Author Archives: Shannon Ayala

About Shannon Ayala

Shannon is an avid reporter of the city's environmental politics. He loves seeing indie movies. And he lives by the Bronx River in lower Westchester County.

Across from Edgar Allen Poe’s cottage, talent flourishes in a high-end community center

A resident of the midsection of the Bronx walks into the one-room visitors center at Poe Park, looks around at the near-empty space and says, Can I offer my talent here?

This is how it happens at the Poe Park Visitors Center, a narrow outfit with a modern design facing the poet’s historic, gothic cottage in his namesake park. Since this quiet facility opened in May 2012, a flurry of neighbors have offered up their skills for free.

Classical music performances, comic book art exhibits, yoga classes, nonfiction story-telling workshops, and other work has arisen out of these simple walk-ins.

“I think the ambience here kind of brings that out more,” said Lucy Aponte, who oversees the center. “People see it’s a creative place, you know? It seems to be drawing a lot of creative people. That’s what’s happening.”

Activity at the center had a slow start, with the space not opening until about two years after construction finished, and with a shortage of funding to staff it full-time before the Parks Department took it over. While community groups struggled to figure out how to breathe life into it, life happened.

But that phenomenon was seen as a springboard. One of the center’s designers has jumped back in this summer with a low-tech wall installation designed to escalate this trend.

Image courtesy of VisionArc

Image courtesy of VisionArc

“We’re trying to encourage even more activity,” said Landon Brown, Director of Vision Arc, a branch of Toshiko Mori Architect, which the Mayor’s Office commissioned to design the center.

Vision Arc’s bureaucratic sounding “Community Mapping Initiative” is akin to a bulletin board. Instead of pins, though, it allows visitors to write their own skills, suggestions or neighborhood needs on paper circles and stick the writing on the wall.

Visitors added to the wall, “I want to learn more English and practice my pronunciation,” “want to give a pasta class,” suggestions for Citibike in the Bronx — and the ideas kept coming.

Brown says the wall is not to just bring in ideas for the space but ideas for the community at large.

“A big shift that’s happening right now in the design community and certainly beyond is asking what is the role of design in addressing systemic challenges.”

Here are some examples of the turnout, provided by Landon Brown.

We Need More… 

(Social Services) “A fathers support program for fathers that are bringing up their kids alone”

I Regularly Use 

(Food & Nutrition) “Green Market at the New York Botanical Garden”

I want to Learn…

(Skills Training) “To practice my pronunciation”

(Health & Wellness)

“CPR Training & First Aid,” “Deep Breathing, Tai Chi, Yoga”

I Have Skills In…

(Skills Training) “Math tutoring”

I Can Provide…

(Arts & Culture) “…teaching Manga cartoon workshops to introduce Japanese youth culture,” “Craft restoration of furniture…”

The Community Mapping Initiative at Poe Park is part of a wave of community collaborative platforms, which is part of a broader trend called ‘the sharing economy.’ and Trade School, both founded in NYC, and Yerdle, founded in San Francisco, are online projects with similar goals of opening new pathways from one user to the next, and Change by Us is like a community bulletin board for NYC, for creating participatory projects.

Read more about Poe Park in the New York Times, and about the design via architect Toshiko Mori.





Life cycle of an NYC soot cloud

One of the lesser recognized environmental feats of the Bloomberg administration will be the phase-out of heavily polluting heating oils.

The black smoke seen pouring off buildings is an old-fashioned sight. Only New York City requires a certain sludgy, or unrefined heating oil. Nine thousand buildings–just one percent of stock–emit more soot or particulate matter than all the exhaust from cars or trucks on the city streets.

So those really dark soot clouds you see pouring off buildings sometimes, contribute to the overall particulate matter that the city attributes to more than 3,000 deaths annually. The Mayor’s PlaNYC 2030 air quality chapter puts the impact at 2,000 hospital admissions and 6,000 emergency department visits for asthma.

One year ago this month the NYC Clean Heat program, an effort with the Environmental Defense Fund, went into full swing as a new law required buildings to switch to cleaner burning boilers if not to steam or gas. In April, the team announced it reached its goal of reducing half the pollution from heating oil by the end of this year.

NYC's Clean Heat program with Environmental Defense Fund is on its way to convert 9,000 buildings to burn cleaner heating oil, or to steam or gas

NYC’s Clean Heat program with Environmental Defense Fund is on its way to convert 9,000 buildings to burn cleaner heating oil, or to steam or gas

Manhattan saw 759 conversions, the most of all boroughs, but continues to house 3,011 buildings with toxic unrefined heating oil. The Bronx had the second most buildings to convert, but switched 421 and still has 1,689 to go. Staten Island only had ten buildings to convert and has one left.

The program triggered protest from anti-fracking activists who see the program as too natural-gas friendly.

As of February, most heat conversions involved hooking up to Con Ed gas lines instead of refined oil. In February, 353 converted to low sulfur No. 2 oil; 921 switched to gas; five switched to steam and the remaining (at least 350 but could be more) converted to a No. 4 (a mix of 2 and 6) according to EDF.Oil, Gas, Steam

Times Up! takes over Williamsburg lot as first garden

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Times Up! took over a vacant lot on South 5th Street in Williamsburg, just across the street from its South 6th Street headquarters and in plain view of the Williamsburg Bridge.

“We just walked in,” said Benjamin Shepard, an organizer with the city’s grassroots environmental group.

Community gardens are a big part of the group’s history. At the end of the late ’90s Giuliani period, Times Up! took part in organizing direct actions to preserve hundreds of community gardens that suddenly went on the market. At that point, twenty-year-old leases given to gardeners in the 1970s, when guerrilla gardeners took over abandoned lots, had expired. To save the gardens from an administration set on turning the spaces over to developers, activists, from Times Up! and elsewhere, used various tactics including wearing flower head dresses and chaining themselves to gardens.

But in its twenty-five years of action, Times Up! has never had its own community garden.

“Times Up! has been about public space, defending public space for a long, long time,” said Shepard. “And creating a garden is just another step in that process.”

Gothamist reported that the city plans on leasing the lot out for an affordable housing project in the near future. Hence the name of the garden, “Nothing Yet Community Garden.”

New Yorkers outpace Sandy in tree count

Woman takes tree homeTrees are going up faster than storms are taking them down in New York City.

Dozens of people lined up in a parking lot between some industrial buildings and the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn on a recent sunny Saturday morning to pick up stick-figure-sized Redbud trees about four feet tall. More than half of the 100 trees ready to go were picked up within the first 45 minutes of a two-hour stretch, said Sophie Plitt, Forestry Coordinator of New York Restoration Project.

About once a week in the spring and fall, the NYRP – in conjunction with the city – goes to different neighborhoods and gives away trees for free. (See our coverage of this year’s free tree announcement for upcoming giveaway dates and locations.)

Four treesThe last three tree giveaways of 2012 were canceled after Hurricane Sandy. The storm knocked down more than 10,000 trees, said Tara Kiernan, a spokeswoman for the Parks Department. That’s fifteen times as many tree casualties than after 2011’s Hurricane Irene, which took down about 650 trees.

But since 2007, about 662,000 trees have taken root, or an average of more than 100,000 a year. This growth is a result of the “MillionTreesNYC” program, a PlaNYC partnership between the city and NYRP.

“All in all, I would not say [Sandy] is a significant set-back for MillionTreesNYC,” said Mike Mitchell, NYRP community initiatives manager.

“Tree loss was factored in at the beginning,” he noted, “whether it be from storms, mechanical damage, soils salted from people clearing snow from their sidewalk, people pouring concrete or laying bricks around the base of a tree, etc.”

The new replace the casualties. Older trees are more vulnerable to storms because they have more leafs, said Mitchell. “Because young trees have less canopy,” he added, “their branches are more supple, and they have significantly less leaf surface area to be blown like a sail.”

However, according to Kiernan, the little guys have more than just youth going for them. “Thanks to new planting methods we’ve implemented and careful consideration given to species selection and planting locations,” she said, “our newly planted trees have been less susceptible to storm damage.”

In 2011, the New York Times citied studies that said 7 to 11 percent of newly planted trees die within two years. However, almost all the trees felled by storms were later reported by the New York Observer to be old trees that predate the MillionTreesNYC program.

Prior to MillionTreesNYC, the city planted 10,000 trees every year–about the same number knocked by Sandy.

The city’s winning battle to add to the estimated five million trees across the boroughs can be attributed to the thousands of New Yorkers who line up to pick up the bark and do the planting independently at home. Only New York City residents are allowed to take the trees and the rules limit each household to a tree, Plitt said.

The boroughs with the highest turnouts at tree giveaways are Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, said Mitchell. “A lot of the time this has to do with the fact there are fewer households with green space in the areas we do tree giveaways in the Bronx and Manhattan,” he noted.

The focus of MillionTreesNYC, which started with a tree planted on Teller Avenue in the Bronx,  has been in neighborhoods with a scarcity of trees. The Parks Department focuses on planting trees in public spaces such as sidewalks and parks.

From the NYRP site in Gowanus, Forestry Coordinator Sophie Plitt speaks about Eastern Redbuds and the experience of giving trees:

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Photos and video: Shannon Ayala

Rockaway surfers launch solar renaissance 2.0

view from yoga studio window

View from Yoga on the Rocks, neighboring a surf shop on Beach 92nd Street.

Some surfers are carrying more than their boards to the Rockaways – they’re bringing solar power to help strengthen the storm-battered peninsula against the sea.

“The first line of defense for the city is Rockaway Beach,” said Walter Meyer of Power Rockaways Resilience, a nonprofit group that formed after Sandy to install solar panels for free in the Queens community.

Dave Gibbs leads solar edu workshop

David Gibbs talks about solar at a workshop hosted by the Rockaways Waterfront Alliance

The group, started by surfers with strong connections to the Rockaways, led a solar education workshop hosted by the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance in February. As the Rockaways rebuild, solar energy advocates are floating a vision of using the sun to power what the storm nearly destroyed.

One of the dozens of residents in attendance asked where in a house or building would a solar battery go. When presenter David Gibbs said the battery usually goes in the basement, the crowd gasped, remembering the flooding Sandy caused in late October. But he added it could just as easily go in the attic or elsewhere.

Dave Gibbs at workshop“You have to rethink how you live. You have to rethink how you build,” Gibbs said.

Longtime Rockaway residents Jerry and Maureen Walsh left the meeting enthusiastic about introducing solar power to their seaside community. “Rockaway could be a pilot (program),” Jerry Walsh said.

The Resilience started as a fundraising campaign to provide solar energy to relief efforts after the storm. Several groups offered solar expertise during the crisis, setting up temporary panels on trailers to provide lighting and charge small appliances. But it was surfers, with a unique bond to the peninsula, who set out to establish a permanent mission there.

In the days after the storm, the Rockaway Surf Club converted from a cultural hub into a relief center. Meyer and Jennifer Bolstad – his wife and colleague in landscape architecture – came from Brooklyn to help.

“It was more of a personal thing,” said Meyer, who lived in the Rockaways on and off for the past decade and visited nearly every weekend.

Meyer asked if Gibbs could bring solar stations to the peninsula. Gibbs soon arrived with solar batteries and panels that were just “lying around,” and two solar lanterns originally earmarked for Africa. People lined up to charge phones at solar stations on Beach 90th Street.

The Power Rockaways Resilience, which bills itself as “planners and engineers who surf Rockaway Reach,” raised $30,000 on A permanent solar panel was attached atop the surf club within a month after Sandy hit. Group members connected the panel to the circuit box for just enough power for some lights and some outlets. “It operated as if the building was up and running,” Jennifer Bolstad said. “It was pretty much their only lifeline.”

About a dozen relief sites in the area used solar power, and all the solar organizations united as Solar Sandy. By March, solar use was down 80 percent compared to the peak need period in the days after the storm, Meyer said.

Lena Roca and Gibbs at empty Yoga on the Rocks

Lena Roca and Gibbs at empty Yoga on the Rocks

Lena Roca, who runs Yoga on the Rocks, is among the first beneficiaries of the campaign to bring solar power to the Rockaways. She opened her Beach 92nd Street studio two weeks before the storm ravaged her business, sweeping her backup gas generator out to sea. “The first thing I thought to do was to go to the surf club because that’s like a community organization already,” said Roca, a surfer.

Even without electricity, she reopened her studio as a relaxation center where people could get massages and drink tea. Within two weeks, Power Rockaways Resilience set up the yoga studio with solar panels on trucks outside. The panels have been returned to lenders since.

But before the studio goes back on the grid, solar power will light the studio. Roca will share a one-kilowatt off-grid photovoltaic solar panel system, including a storage battery with a neighboring surf shop. It will charge lights and heat, enough for yoga.

Gibbs carries box of off-grid solar equipment to bring to Roca's studio

Gibbs carries box of off-grid solar equipment to bring to Roca’s studio

Such a set-up costs about $3,500, half the price of a typical on-grid 1kw system. Over time, the system at Yoga on the Rocks might expand into a more elaborate 4kw bimodal system. Gibbs calls bimodal the “holy grail” because it could work alongside grid-power and keep running when a storm disrupts the grid. Some Rockaway residents who already had solar installed before Sandy lost power anyway because they were on grid-tied systems without backup.

The Resilience has a unique assortment of places lined up for installations in the coming weeks and months. The group is putting solar up on a temporary geodesic dome at PS1 MOMA; an old firehouse used as a community center by the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance; and the Veggie Island restaurant where part of Occupy Sandy’s operations took place.

The only condition for donated solar is that panels have to stay in the Rockaways, said Meyer. “The hierarchy started with relief places,” he said. “The next hierarchy was businesses and community centers.”

Looking down the road, the vision includes clusters expanding solar power to low-income housing, and then everyone else, he said.

After dropping off the solar equipment at Yoga on the Rocks, Gibbs said he was thinking of moving back to the Rockaways. Since he does solar projects around the world, it’s helpful to live near Kennedy Airport. The other reason is for surfing. He understands why others want to stay in the neighborhood.

“Down there they’ve never had a major storm like that,” he said. “Now, you’ve got to learn your lessons from it.”

Photos: Shannon Ayala

Index thumbnail photo: courtesy Power Rockaways Resilience

Why are you going to #ForwardOnClimate?

We were curious to hear why New Yorkers were planning to head to the #ForwardOnClimate Rally in D.C. this weekend. Here’s what we found out:

The activists in this video also speak of the divestment movement happening at universities citywide and across the country. The movement, made up of students and faculty alike, aims to move universities to divest school endowments from the fossil fuel industry.

Koch’s messengers may be today’s food delivery cyclists

Riding wrong way 1

Two cyclists ride opposite directions on a one way avenue south of Times Square.

In 1987 Mayor Ed Koch tried to ban cyclists from a swath of Midtown Manhattan. At that time it was bike messengers who got the rap in the so-called bike wars. Today, it’s the food delivery cyclists.

The city is not trying to ban them from riding anywhere. But one frequent complaint about bike lanes stems from a fear of bicyclists riding the wrong way and blindsiding a pedestrian.

One reason the fear often focuses on food cyclists is that deliverymen “are a huge proportion of cyclists on the road,” according to Lisa Sladkus of Upper West Side Streets Renaissance Campaign.

Environmental economist and cycling advocate Charles Komanoff created a study of bike trends using data from the Department of Transportation and elsewhere. It found that between 1985 and 2011, the number of bike messengers in the city dropped from 5000 to 1000, whereas food delivery cyclists rose from 500 to 5000.

That is among 179,000 daily cyclists in New York City in 2011, the study found. The percentage is small, but whereas noncommercial cyclists take three daily trips, the average food delivery cyclist makes thirteen deliveries and twenty-two trips daily, the study showed.

One reason for the uneasy passage of the Columbus Avenue bike lane on Feb 6, was that proponents said protected bike lanes (with barriers) reduce cyclist-pedestrian collisions. A Hunter College study in 2011 found that approximately a thousand hospital patients a year are involved in cycling-pedestrian collisions.

This tension comes at a time when the Bloomberg administration is counting down its final days, and, as the New York Times points out (2.13.13), none of Bloomberg’s potential replacements seem as bike-friendly as the mayor.

The city has taken action specifically on food delivery cyclists. Though cycling laws have existed for decades, the DOT launched safety campaigns for food delivery cyclists last year. Last summer it launched a six-person “commercial cyclist outreach and enforcement unit.” And this year the it will start enforcing laws that involve wearing reflective vests, ID numbers on the chest, and of course, riding the right way, off the sidewalks, and stopping at red lights.

But the New York of Mayor Bloomberg and DOT Commissioner Sadik-Kahn does not appear likely to ever ban cycling anywhere. In fact, in writing, part of the Mayor’s PlaNYC 2030 is to “make bicycling safer and more convenient” as part of its “sustainable transportation” list.

Koch’s plan to ban cycling on Fifth, Madison and Park never materialized. Messengers and supporters daily protested by riding in Midtown before it could go through, and the state Supreme Court killed the plan for what Komanoff, in a historical essay called a “technicality”: the city hadn’t published official notice on time. The city didn’t bother trying again.

But times have not changed as much as it may seem. In order for the city to expand its bike infrastructure, community boards have to accept proposals by DOT, which isn’t granted. Food delivery cyclists are one reason.

In winning over support, the messengers may have had an advantage that food delivery cyclists don’t. Komanoff said the messengers had a way of winning over support because of a “cool factor.”

“In some way that cool factor kind of coexisted in the resistance and paranoia that was stirred up by the media and was exacerbated by the fact that the messengers would go fast and would go aggressively.”

The messengers, many of whom were minorities just as the food-delivery cyclists are, were seen as sub-cultural young people with a kind of bravado, he said. “They had a whole pride in their bike and what they did. And I think that to some extent that was an important aspect of the way New Yorkers reacted [to them] in the ’80s,” he said.

Without that kind of cultural aesthetic protection, food delivery cyclists are more vulnerable to criticism, said Komanoff. From the ’80s into the ’90s, he said, there were bike messenger zines. “It is really hard to imagine there ever being a zine about food delivery cycling,” he said. “And I think that that lack of a positive culture makes it easier for the average New Yorker to write these guys off as different, as alien, as the ‘other.'” Hollywood confirms Komanoff’s point: both Kevin Bacon and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have starred in films as bike messengers.

While there is no hard data distinguishing food delivery cyclists in safety statistics, a single count was done for this piece. On a one-way avenue with a protected bike lane, in a two-block section of Manhattan, forty-three cyclists were counted in thirty minutes around 2 p.m. Food delivery cyclists were identified as those carrying food delivery bags or wearing reflective vests and ID numbers. Five of 25 food delivery-identified cyclists rode the wrong way. Three of 18 non-food-delivery-identified cyclists rode the wrong way. Some of those may have been messengers.

(Correction added: number of messengers reduced to 1000, not 100. Thanks to C. Komanoff for catching the typo.)

Healthy behavior dropped after Hurricane Sandy, poll says

An Occupy-Sandy relief table.

An Occupy Sandy relief table. 

Healthy behavior declined in areas most impacted by Hurricane Sandy, according to a Gallup poll.

Healthy behavior in terms of food and exercise is known to drop in winter months, but the poll found the tri-state area lagging behind the national average. Within the zip-codes most affected by Sandy, healthy eating especially dropped.

In all 47 states outside of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, the poll reported six percent less exercise, but 13 percent less in the tri-state area. The most affected zip codes in all three states were actually higher on the chart, at a 12 percent decline.

But food is where the most devastated areas–marked by zip codes receiving the most aid from FEMA–stood out among neighboring communities. The poll said healthy eating declined by only one percent in the 47 other states, and by three percent in the tri-state area. In the most affected zip codes, healthy eating reportedly declined by seven percent.

The numbers, released in a February 8 report by Gallup, were taken from surveys six weeks prior and six weeks after the storm, ending on December 15.

The report speculated that though practical reasons must have contributed to it, stress may have also been a factor, if compared to typical behavior after stressful events. Smoking, cited as an indicator of stress, rose from 14 to 17 percent in the most impacted zip codes.

A 2006 American Psychological Association study cited in the report stated that “Americans engage in unhealthy behavior such as comfort eating, poor diet choices, smoking and inactivity to help deal with stress.”

The Gallup report also referenced a different study that found that exercise relieves stress, and suggested that whatever people could do to maintain a healthy lifestyle is worthwhile, even in these tough times.

(Image: Michael Fleshman, Flickr)

Times Square Valentines heart will be made of Sandy-salvaged materials


A giant, glowing, red heart — with room inside for curious visitors and romantic couples — will be installed in Times Square for Valentine’s Day. The “Heartwalk,” designed by Brooklyn-based Situ Studio, is made of materials salvaged from Hurricane Sandy, including wood from the destroyed boardwalks of Long Beach, NY, and Sea Girt and Atlantic City, NJ.

In addition to a lighting consultant, Situ is working with LED lights, stainless steel, and a process of removing a thin layer of the wood to reveal interior texture and hues of red, orange and brown.

The annual Times Square Alliance’s Time Square Arts competition worked with Design Trust for Public Space this year to enlist emerging architecture and design firms. Eight firms submitted ideas for the Valentine’s project.

Heartwalk areal

The Heartwalk will be a reflection of the things that bind the city together, Bradley Samuel, Situ Studio partner said.

“This heart is a frame for lovers and a great civic gesture commemorating the outpouring of support and help in the wake of Sandy,” said Barry Bergdoll, The Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, The Museum of Modern Art, and jury member.

“Heartwalk is a heartwarming stage on which to pause for a moment in the heart of the world’s busiest intersection—a swell of emotions,” Bergdoll added, “that can dialogue with the TKTS pavilion and the great cacophony of Times Square.”

 Images: Situ Studio