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Staten Island’s Cedar Grove Beach: Go For The Ocean Breeze, Stay For The Syringes

There’s good news for intravenous drug abusers: there are free syringes washing up on the shores of New York City beaches.

This, of course, is bad news for the rest of us, who don’t necessarily want to get poked with a potentially deadly needle while taking a stroll on the beach.

Last month, an NBC 4 New York investigation revealed that a stretch of Rockaway Beach in Queens was littered with medical waste. In response, the Parks Department vowed to clean up the city’s beaches, which apparently didn’t happen — four people have suffered puncture wounds from syringes on city beaches in the last three weeks.

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The latest poking happened yesterday, when a lifeguard on duty at Rockaway Beach stepped on a needle at Beach 139th Street.

The other three pokings happened at Cedar Grove, where on July 16, a 63-year-old woman stepped on a hypodermic needle, cutting her foot.

Two days earlier, on July 14, a 37-year-old man took a needle to the hand while (ahem) enjoying the beach.

Another poking happened on the Fourth of July, when a 40-year-old man fell victim to the medical filth washing up on the shores.

It’s unclear where, exactly, the waste is coming from. However, the recent spike in syringes washing up on beaches is reminiscent of the “Syringe Tide” problem in the late 1980s, when large amounts of medical waste and raw garbage was washing up on the shores of New Jersey. The source of that filth was identified as the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, which has since closed (for the most part — a small portion of the former landfill is now used as solid waste management plant).

On that note, we leave you with some Billy Joel:

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Fresh Kills’ Facile Morality Tale Offers Cheap Laughs

A play featuring a secret Internet tryst in an old pickup truck—parked in Staten Island’s favorite landfill, no less—promises some compelling seediness, if nothing else. So why does Fresh Kills ultimately come off so wholesome? Part gritty social realism, part community theater–level comedy, Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s script struggles to find a tone befitting its potentially transgressive material. Eddie—a married middle-aged blue-collar dad—trolls the Net for teenage boys, one of whom, Arnold, pursues him for an extended relationship. But instead of probing the demons that fuel Eddie’s recklessness, Wilder seems more interested in rigging sensational and farcical plot twists, especially when Eddie’s oblivious wife takes a maternal liking to Arnold.

Director Isaac Byrne skillfully stages the proceedings in and around a lifesize Mitsubishi Mighty Max (crammed into 59E59’s smallest space), but an overly breezy atmosphere encourages more cheap laughs than unsettling insight. Todd Flaherty brings welcome electricity to the feral Arnold, while Robert Funaro’s nice-guy persona doesn’t add any layers to the script’s already slim portraiture of Eddie. Fresh Kills‘s contemporary working-class milieu may be appealing, but it’s ultimately only incidental backdrop, and Wilder’s clumsy, pseudo-tragic climax reveals the play for the facile morality tale it is.

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DEAD SERIOUS

Sure, New York’s a violent town but it seems odd how many of our geographical locales have “Kills” in their name. (Oh, it’s Dutch for “stream”? Who knew!) The most famous is Fresh Kills the local landfill that inspires Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder. Her play concerns a Staten Island family and the teenage boy who bedevils them.

Wednesdays-Fridays, 8:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 & 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 3:30 & 7:30 p.m.; Tuesdays, 7:30 p.m. Starts: Feb. 12. Continues through March 1, 2009

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Retouching the Void

Does time really heal all wounds? That hoary aphorism was in doubt long before 9-11, and it’s about to be put to the test again by a pair of docs from New York-based French filmmaker Etienne Sauret. The idea of revisiting September 11, on film or otherwise, isn’t a pleasant one, but Sauret’s initial offering, WTC: The First 24 Hours (which has aired on Cinemax and been excerpted on HBO and CBS), actually manages a fresh perspective. The director, camera in tow, had unimpeded access to the devastation for a full day before being shooed away by officials, and the footage he captured (sans commentary) is both gut-wrenchingly familiar and disconcertingly foreign. Devoid of the conventions of other filmed accounts—braying reporters, numbingly excessive replay, the avuncular Rudy Giuliani as tour guide—Sauret’s expedition uncovers the aptness in the “ground zero” sobriquet: With its structures reduced to meaningless ruin, the WTC’s poignant emptiness is horrifically unmasked.

Sauret’s follow-up, Collateral Damages, is less successful. Between interviews with NYC firefighters who responded to the disaster, the film includes scenes of disabled and/or contaminated 9-11 emergency vehicles being mercilessly scrapped at Fresh Kills. Sauret implies that his interviewees experienced a similar fate after their near-deification by a fickle press and public.

While this conclusion is open to debate, the film’s real flaw is its limited focus. As William Langewiesche made clear in his 2002 Atlantic Monthly series on ground zero, the 9-11 firefighters were willing participants in their elevation to mythical status, and their trials and tribulations—or at least the media’s exploitation of them—came to seem overbearingly redundant. It’s hard to say whether Sauret transcends the same brand of September 11 jingoism. His film takes the relentless boosterism to task by showing its human wreckage—most profoundly in the person of Al Sicignano, a plainly haunted fireman with Manhattan’s Engine 6 and the possessor of a chilling thousand-yard stare. But because of its narrowness, Collateral Damages often feels like just one more heavy-handed tribute to the NYFD.

Had Sauret widened his circle of inquiry to include the impressions of, say, office workers and service employees who were at the site, and even a few civvies who watched from a distance—a group the film implicitly scolds for taxing firefighters with post-traumatic neediness—the familiarity of Collateral Damages might have been mitigated. It may be a cliché to say so, but ground zero extends much further than the few blocks that were destroyed. Etienne Sauret has proven himself capable of exposing something new in the rubble, concrete and otherwise; why stop below Chambers Street?

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Disaster Areas

September 11 has had a multitude of effects on many communities in New York, but few reactions have been as defensive as that of its artists. Most of what was needed in the period following the initial tragedy required practical expertise, manpower, paperwork—things that artists have a well-deserved reputation for botching up. Nowadays, even most large-scale sculptors need the help of construction crews to create and install their pieces.

Artists began to ask: How can I help? Isn’t art useless? A curious anxiety arose: the need to describe the arts in terms of their utility. It seemed that if artists couldn’t prove their work could haul hunks of twisted steel out to Fresh Kills, they ran the risk of becoming irrelevant, or worse yet, losing their funding. Phrases like “art’s power to heal” kept cropping up in various media. Finding therapeutic value in art—its ability to uplift the soul, contextualize events, divert attention from the horror—is the cheap answer, because it usually produces not works of art, but works of therapy. The tougher answer is that creative ideas refocus our minds so that we’ll change the status quo. Tougher because artists live in their imaginations, outside ideologies, which makes them potential enemies of the state. In an atmosphere where the flag is freedom, and not just its symbol, some artists must feel guilty that they share with terrorists a zealous desire to change the world.

In her 1995 piece Stories From the Nerve Bible, venerable performance and recording artist Laurie Anderson quoted Don DeLillo, wondering if terrorists weren’t “the only true avant-garde artists left, because they are the only ones still capable of surprising people.” It might be vice versa: Artists are the only true avant-garde terrorists left. For the big difference between art and terrorism is that terrorism is pathetic at meeting its long-term goals, at a far greater cost. Has Northern Ireland emerged from 400 years of British control? Has Israel fled the West Bank with its tail between its legs? Did the FALN liberate Puerto Rico? By the same token, books, plays, and films have always helped advance political and social causes, turning our preconceived notions on their heads. We now believe that an ordinary mass-produced shovel can be art. Yet few, if any, have been killed for disagreeing. Maybe artists think the slow but efficient acceptance of their ideas is a fair swap for the element of surprise.

In Happiness, Anderson’s newest piece, the Tribeca resident has responded to the tragedy with the requisite artistic guilt and self-doubt, perhaps remembering her collusion with DeLillo. As in therapy, simplicity and earnestness have become the order of the day. That now goes for this ironic everywoman who once suggested carrying a bomb on a plane as a way to combat terrorism with statistics—the likelihood of there being two bombs on a plane, she reasoned, would be astronomical. Happiness is so small and intimate—almost timid—that she could perform it in the corner of a studio apartment. Lincoln Center practically swallows it. She’s pared her once elaborate act down to herself, a few gadgets, several synthesizers, and some unpleasant lighting effects.

Between her trademark semi-fictional anecdotes about getting a job at McDonald’s and living among the Amish lie a few more-personal stories about her life and background, almost drifting into Spalding Gray territory. As always, her observations about our national character bristle with keen observations. “Americans are completely comfortable in imaginary spaces,” she says, using the example of how “Nixon cut the gold standard and money became an abstraction.” But Happiness brings few surprises, least of all its ambient score. With one exception: The show’s centerpiece, a comment on a revelation Anderson had about the way she told the story of breaking her back at age 12, omitting the suffering of other kids in the hospital ward. Even our own stories deceive us, she suggests, leaving us to imagine what else has been left out or lied about. Anderson’s strength has always been her ability to describe the familiar with fresh eyes. But 9-11 has made Laurie Andersons of us all, living in fear “that buildings and people can turn to dust before our eyes.”


Richard Foreman’s menacing pageant Maria del Bosco responded brilliantly to 9-11, eschewing explanations in favor of images and exorcising the zeitgeist before our eyes. “Resist the present!” (and perhaps the president, too) its finale urged. Foreman’s influence has cast a long shadow over the “Blueprint Series” for 10 years, yet the urgency and chaos at the heart of Maria del Bosco has had no effect on this year’s gaggle of his disciples. Director Jonathan Valuckas appropriates the most Foremanisms, setting Alma Mater in a university where the achievement of three minutes of ritualized ecstasy is a requirement for graduation, and paying homage to the Ontological One’s props and dance numbers. It’s derivative, but forgivably so, like a copy of a master painting. Tracy Bersley’s visually lovely The Awful Rowing Toward God sets Anne Sexton’s poems capably yet preciously, with Mary Zimmerman’s influence more than Foreman’s, especially in her uninspired handling of actors. That goes double for Matthew Earnest and deep ellum ensemble’s kooky adaptation of the 13th-century Chinese play Ch’ien-nü Leaves Her Body and Joshua Briggs’s twee The Magic Show. Evidently it takes more than 10 months of crisis and paranoia for some young artists to start pushing against the status quo.

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Waste. Not!

Two days after 9-11, the Fresh Kills landfill reopened to take in the wreckage from the World Trade Center. “That was very, very shocking to me,” says artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, whose six-channel video piece about the former dump—Penetration and Transparency: Morphed—is currently running at Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island.

She remembers thinking she’d been misinformed: “The city would never do that. They would never mingle human remains in a place where they put garbage; that would collapse a taboo in our whole culture. That crosses a line.” But no other site was big enough; no other so secure. Ultimately, about 175 of the landfill’s 2200 acres were given over to sifting through the hundreds of thousands of tons from Ground Zero, no doubt some of it human ash. This added a layer of tragedy to a site that was already contested, fragile, enormous, resented, and political.

Ukeles has been the sanitation department’s unpaid artist-in-residence since 1977. She’s devoted her entire career to thinking about garbage, recycling, ecology, and the endless invisible labor involved in keeping things clean. In 1989, the Department of Cultural Affairs gave Ukeles a commission,

making her the official artist of Fresh Kills. She’ll now participate in its transformation, working with whatever design team wins the international competition. (Proposals by the three finalists are currently on view at the City Planning Department.) She’s come up with her own conceptual design for the site that she isn’t yet at liberty to discuss. But everyone’s future plan includes a memorial.

What Ukeles has on display now is Phase 1 (out of a projected six) of her Fresh Kills project: reconnaissance. For a while, though, the September 11 disaster stopped her in her tracks. When Snug Harbor’s long-planned exhibition “Fresh Kills: Artists Respond to the Closure of the Staten Island Landfill” opened last October, Ukeles decided to observe a traditional 30-day mourning period with her piece and ran just a text crawl on four monitors, posing questions that amounted to: Is any of this still relevant?

Then she began to phase in interviews with people she calls pathfinders: for example, landscape architects, wetlands specialists, environmental engineers, experts on the fine points of decomposing garbage and its odious by-products—methane gas and leachate, a kind of brown bilgewater.

Ukeles, with videographers Kathy Brew and Roberto Guerra, also taped many of Fresh Kills’ post-industrial vistas. Some of the former dump, which is two and a half times the size of Central Park, looks surprisingly bucolic. Underneath those mounds of trash, now capped with plastic and covered with dirt, are pipes and drains, gas lines and leachate collection systems. She marvels at the engineering design—not just a complicated infrastructure but a flexible one, since everything’s settling at the average rate of two feet a year. It will take many years of “healing” before Fresh Kills becomes a park.

Last Sunday at Snug Harbor, Ukeles added the last of her pathfinders to the exhibit and celebrated the completion of her Phase 1.


Ukeles has been waiting to get to work at Fresh Kills for 24 years. That’s when she first visited the site. Back in the ’70s, every borough but Manhattan had a landfill, and she went to see them all. She thought of them as urban earthworks, social sculpture made by all of us.

When Ukeles began to place an art framework around sanitation activities, she had a context for it. In those years, certain avant-gardists designated parts (even all) of everyday life as art, and feminists pointed out that housework was unvalued labor. Ukeles shifted her own art away from abstract expressionist painting after she had a baby, and, in effect, became a maintenance worker. Now she was not just someone engaged in repetitive tasks; a small human life depended on her ability to perform those tasks. When Ukeles wrote her Manifesto for Maintenance Art in 1969, it was a decision to make housekeeping of all kinds visible. In her 1973 piece Hartford Wash, for example, she scrubbed the floor of the Wadsworth Atheneum for four hours, then scrubbed the front steps for another four—and called it art.

Then, when she turned her attention to the New York City Sanitation Department, she created one of the signature performance pieces of the ’70s. In Touch Sanitation, she spent 11 months meeting each of the department’s 8500 workers on the job (at the time, they were still called “garbagemen”) to shake hands and say “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” As she made her way to every worker on every shift, she saw that morale was terrible. “You can’t ask people to pick up your garbage and then treat them like they’re not there, or like they’re part of the garbage, which was how they were feeling,” says Ukeles. “As a feminist, I recognized something in that. The fury they felt, I knew about as a woman who was seen as invisible. The maintenance work that I did had no cultural sound. It didn’t exist.”

Her mirrored garbage truck was created in 1983 to send a message: It’s your garbage. The essential fact of her work is this: Discarding something does not make it invisible. It goes somewhere, and she is the artist of where it goes.

Ukeles has found more and more layers to this work over the years. Certainly, it isn’t just political. In her office at the sanitation department, she’s taped a xeroxed news photo to a filing cabinet: “Cleansing the Soul.” Masses of Hindu pilgrims wade into the holy rivers at Allahabad, India. She points out the people in the photo who’ve reached out as if to embrace the river. This one joyful and relaxed. That one tense. Both ecstatic. “That’s what I’ve been searching for all these years. You make a place; it’ll have huge emotion, but allows room for difference.” The photo inspires her as she works on a public art piece for Schuylkill River Park in Pennsylvania. The Schuylkill is extremely polluted. “I’m trying to build an artwork that incorporates moving with joy towards the river. Is there any way to become transformed?”

Sanitation, she points out, is not the same as garbage. Sanitation creates order out of chaos, and in that way it’s artlike.

“I consciously put myself in a position to deal with some of the hardest issues in our society: What to do with our garbage, how might we transform a place that’s completely poisoned and degraded by our own waste, how might these places become available to us again? Placing myself in the sanitation department, where these questions never go away, is a way for me to keep myself in the real. If our dreams can be expressed in material form, then I want to place myself where the material is completely degraded. I want to deal with the landfill. That’s the center of reality; that’s where I try to locate my work.”


Penetration and Transparency: Morphed and the rest of the Fresh Kills exhibit is open at Snug Harbor through May 27.

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Trashing the Point

The last time Rudy Giuliani ran for office—his reelection campaign in 1997—he promised heavily Republican Staten Island that its hated Fresh Kills landfill would shut down for good on New Year’s Day, 2002, quelling the secessionist movement that threatened the city GOP’s political future. And where would the 13,000 tons of trash go every day? Oh, that was a little detail to be worked out later, Hizzoner responded.

It’s election season again, and New York’s post-Fresh Kills world of garbage disposal is beginning to take shape. The Giuliani administration relies mostly on trucks to transport waste out of New York, a policy resulting in 425,000 additional truck trips a year on the city’s roads, bridges, and tunnels, leading to vast increases in air pollution at busy intersections, according to a report by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. (His office is suing the administration over this.)

As for the long term, if all goes as planned, not a single registered Republican will get a whiff of the city’s waste. Instead of devising a comprehensive and equitable waste-management plan, city and state officials want to dump 5200 tons of trash a day in the Bronx’s Hunts Point peninsula over the next 30 years.

The company eager to run this venture is American Marine Rail, a New Jersey-based firm and a newcomer to the city’s garbage markets. AMR has proffered a bold plan—to have waste shipped to Hunts Point by barge and whisked off to an out-of-state landfill by rail. No trucks. The waste will arrive at Hunts Point in airtight containers, thus protecting the local populace from noxious odors. “This project will hurt no one,” insists Rob Jones, co-owner of American Marine Rail. “In fact, it may be worse if we’re not there. Trucks are going to come through if there aren’t alternatives available.”

Hunts Point residents aren’t buying it. AMR may promise the moon, but the community faces the possible exodus of many local businesses, which are not thrilled to be situated near a mini-Fresh Kills. Adjacent to the site—which will occupy 5.6 acres, require extensive construction, and operate 24 hours a day, six days a week—are a lumber manufacturer, a Frito-Lay distribution center, and some 10,000 residents already suffering from asthma rates that are among the nation’s highest. What’s more, warns Majora Carter, associate director of the Point, a local economic development nonprofit, the project will “cement the thinking in people’s mind that Hunts Point is only good for garbage. That’s an image we have been trying to fight.”

In January, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)—infamous for its laissez-faire attitude toward waste-transfer stations—and the city’s Department of Sanitation made public their decision: AMR did not have to produce an environmental impact statement, whereby a developer submits a report detailing why its project poses no threat to the environment. (AMR did a less onerous environmental-assessment statement instead.) “This is totally unacceptable,” fumes local assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr. “How do we know that the waste is going to be moved out by rail every day? If rail doesn’t work, will AMR truck then?” According to Mary Ellen Kris, regional director of the DEC, there will be a prohibition on trucking in AMR’s permit. “We believe that the project, despite its size, does not present adverse impacts [to the community].”

Such confidence on the part of these public agencies belies the considerable rail-freight problems many Bronx companies now deal with. Waste Management Inc. opened a $40 million waste-transfer station in the Bronx’s Harlem River Yard last November with the intention of sending 3000 tons of trash a day to Virginia by rail. But thanks to flawed services by CSX Transportation and other snafus, railcars heading down south are not returning fast enough, allowing garbage to languish at the Waste Management facility. (Another nearby transfer station has had the same problem.) Some food distributors and manufacturers in the Bronx have also complained about rail freight in New York, noting that service is slow and the routes are convoluted—railcars can cross the Hudson River only via Albany, a 250-mile round-trip diversion for a company looking to transport down south, as AMR is proposing.

Still, AMR is undaunted by these hurdles. “It’s an economic risk, but a minimal risk,” says Rob Jones. “It remains cheaper to use rail than to truck.”

The risk might be minimal to AMR, but could be enormous to the people of Hunts Point. “I know rail is the way to go, but rail is nonexistent on this side of the Hudson,” says Paul Lipson, executive director of the Point. “That’s the worst-kept secret: You can’t move things out, and that’s why it sits out there days on end.”

Meanwhile, the costs of closing Fresh Kills are rising—both financially and environmentally. According to a new City Council report, the price tag on shutting down the landfill is $622 million, up by $100 million from 18 months ago. Moreover, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an environmental group, believes that an additional 700,000 trucks will traverse the city’s streets by the time the landfill is shut down, if the city meets the state-imposed deadline. The Giuliani administration is expected to announce a new long-term waste-management plan by spring.

American Marine Rail will present its case at a public hearing scheduled for 8 p.m., Wednesday, March 8, at IS 74, 730 Bryant Avenue, in the Bronx.