2011-09-09 / Columnists

Rock Solid

Commentary by Vivian Rattay Carter

I’ll never forget the words of the engineer who inspected the Belle Harbor home our family was about to buy, in the spring of 1994.

“The number one enemy of your home is water,” he said. Do everything you can to keep water from coming in, and you will be fine.

I thought about his words again when Tropical Storm Irene paid a visit to the Rock last week. My generation and our offspring got a rare chance to see the ocean meet the bay. The You Tube videos and television news footage will document that many thought of it as just another cool tourist attraction. A 1960 film clip that was blasted around cyberspace right before the storm, showed locals frolicking in waist-high water on Beach 116 Street during Hurricane Donna. This artifact provoked differing reactions, depending on your temperament. One person seeing the video would say, “Oh, my, I’ve got to get out of here.” That was me.

Others seeing the video said, “Boy, I can’t miss this!” My 18-year old son stayed on the peninsula with his Dad and waited sleeplessly for the arrival of high tide, as if it were Christmas Eve. He was rewarded with an “experience tourism” event unlike any other, in his own front yard. And not a drop of water came into the basement.

I saw a property for sale recently, near the bay on Beach 92 Street, with a home in front and a bungalow behind. The homes there used to sit on stilts over the bay, until someone decided it was a great idea to “reclaim” the land to build Beach Channel Drive.

The home in front was still occupied, but there was black mold creeping up the walls in the finished basement. The bungalow behind it was worse. There were bright orange “mushrooms” growing everywhere. Not just in the basement, but right through the floorboards on the first floor, growing out of the radiators all along the living room wall. It was such an amazing sight, I should have photographed it in case someone tried to discredit my memory.

Water is definitely the enemy of dwelling places. Maybe we shouldn’t be filling in our waterways to build things like condos and airport runways, unless someone’s got unlimited funds to pay out on all these insurance and re-insurance claims.

It’s ironic that water also sustains human life. You can survive for weeks without food, but only a day or two without water.

You want power to the people? Look at thousands of years of human history. He who controls the water has the power. Nature usually trumps our feeble efforts, but man has proven to be ingenious. Water gives us power to nourish crops that feed people. Clean water can prevent dysentery and stem insectborne illnesses. Harnessing its tidal flow can generate even more power. Water can also put out fires, if the hoses are long enough to reach the Windows on the World, or other mountain peaks. So we clever creatures spray toxic chemicals, instead. It’s a dangerous game to play with nature.

Urbanites take this life essential for granted. Millions reside in concrete structures and travel through tunnels to get to their jobs in distant buildings. We race under or over the water in cars or trains, often oblivious to the grass, trees, rivers and inlets, and the submerged infrastructure that removes the dirty water and brings in the clean.

The vast majority of New Yorkers will never have more than a passing connection with the upstate places where their drinking water originates, or the river or bay front plants where their waste products end up. Yet, our city could be reduced to the value of its scrap materials if there were no clean drinking water or proper sewage disposal.

Important environmental concerns are at stake in the special election on Tuesday, September 13, when voters in the west end (and those in numerous pockets of the east end, like Bayswater), will be voting for new representatives in the New York State Assembly (23rd District) and U.S. Congress (9th District).

There are four mainstream candidates, plus a Socialist, Christopher Hoeppner, who tapped over 7,000 signatures of outer-borough working class frustration, and will also be on the ballot. The question I am asking is: How do we protect our homes and our quality of life here on this narrow barrier peninsula from neglect and short-sighted overdevelopment?

We waste fossil fuels with abandon. We all know it. We are greedily sucking oil and natural gas from under the sea, and under the ground, to feed our addiction to energy-hogging consumer products like computers, air conditioners, and cars.

I don’t agree with Republican Congressional candidate Bob Turner that high-volume hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and undersea drilling can, or will, be done safely or responsibly. In our society today, greed prevails, and the rules are bent every day. The next disaster could contaminate the drinking water supply for millions of New Yorkers.

If elected, Turner could become the new darling of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, and he has vowed to dismantle all federal environmental protections. Proposals to exploit the oil, natural gas, and wind resources of our coast were considered over the past decade, and we were fortunate that the Governors of New York and New Jersey were moderates who saw the wisdom of protecting our coastal areas.

A second issue of concern to me is gerrymandering, an unconstitutional affront to people of every race, religion, and ethnic origin. It allows politicians to play cynical games that divide and dilute the power of a local community. Being on a physically isolated peninsula surrounded by water unites all residents of Rockaway. Yet the State Assembly says we are to be divided. In response to reform proposals, Governor Cuomo seeks an independent redistricting commission. Nobody can quite figure out how to break the power of the State Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver of Manhattan. I don’t have the answer, but the independent commission is a good start.

So after you cast your votes in the special election, sit down and send a letter or email to the new State Assembly Member to oppose how our peninsula has been gerrymandered, and express your opinion on fracking. Send a copy to the Governor. A vote for either of the two Democratic candidates is a vote for the status quo. If you go to the polls and make that choice, be aware of the fact that change will have to occur, or there will be social dislocation. After all, has a Socialist ever gotten on the ballot in Archie Bunker Land before?

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