East River Park activists cuffed for blocking flood protection construction, again

East River Park activists blocked the resuming construction of the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project (ESCR), leading to three individuals cuffed.

The ESCR Project has been hitting one bump in the road after another while on course to revamping the Lower Manhattan parkland. On Nov. 1, the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) finally began its plan to implement flood protection before being halted by an Appellate Division legal appeal filed on behalf of around 100 Lower East Side residents. However, the court ultimately sided with the climate construction project, allowing the DDC to resume work.

On Dec. 6, activists from 1000 people, 1000 trees and East River Park Action gathered at the amphitheater across from the Corlears Hook Park footbridge, to demand construction be immediately halted. The group’s main issue is the proposed removal of some 1,000 trees—something they feel will have a dire impact on the quality of air in the area.

NYPD officers watch protesters. Photo by Adrian Childress

“The ESCR plan would destroy the park and its 1,000 mature trees to build an eight-foot levee, even though climate scientists warn that the wall could be breached as early as 2050. The plan calls for raising the park with almost a million tons of fill—and its transportation via barge or truck would further pollute the air of a low and middle income neighborhood that already has high rates of asthma and early deaths,” according to a press release from East River Park Action.

Standing in a circle and chanting, “Save the trees!” dozens of protesters blocked the way, preventing workmen and their machinery from accessing the construction zone. The unrelenting demonstrators soon drew the ire of the workman, leading to 911 calls.

As officers arrived at the scene, they attempted to persuade the group to leave, stating that the activists were trespassing. However, law enforcement was met with resistance as protesters stated: “How is it trespassing if this is a public park?” to which an officer stated, “This [area] is the Parks Department.”

Zip cable ties were placed around the wrists of those refusing to leave the site, ultimately resulting in three arrests being made.

A protester is placed under arrest. Photo by Adrian Childress

“They are taking us! We will not accept the sacrifice of our community, of our trees,” Alice O’Malley shouted as she was placed under arrest. “All we are asking for is a review! Just look at the layout, why was the layout switched? We are just asking for another review, it’s not that much of an ask.”

Last month, two advocates, Allie Ryan and Alice O’Malley, were also arrested for blocking the entrance of the tennis courts near the Brian Watkins Tennis Center.

In response to the protest and the arrests, DDC underscored what they feel to be the importance of the project for the community as a whole.

“East Side Coastal Resiliency is an essential project that will protect over 100,000 residents in lower Manhattan, communities hard hit by Sandy, from the effects of future storm surges and tidal flooding. The project will return East River Park with a design drawn from years of community input, updating the 80-year-old park with new passive recreation and better access to the waterfront, transform parks and open spaces throughout lower Manhattan and add 2,800 new trees to the park and surrounding neighborhoods.

ESCR has been through the City’s strict land use review policy, has been fully explored in a multi-volume Environmental Impact Statement and was voted on and approved by the entire City Council in 2019. Major construction began in November 2020 and we look forward to now beginning work in East River Park,” a DDC spokesperson said in a statement.  

Incoming City Council member Christopher Marte attended the rally in the morning prior to the arrests and told amNewYork Metro that he has special relationship with East River Park having grown up there   believes the community has been silenced.

“At every step of this long process, the community has been engaged, informed, and active. Yet their voices were ultimately silenced as the City decided to move forward with ESCR. These arrests today represent a necessary escalation, and one of the final attempts we can make to stop the destruction of this beloved park. Standing there this morning was emotional, thinking of my own memories playing in the park as a kid and wondering when and if the next generation will ever get to have the same experiences,” Marte explained, having supported the activists throughout their struggle.   

“Our community needs those trees to clean our air, and saplings that will be planted years from now will come too late for the damage that reduced air quality will have on our neighborhood. It’s unconscionable that the City thinks we must destroy a park to save the planet. The activists fighting to save this park and to implement real flood resiliency give me hope that this fight is still not over,” he added.

On the opposite side of this contentious issue, a spokesperson from the NYC Parks Department had this to say:  “The East Side Coastal Resiliency project will save lives and provide much-needed flood protection for more than 100,000 New Yorkers in this area. This critical open space improvement project will ensure that these waterfront parks are accessible and resilient for the surrounding community in the face of our daunting climate future.”