Through chainsaws and woodchips: Inside the East Side war over coastal resiliency project at waterfront park

Residents on the East Side are continuing their war with the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) and the New York City Parks Department over the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project (ESCR) amidst what they claim to be illegal construction following the issue of a temporary restraining order.

In the last of the day’s dying light on Dec. 10, they clung to the chain link fence — fingertips interlocked with the mesh — and pleaded for the construction to stop. Since the early hours of Dec. 10, activists and local residents had attempted to halt the embattled flood protection plan from resuming, leading to two arrests that morning of Harriet Hirshorn and Alice O’Malley. This fight continued the following day on Dec. 11, with one more arrest as workmen took chainsaws to trees, sending wood chips hurtling into the air and park trees piling up.

Clinging to the mesh, protesters showcase the document and implore for the work to halt. Photo by Dean Moses

Locals say their protests are not a simple act of defiance but a matter of life and death, and a battle for which they seem willing to risk it all. 

The ESCR has been a stop and start again plan that several elected officials, the DDC, and the NYC Parks Department say will protect the area from coastal flooding while also improving the district with new amenities. The mayor has boasted the ESCR as one of the city’s most ambitious climate resiliency projects, yet many of those who call the Lower Manhattan district home feel otherwise, believing the work is destructive, dangerous, and ultimately a land grab.

For years, there has been a battle between locals and the city when it comes to this $1.4 billion plan that would reconstruct approximately 57 acres of coastal parkland from East 25th to Montgomery Streets. The issue began in 2018 when the ESCR project was chosen over what park activists cite was a less invasive project.

The scene on Dec. 10. Photo by Dean Moses

The adage, “There are two sides to every story” has never been more pertinent. With every official statement released from the city behind the construction touting the proposed benefits of a revamped parkway, there is a local resident who feels the very air which they breathe is under attack.

“It feels violent, it feels purposeful, it feels like an attack on this neighborhood, it feels like an attack on the Brown and Black people of this neighborhood,” activist Emily Johnson told amNewYork Metro. 

With that in mind, protesters from park advocacy groups East River Park Action and a Thousand People a Thousand Trees delivered a temporary restraining order on Dec. 8, stopping the work in the park for a second time. However, this did not last long.

“They stopped work when the temporary restraining order was delivered on Wednesday. They stopped that day. Today, they decided to refuse the temporary restraining order and start destruction again. They are attacking, simultaneously, three separate areas of the park. With a host of workers who are all in contempt of court. The temporary restraining order comes from the highest court in the State of New York. The city is actively refusing the law, they’re in contempt,” Johnson said.

Emily Johnson asks NYPD officers to view the document. Photo by Dean Moses

Johnson joined dozens of individuals on Friday holding up a copy of the restraining order to NYPD officers who strived to keep the advocates from halting the work and also pressing the document against the site’s fencing. All attempts to communicate were ignored. It isn’t just members of the protest groups who say they are appalled by the construction. Local resident Peter Shapiro says he does not identify as a member of either group, he does, however, feel that the ESCR is not the right plan for the community.

“This is why we need a resiliency plan that makes sense. I was here during Sandy, I volunteered through it. They’ve changed what their plan is over and over and over again. Initially the community-based plan was to just build a seawall, the idea of actually fixing the park wasn’t even part of their conversation,” Shapiro said. “There was a much cheaper, much more sustainable plan.”

Several residents also accuse park redesign of being a gateway to gentrification and skyrocketing rents. Social media has also been responding to the controversial work that locals are continuing throughout the night, with one user calling it, “The saddest day in my 22 years living in the East Village.”

Local resident Peter Shapiro. Photo by Dean Moses

While those opposing the construction feel that the work is breaking the law, a representative from DDC states differently.

“The city has reviewed the court’s written order and we do not believe it prevents us from continuing work on this vital resiliency project. The 100,000 New Yorkers who live in this project area can’t wait any longer for storm resiliency. The courts have already decided in our favor – twice – and we remain confident that our strong legal position will allow us to deliver the protection they deserve,” a spokesperson told amNewYork Metro.

Construction was set to get underway at the East River Park Amphitheater on Dec. 12.

A worker obscures the view of protesters. Photo by Dean Moses