn’t for the people who have the will and means to move to another city, but rather for the people who were already being left behind by extreme inequality and already have their health under assault because of where their housing has been concentrated in the city. 

This is one of many ways to figure out a system of triage for saving and rebuilding a community. While such a targeted approach should not be seen as opposed to universal demands for cancelling rent or universal eviction moratoriums, it must be seen as a foundational claim for urban movements fighting to sustain parts of the city in the face of waves of illness and austerity that play out in the most uneven ways. A similar approach can be seen in New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which not only mandates a speeded-up transition to clean energy but also specifies that at least 35 to 40 percent of the program’s benefits be directed to historically disadvantaged communities.

In cities like New York, urban heat is one of the most immediate environmental threats to communities of color. The hot city is quite literally a killer. Cities absorb, generate, and radiate heat, as asphalt, brick, concrete, and dark roofs soak in heat during the day and then emit warmth at night. This heat quite literally cooks people alive: when core body temperatures rise too high, the body begins to break down. But extreme heat also generates dangerous ozone pollution levels that can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, and other serious health impacts. While climate change is often seen as generating punishing but infrequent blows to cities through disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, deadly urban heat is here every summer, and is set to intensify dramatically in the relatively short term. In the US, heat waves kill more people on average than all other natural disasters combined. New York City is likely to suffer double the number of heat-related deaths of any other major US city as a result of climate change, according to a recent study by climate scientist Peter Frumhoff.

Exposure to extreme heat is highly unequal. Any number of factors from not being able to afford your electricity bill, lack of healthcare, having little to no opportunities to leave the concrete jungle, the quality of your home and workplace, and so on, cause a disproportionate impact along racial lines. A recent study found that such structurally marginalized urban neighborhoods are the hottest areas in 94 percent of the over 100 cities analyzed. There is a direct connection, in other words, between histories of redlining and the urban heat islands that are driving tens of thousands of people to seek emergency care for excessive heat exposure each year. With the average global temperature increasing, the heat island impact will only become more severe. Wealthier, whiter neighborhoods benefit from decades of investment in parks, trees, green spaces, public transportation and housing policies that all provide crucial cooling infrastructure. Redlined neighborhoods are literally killing people vulnerable to excessive heat and the forms of toxic air that usually accompanies it. As Professor Dr. Robert Bullard put it, “structural racism in housing compounds environmental, climate, and health risks.” Extreme heat is a growing problem within the US as well as in the cities of the Global South, where slumdwellers struggle to find respite from increasingly unlivable temperatures.

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The deadly intersection of racial injustice, extreme heat, and corporate power politics became evident in New York City last summer when Con Ed - NYC’s main power utility - cut power to 50,000 people in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods in order to avert a wider blackout. The parts of the city where power was cut off have some of the highest percentages of residents at risk for heat-related deaths. In majority people-of-color neighborhoods like Canarsie and East New York, residents are less able to afford the high electricity bills that come with running air conditioning frequently, and their neighborhoods have less cooling green space than more affluent, whiter parts of the city. New York City has the second highest utility rates in the country, a situation that disproportionately penalizes the poor – who obviously lack swank country homes to retire to when summer temperatures become life threatening. Con Ed had received $350 million to upgrade the relay protection systems that were blamed for the outages several years ago but ultimately failed to implement these modernization plans (even while making more than $1 billion in profit each year). After the outages, Jumaane Williams, the New York City Public Advocate and a former Council Member representing many of the neighborhoods struck by the power cuts, promised to hold Con Ed to account, while Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested that the city should either find another electricity provider or take over Con Ed.

Extreme heat and the pandemic are contributing to a deadly compound crisis during the summer of 2020, one that we know will affect communities of color and the elderly most severely. The blackout caused by Tropical Storm Isaias left more than a million people without power, cutting off access to air conditioning in the midst of a sweltering summer. With public cooling facilities like libraries and community centers inaccessible as a result of the pandemic, even when power is turned back on New Yorkers are dealing with skyrocketing utility bills in order to cool their homes – all in the midst of a devastating economic crash. The threat is palpable: in November 2019, utilities served 7,000 shutoff notices across New York state in a single month – before the pandemic crashed the economy – while utility shareholders made millions in profits. Prior to the pandemic, there were about 1 million people in NYC who couldn’t afford to pay their utility bills on a regular basis, according to Richard Berkley, executive director of the Public Utility Law Project; with many low-income families using as much as 30 percent of their income for utility bills, the high cost of power is a significant contributor to hunger, failure to address medical emergencies, and even homelessness. Now, with millions more struggling to survive, utility bills are a direct if frustratingly invisible threat to the lives of a significant segment of New York’s population.

Recognizing this, the New York State legislature passed a bill at the end of May mandating that previously voluntary moratoriums on electricity shutoffs be mandatory. This was a big win for social and environmental justice, but it essentially just punted the crisis into the future, when ratepayers will face a massive backlog of unpaid bills. Among the more radical measures demanded by a coalition of groups that includes the New York State Energy Democracy Alliance, healthcare workers’ union 1199SEIU, the Sunrise Movement, and NYC Democratic Socialists are the following: 

A) A two-year mandatory shutoff moratorium: people should not have to worry about keeping power and water flowing to homes during a pandemic

B) Cancellation of utility bills for the duration of the pandemic-caused crisis.

C) Forgiveness of debt on unpaid utility bills since the beginning of the pandemic: no post-pandemic rate hikes to make up for debt cancellation.

D) Increased taxation of the rich to pay for these measures.

Adding to these demands, environmental justice activists are also calling for the city to use funds set aside by the federal pandemic stimulus initiative of late March to pay for the installation of air conditioners in low-income people’s homes. With public cooling centers now largely inaccessible, the roughly 1 million New Yorkers who lack air conditioning in their homes need immediate relief from extreme heat. These interlinked demands need to be seen as part of an intersectional struggle over the breakdown of basic conditions for urban living that includes the fight for a moratorium on rent payments and an end to evictions. We are witnessing an epochal crisis that intensifies decades of structural oppression of New York’s most vulnerable (but now most “essential”) communities. The movements that have been combating the militarization of the police, including abolition, and fighting for a re-appropriation of resources into public services, are an important component of this struggle.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the basic ways that we interact with one another in cities has changed. More streets have been closed in the course of a few months than in the previous decade, offices and schools are closed, and so much more. Some will prefer these changes and have been asking for them for years, but the whole process has been done haphazardly and with half-measures. Going beyond quality of life changes means thinking comprehensively about our governing systems and how it relates to the destruction or survival of our environments. With the scale of the crises we are facing, now is the time to entertain radical ideas for transforming society.

The ongoing pandemic-induced shut down offers us a critical opportunity to reimagine and begin rebuilding cities. For the short term, emergency investments in green infrastructure might prevent an economic collapse and delay the worst impacts of climate change, but ultimately the failure of our system isn't the unemployment rate. Even scientists are warning that capitalist economic growth poses an existential threat to our world. Other concepts including degrowth, mutual aid, reparations, autonomy, and regenerating the commons with shared and/or socialist control of resources, are strategies to build environmental resilience and prevent the next crisis before it occurs. Even if Biden defeats Trump in the November 2020 election, neither the trend of mass displacement or the structural inequalities that precipitated a public health crisis will be eradicated. Long-term reparations strategies that change the nature of how frontline communities govern and design their own redevelopment is a direct path towards dismantling sacrifice zones. Concepts such as these are outlined in the “Red New Deal”, which 'ties the land and body violence together' in a way that other green proposals do not. 

We need to totally upend many of the priorities of the last century through the adoption of policies that remake and reweave the apartheid-based structure of our cities. Cities need a crash program for decommodifying housing and making it a human right; they need to revive and expand their ailing public transportation networks; and we must massively augment local food networks in order to become less dependent on nation- and globe-straddling supply networks whose fragility the pandemic has made abundantly clear. Perhaps most crucially, given the conjunction of coronavirus and extreme heat, New York needs a massive build-out of renewable energy in order to end the city’s dependence on expensive electricity generated by private utilities like Con Ed and National Grid. The struggle for Public Power in New York - for the creation of a downstate power authority that is democratically governed, 100 percent renewable, and that is dedicated to the public good rather than profit - is thus foundational for efforts to remake the city’s infrastructure. But underlying all of these struggles is a necessary transformation of the city from an infrastructure for the accumulation of capital – with all of the injustice and dysfunction that comes with such a structural role – to a locus of popular power, empowerment, and emancipation.