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Carlina Rivera and the Untold History of How East River Park Was Destroyed

How the Lower East Side City Councilwoman ignored her constituents, laid waste to a treasured neighborhood park and now poses as an environmental champion as she runs for Congress.

John Tarleton Aug 23

For previous East River Park coverage, see our August 2019 cover story.

Carlina Rivera quickly emerged as one of the front runners for the newly-created congressional district that covers Lower Manhattan below 14th St. and several Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Carroll Gardens, Park Slope and Sunset Park. Billing herself as the “pragmatic progressive” in the race, the Lower East Side City Councilwoman has garnered the endorsements of Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez, more than 20 of her fellow city councilmembers and 1199SEIU, the most powerful union in New York state politics. 

One issue that has dogged her throughout the campaign is her role in the demolition of East River Park. Built in the New Deal era, the 58-acre park ran down the easternmost edge of Manhattan from 12th St. to Montgomery St., just north of the Manhattan Bridge. The park was a rare green oasis for the Lower East Side’s predominantly working-class residents including the roughly 28,000 NYCHA residents who live in a string of developments that run parallel to the park on the other side of the six-lane FDR Drive. 

April Merlin and Yvette Mercedes appeared on the cover of the August 2019 Indypendent as opposition to East River Park’s demolition burgeoned across the Lower East Side.

“This is all we have,” Yvette Mercedes, a resident of the nearby Baruch Houses, told The Indypendent in 2019. “We don’t have the Hamptons. We don’t have summer homes. When we want to get away, we come here.”

Not anymore. 

The southern half of the park is now a fenced-off wasteland filled with construction materials and heavy machinery. Seven hundred mature trees are gone along with the ecosystems they support and the shade their broad canopies provided. The amphitheater that hosted local cultural events and was the original stage for Shakespeare in the Park is gone. So too the Lower East Side Ecology Center and an open-spray fountain where kids would splash on hot summer days amid sculptures of 27 harbor seals. The rest of the park will be destroyed in the second part of the rebuild. 

“When I look out my window, now all I see is a pile of rocks,” says Mercedes, who lives on her building’s seventh floor. 

“It’s an act of war,” adds April Merlin, a friend of Mercedes. “They are erasing our community’s culture and heritage. We have the memories in our heads. But there’s nothing to pass onto future generations.” 

East River Park was a rare green oasis for the Lower East Side’s predominantly working class residents.

East River Park is being demolished and rebuilt as a part of the $1.4 billion East Side Coastal Resiliency Project which seeks to prevent a repeat of Hurricane Sandy. During the storm, the sea rose up and reclaimed much of the low-lying Lower East Side. The 14th St. Con Edison substation blew up after being inundated with salt water, throwing Manhattan below 40th St. into darkness. The Lower East Side NYCHA developments were especially hard hit. They lost all electricity and running water, and many elderly residents were trapped in their fetid, pitch-black apartments for days. 

In an Aug. 10 debate hosted by NY1, Rivera called her support for the park’s demolition “something we had to do” and said you need someone to make “tough decisions.” 

Respected observers of city politics such as political columnist Ross Barkan and Ben Max, executive editor of Gotham Gazette, hailed Rivera’s response as a muscular rejection of the kind of special-interest politics that often prevents New York from accomplishing big things. 

“Carlina Rivera holding firm on East River Park is impressive because the politics of killing that project is so easy,” Barkan tweeted on Aug. 10. 

“About as good a response as you can give from @CarlinaRivera on East Side Coastal Resiliency Project that she’s gotten a lot of heat on, Max tweeted the same day. 

Meanwhile, Julie Tighe, President  of the League of Conservation Voters, hailed Rivera as an “environmental champion.”

Carlina Rivera speaks during an Aug. 10 debate for candidates running to represent the newly formed NY-10 congressional district.

The Path Not Taken

Carlina Rivera’s reinvention as a fearless truth teller and environmental hero only makes sense if you don’t know the history behind the East River Park’s destruction — the path not taken, the gaslighting of a community and the strip-mining of a neighborhood’s long-standing racial divides for political advantage. 

A closer examination of what happened at East River Park not only paints a fuller picture of an ambitious politician who played a decisive role in what has become one of the most needlessly destructive public-works projects in recent New York City history. As an urban issue, it is instructive in how political machines undermine the communities they spring from. Seen with a longer-range view, the battle for East River Park reminds us of the power of race in American life and how easy it is for 21st Century liberals to end up repeating the logic of a society that has been organized for 400 years to prevent ordinary people of all races from uniting to confront the powers-that-be.

De Blasio’s Power Play

The battle for East River Park began in earnest in September 2018. The de Blasio administration announced out of the blue that it was unilaterally scrapping a resiliency plan that had been hashed out over four years of discussions among Lower East Side community stakeholders. The community envisioning process had been facilitated by the city and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Carlina Rivera’s reinvention as a fearless truth teller and environmental hero only makes sense if you don’t know the history behind the East River Park’s destruction.

The community plan called for building a landscaped eight-foot high berm along the back of the park that would abut FDR Drive. The projected cost: $700 million. Thirty percent of the park would have been demolished but the rest would have been preserved as an ally in absorbing surging flood waters. Going one step further, some environmental advocates saw the berm as the first step toward capping of the FDR and the extension of the park’s greenspace over the freeway, eliminating the air pollution from passing cars that has plagued the neighborhood for decades.

The de Blasio plan, instead, called for razing the park entirely. Giant barges would bring in millions of tons of fill to construct an eight-to-ten-foot-high barrier to the sea. A new park would be built atop it. The projected cost: $1.4 billion.  

The city insisted this was the best possible engineering solution to the challenge of coastal flood protection. Left unstated was that the new plan doubled the amount of construction contracts to be doled out. Also unstated was that the community plan would have required closing one of the FDR’s lanes six lanes every night for five years. The de Blasio plan did not. A climate resiliency plan that would inconvenience motorists was no longer on the table. 

“It’s really about saving the cars,” said Howard Brandstein, executive director of the Sixth Street Community Center, which hosts environmentally-themed programs for neighborhood youth. “It’s Robert Moses’ wet dream — the eternal, uninterrupted flow of traffic.”

A Local Political Machine Turns on Its Neighborhood

Rivera briefly objected to de Blasio’s imperious actions but quickly fell in line. The local Democratic Party political machine she presides over did so as well. This includes the Coalition for a District Alternative (CoDA), the political club that has dominated neighborhood politics since the late 1990s; Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), a longtime community-based organization where Rivera once worked as director of programs and services; and NYCHA tenant association leaders who are closely aligned with GOLES. 

Rivera’s support for the project was crucial. Under the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), New York City Council has the final say in all land use matters and its members almost always follow the preference of the affected district’s representative. The East Side Coastal Resiliency Project touches three city council districts but primarily impacts Rivera’s. The Council would follow her lead. 

Rivera and her allies posited a strict binary choice between protecting the safety and well-being of NYCHA residents and protecting trees and the park’s diverse ecosystem. It might not be pretty, they argued, but what had to be done must be done. In her more effusive moments, Rivera would praise the de Blasio plan as the Lower East Side’s equivalent of the moon landing.

De Blasio’s clumsy handling of his plan’s rollout — it dropped at a time when he was gearing up his quixotic presidential campaign — sowed distrust that would linger for years. But so too did the content of the plan. Why demolish the whole park when a less destructive plan could be carried out for half the cost? And why see 1,000 mature trees as an impediment to a safe and healthy community instead of as an invaluable component of it? Even if the park rebuild is completed within the promised three years — which is far from certain in a city where even minor  construction projects can drag on for years — it will be decades before newly-planted saplings can provide shade even as summer temperatures are expected to soar due to intensifying climate change. 

When Yvette Mercedes, April Merlin and Curtis White tried to present their petitions with 2,000 signatures from NYCHA tenants opposing the park’s demolition, Rivera refused to meet with them.

The most vocal opposition to the de Blasio plan came from East River Park Action (ERPA) which organized several protests and lawsuits. Many of its participants were residents of co-ops on Grand St. who lived across from the southern end of the park. The co-ops, which were built with funds from labor unions and the federal government, were originally all white. Federal anti-housing discrimination laws enacted in the 1960s changed that, but the racial disparity between the Grand Street co-ops and the NYCHA developments continues to this day. 

The activists from ERPA had the facts on their side, but because their group was overwhelmingly white and middle class, they were easily tagged as out-of-touch, elitist NIMBYs who cared more about nature than their poorer, predominantly-people-of-color neighbors in the NYCHA houses. 

Rivera and her allies didn’t create the neighborhood’s racial divide, but they did exploit them for everything they were worth. 

NYCHA Residents in the Dark

Mercedes learned about the park’s looming destruction in the spring of 2019 from a flier taped to a lamppost on East Houston Street. She soon attended a meeting of park defenders where she encountered Merlin, a neighborhood resident of more than 30 years who lived on Avenue C and worked on Avenue D and had many friends who were NYCHA residents. They were surprised to hear the de Blasio plan’s backers, including Mercedes’ own tenant association president, claimed that NYCHA residents overwhelmingly supported replacing the park. No one had told Mercedes about the plan, much less asked her opinion, she said.  Her neighbors were similarly in the dark about what was happening. 

Mercedes and Merlin decided to disprove Rivera’s claim that NYCHA residents wanted the park destroyed by gathering evidence in the form of petition signatures. Over a two-month period in the summer of 2019, they gathered signatures from Lower East Side NYCHA residents. 

(Left to right) Curtis White, Yvette Mercedes and April Merlin lead a petition campaign that revealed the depth of discontent among NYCHA residents toward the city’s plan to demolish their park. Photo: John Tarleton

They focused on three NYCHA developments — the Bernard Baruch Houses, the Lillian Wald Houses and the Jacob Riis Houses — that stretch from just below Houston St. north to East 12th St. Squeezing in time when she wasn’t working as an actor, Mercedes went from door-to-door in the Baruch Houses. Merlin, a mother of two who works as a tax preparer, spoke with residents as they came and left the Riis Houses. They were joined by a third volunteer, Curtis White, a Wald Houses resident who gathered signatures at his complex. They say they took special care to ensure the only people signing were NYCHA residents.

“When you told people you were petitioning for East River Park, everybody wanted to stop and talk about it,” Merlin said. 

Many NYCHA residents doubted that city hall could be defeated, Mercedes said, but they welcomed the chance to make their views known. By the end of the summer, the three petitioners had gathered 2,000 signatures, refuting the racialized narrative that Rivera and her allies were using to justify support for the park’s demolition. 

“They tried to create a racial divide on this issue,” Merlin recalled. “It was obviously very purposeful.”

Rivera Responds to the Petition Campaign

Mercedes, Merlin and White hoped that if Rivera saw their satchel full of signed petitions, she would be persuaded to rethink her position on the park’s future. However, they were never granted an appointment with their councilmember. She would later dismiss their efforts, saying the NYCHA residents who signed the petitions had been misled. 

“She said no one knew what they were signing,” Mercedes said. “That’s a slap in the face. Do people not know how to read and write? We were looked down upon as poor people signing just to be signing something.”

The petition campaign posed a unique threat to the city’s plan because it revealed its central premise — that it was widely desired by NYCHA residents — to be a lie. It also offered the first and only glimpse of what a broad, multi-racial, multi-class coalition of NYCHA residents and other neighborhood activists might look like. 

But nothing more came of it. Disheartened by Rivera’s rejection, Mercedes, Merlin and White pulled back from their activism. ERPA was scrambling to organize a September rally and march from Tompkins Square Park to East River Park that drew as many as 500 people, almost all of whom were white. 

With the project moving through the ULURP process toward a decisive City Council vote in November, a leading ERPA organizer I spoke with at the time didn’t feel like the group had the capacity to build on what the three petitioners had started. The group spearheading the opposition to the park’s destruction would continue to be predominantly white and middle class. 

A child plays in a spray fountain on the south end of East River Park on a hot day last summer. The fountain no longer exists. Photo: Sue Brisk.

I recently met with Mercedes, Merlin and White at what remains of East River Park. Seated on a bench across from the fenced-off construction site, they were each still crestfallen that their efforts had not stopped the destruction. 

We have a 21st Century problem here and a 20th Century solution,” Curtis White said. “We could have built something magnificent that could have been a model for other places in a situation like this.”

Looking back three years later, I couldn’t help but wonder if their efforts could have ignited more organizing instead of petering out. What if, I asked, even a tiny fraction of the people they persuaded to sign a petition had joined their efforts? And what if a larger petitioning crew had then become the nucleus for an organizing committee of residents across NYCHA developments fighting to save the park? Might this have altered the trajectory of the struggle in which ERPA was hopelessly isolated in spite of its spirited efforts to save the park?

We have a 21st Century problem here and a 20th Century solution.”

They waved aside my speculation. The petitioning campaign was exhausting enough in itself. NYCHA residents had no extra time for activism. Signing a petition was all that could be expected. The three of them had done everything they could, and it hadn’t been enough. 

“[People] will talk your ear off when they’re signing a petition, but then they got to get to work,” Merlin said. 

Running for Higher Office

In November 2019, City Council followed Carlina Rivera’s lead and unanimously approved the demolition of East River Park. About 50 of Rivera’s constituents silently protested in the gallery above. She never once looked up at them. 

The pandemic and a flurry of lawsuits from ERPA delayed the beginning of the project. But in the waning days of the de Blasio administration, work finally got underway and the southern half of the park was swiftly clear cut and leveled. By then, Rivera, who likes to boast of her upbringing in a Section 8 household at Pitt and Stanton steets. had moved with her husband Jamie Rogers to a new home in the East 20s far from the destruction she had wrought. 

New York’s chaotic redistricting process created an opening for Rivera to run for Congress in the newly formed NY-10 and she seized it. As New Yorkers cast their ballots, she finds herself in a tight four-way race with former federal prosecutor Dan Goldman, Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou and Congressman Mondaire Jones (who hopped districts to run in NY-10). Should the votes break Rivera’s way, she could win an open seat and hold it for decades just as her mentor Nydia Velasquez did in 1992. 

If she prevails, it won’t be with any help from constituents who are still furious with her handling of East River Park. Merlin says she won’t be voting at all while Mercedes and White say they will each vote for a candidate from outside their community. 

“Carlina forgets where she comes from,” Mercedes said.

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