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Green Gotham

United States

Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff take to their bicycles
in search of an unusual aspect of Manhattan.

Out of the glitter, graffiti and asphalt a new face of New York is emerging. Slowly, the Big Apple is turning green.

It’s hard to notice, what with the careening taxis and the towering skyscrapers. We discovered the city’s green sheen at a leisurely, human pace. Recycle-a-Bicycle, a group that rescues the vehicles from scrap and teaches inner-city kids how to fix ’em up, made us a deal: two bikes for $100. And after our two-week stint they would buy them back from us for $75. Cheap, clean transport.

With wings to soar we discovered the architecture, followed our noses to quaint cafés and savoured our windshield-free meanderings.

New Yorkers leave motor vehicles to dummies, and recycle the bicycle.

Manhattan, though car-infested, has probably the lowest rate of car ownership in North America, if not the Western world. Only 22 per cent of households own cars. With such an extensive public-transit system and easily accessible neighbourhood stores, a car is more of a hassle than anything. Yet somehow a million vehicles – many of them trucks – manage to squeeze into Manhattan daily. There is talk of bringing the streetcar back to 42nd Street.

One of our favourite spots to hang out was Washington Square Park, a kind of carnival of musicians, pot sellers, rappers, tappers, slackers and tourists. It’s a colourful people place, and its recent history is instructive. Up until the 1970s the park was cut into by busy Fifth Avenue. The locals demanded that it be made carfree. Traffic engineers predicted mayhem and gridlock. The locals got their way and the dire predictions were proven unfounded. What was shown was that, just as more roads generate traffic, reducing road capacity results in traffic disappearing. Then people, and conviviality, reappear like magic.

New York’s subway and bus system is topnotch, with over 40 per cent of the whole country’s mass transit in the city.

Friends urged us to track down Wendy Brawer, who has developed a ‘green map’ for New York City which has over 700 sites indicated. The idea has inspired similar maps in dozens of cities around the world (www.greenmap.com). By bike she graciously gave us a green tour of lower Manhattan.

It’s a rare treat to touch earth, see lilies flowering or smell roses. But on numerous sites in each block of the East Village there are luscious gardens, usually on squatted ground or rented from the city for a buck. These oases have been meticulously nurtured, transformed from squalid, debris-ridden lots to firefly havens.

It ain’t paradise though. The noisy garbage trucks seemed to be circulating at all hours, and a few mornings we were awakened by jackhammers. Bicycles disappear faster than Superman. Kryptonite

U-locks come with a guarantee against theft, except in New York City. The streets sure could use some trees to cool down the heat and help clean the air – the second worst in the country.

But there’s hope. Part of the skin of a new skyscraper under construction on Times Square will be made up of photovoltaic solar panels. The green building will generate electricity, and efficient heating and cooling systems will greatly reduce its energy requirements.

Someone at Earth Summit 2 told us that he wouldn’t want to live in New York: it’s too mechanical and all about money. But another picture glimmers in our minds. Atop one of the World Trade Center towers, high above the city, basking in the sunlight, a small green plant has taken root. Nature just won’t let go.

Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff are engaged on a ‘Greenspiration!’ odyssey checking out bright-green ideas.
Visit their homepage at: http://www.greenspiration.org/

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New Internationalist issue 296 magazine cover This article is from the November 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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