Rat City: On the Waterfront

Three hundred or so protesters are gathered in Red Hook’s Erie Basin, singing and marching. A 9-year-old girl carries a sign that reads NO TOXINS. NO VERMINS. NO GARBAGE. A bespectacled man chants, “No garbage, no peace.” From several feet above the crowd, a huge papier-mâché rat casts a cold gaze over the scene.

Set against the backdrop of a summer sky, the rat looks like a portent of doom, the outsize embodiment of our collective ecological fate. But to the protesters, rats are more than a metaphor – they are an everyday terror, one that residents blame on the area’s concentration of dumps (or “waste transfer stations,” as they’re called by people who don’t have to live or work near them). And now Waste Management, which runs one of the six that are already functioning, has submitted a proposal to open a new one, here in Red Hook, when Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill closes in 2001.

Waste Management failed to return repeated calls, but local activists have plenty to say about the plan. They’ve joined forces with Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden – who recently helped Williamsburg residents delay another of the company’s projects while the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation conducts a study of its environmental impact – and they’re fighting the proposal in the courts and in the community. Most recently, Community Board 6 and Golden petitioned the City Planning Commission to rezone parts of Red Hook.

“We need a rational waste plan for the city,” says David Herman, deputy director of public affairs for the borough president’s office. “Each borough should share the problem.”

“If nothing else,” warns John McGettrick, of the Red Hook Civic Association, “the city should be careful about putting the burden of garbage on neighborhoods that are primarily minority.”

The most visible symbols of that burden run scampering through Red Hook’s streets at all hours of the day. The area has other obstacles to pest control – overgrown lots, construction in the housing projects, and proximity to the fetid Gowanus Canal. But a walk through the remote waterfront community suggests that they pale in comparison to the all-the-garbage-you-can-eat bonanzas. In the Red Hook Houses West projects, the residential zone near the dumps, the creatures are everywhere, even burrowed down in the grassy strips below the first-floor windows. “At night,” laments one tenant, “they stand on your windowsills, so you can’t open the windows even when it’s hot out.”

“Of course there are hundreds of rats there,” says Lou Sones, coordinator of Red Hook GAGS (Groups Against Garbage Sites); “Waste Management leaves trucks full of putrescible garbage out overnight. It smells terrible, and the rats love it.”

That’s not the only stench in the neighborhood. “I think the city was counting on the waterfront communities’ turning on each other,” says Sones. “Instead, we’ve all banded together to say the whole plan stinks.”

Rat City: On the Waterfront