Friday, April 18, 2008

Being Green...for realsies

Some landscape design experts would frown on the combination of purple and orange flowers serving side by side, but I don't care. I don't care partially because I have better things to worry about, and I'm just happy to see my tulips opening up, and because I didn't really actively cause the orange thing to happen. It just did, despite my plan for a purple field of tulips, which, in the field sense of the plan, didn't happen, either. Maybe that's because there are squirrels, and that tulips aren't really that thrilled about being in this part of the world. Regardless, to me, purple and orange are both just lovely, explosive tones, both carrying about an equal weight, colorwise, and I like 'em just fine together. Maybe that makes me "eclectic" or "stupid," but it's my yard, and the flowers are far less densely populated than I hoped, and are behind a privacy fence, anyway, so really, everyone wins. Woohoo!

I'm a tulip girl, though daffodils are growing on me. Daffodils are more reliable, and I like reliable. They're up and out early in the season, and are still bright and cheery, all over the front and sides of my yard, some weeks later. Even though we live on the beaten path for the kids to get to school, we've only lost a few. Two weeks ago, I found two long-stemmed buds plucked out, and left unceremoniously near the far end of our property, which was hurtful, but, I admit, I just get too attached. Plus, I was the dope who planted them on the corner, in a city with some serious street cred, which isn't necessarily good for flora, AND on the kids' path to school. The two flowers were a little beaten up, but intact, so I brought them in, and they bloomed, so I am happy to report their defiant and triumphant victory over the punk who left them for dead near my garage. Also, last week, I watched a teenage girl pick one near the corner, and put it behind her ear, which bothers me less, since she obviously saw the worth of the flower, and used it in the way we humans have often used pretty things: she adorned herself with it. Still, the sense of entitlement irks me, and makes me long for the days of the mean old Italian ladies with their brooms, and the scary guys in their wife-beater shirts who had no problem dropping what they were doing to chase you down the street. Kids need fear, and unfortunately, the only kind they're getting here is the fear of death, thanks to their gun-toting (but non-NRA member) pals. And that's just the wrong kind of fear, and maybe as a culture, we've given up on administering the other sorts of fear, because those other types of fear seem so pointless, compared to the big one these kids face every day? Or maybe most kids anymore are unaffected by the fear of discomfort and the old lady's wrath? I don't know. Unfortunately, I'm not that old, nor am I Italian, and I should be embarrassed to say this, but right now all I can find is the little dust broom, and the big janitorial push broom, but I'm not going out with either: they just can't provide the same sense of justice as the big, full-bodied straw brooms with a proper handle, as used by the angry Italian ladies who came before me. Sigh.

All of this talk of flowers and brooms and bad behavior on the part of today's youth, and our own non-committed attitude about it all leads me to Earth Day, which is on Tuesday, April 22. Just around the corner. The city sponsors an Annual Litter March on that day, where the local school kids are forced outside to clean up the messes they and their older siblings and in some cases, their parents have made throughout the week, the stuff that some of the non-littering neighbors haven't gotten a chance to clean up yet. Fellow East Ward blogger, Miss Karen, tried to build a brigade of East Side Haters to help the efforts next week, but sadly, it would seem, she only heard from me, though I did offer Glen's help, too. My inner tree-hugger is really kind of peeved at the underwhelming show of support, but my ever-growing inner Trenton cynic is not surprised. Truth is — and I will argue this up and down — not every Palmer-Hater/Johnny-Come-Lately is the most fastidious person in the world (I know I'm not), but we are not contributing the litter problem here in Trenton. Just because we're not making a mess certainly doesn't absolve us from civic responsibility, but, often, because we've lived elsewhere, in places run far more effectively than Trenton, we know it might be time to start talking about putting our efforts into some other environmental plan, with real benefits, instead of Trenton's Litter March Earth Day campaign, where the kids, for a change, clean up their own mess, and just go right back to their old habits every other day of the year.

I'm certainly sympathetic to the day-to-day struggles that many families must live with to just get by, and I know, too, that litter is just so damn wrong and annoying. I know too, a mayor who talks "green this" and "green that" but doesn't mean any of it, is a far bigger threat to our green-ness than any underprivileged kid who dumps his empty cheese curl bag on my steps. Mayor Palmer is perfectly willing to allow his hand-picked school board to set the stage to demolish/abandon a viable, repairable, beautiful, historic high school building, which shows a complete lack of regard for the environment, since demolition + new (lame) construction is about the least environmentally-sound thing that can happen. I know there are other issues: maybe the existing school is too large for the current population, maybe it's not in the best location, and, yep, the kids are more important than the building anyway. But take a drive a few blocks further from the high school, and take a gander at, say, the PJ Hill school, on East State Street. On the way, you'll likely pass the handsome shell of an abandoned school, on Cuyler Avenue which really makes me wonder about progressive thinking on the part of this city's officials. After all, that Cuyler school still stands, and is still attractive, even after years of neglect. PJ Hill is not so attractive, and likely, will not stand for as many decades as the Cuyler school. The Cuyler school, by the way, is just a few blocks from the high school, and is smaller, and it makes me wonder if the school board has considered using it in their plans for the future? This is just one example, right in my part of town, so I can't help but wonder how many other well-built abandoned institutions are peppered throughout our city that could be reclaimed for something else, but are just going to waste?

We have a mayor who talks green, and yet has no problem fighting to keep out-of-towner, ousted police director, Joseph Santiago, on board. Because Trenton is financially strapped and our taxes just went up, we often look at this from a fiscal point of view. But what is Santiago's commute (on our dime, in a car that may — if we're lucky — get 12 miles to the gallon) doing to the environment? And because Santiago is an image-conscious dude, his car is manicured and detailed and well-groomed, regularly, which is not only financially unnecessary, but also threatens the environment, thanks to all the crap that's used to make it look pretty. Read this and this for more.

We heard Mayor Palmer's big green speech last fall during his State of the City address, and yet there is talk that city hall currently is not recycling. In an effort to screw over former friend and mayoral candidate, Tony Mack, Palmer axed Mack's whole department: the recycling department. I'm hoping there's someone within City Hall who can shed some light on whether or not recycling is happening or not at this point.

Politicians like Mayor Palmer, who say one thing and do another, make the challenges of bringing environmental awareness to cities even more difficult. He has, though, ever-so-helpfully, posted a few ideas for you (the word "you" was underlined, perhaps to make it clear he was talking only to us, the residents; I'm sure he's above all of this environmental stuff) to make a difference on climate protection. Click here for more on that. The ideas are helpful, certainly, but focus on efficiency in the home, when really, governments like the city of Trenton, really need to make some changes as well, as they are far more culpable, and politicians should lead by example. He can tell us to keep our heat or AC at the proper place, and check our cars' tire pressure, and try to walk, or at least commute by bus or carpool, but maybe he should be working harder to create job opportunities in the city, so that people wouldn't have to commute out of the city. Maybe he should be working more diligently to fight crime so that more people can walk to school, church, the corner market, without fear of getting robbed. Maybe he should make Santiago — and all of the other gas-guzzling, out-of-city contractors who get cars, and even those who don't — take the bus, or a Segway, or an electric golf cart, if he won't do the right thing and hire from within. Maybe he should think about living full-time in the city, so he's not using our resources driving to and from Hunterdon County every day, and placing the security posse in front of his Hiltonia home here in Trenton in a lame attempt to make us think he might actually live here. Sheesh.

I read a series of articles recently on the topic of race and environmental activism, from an urban angle, in the March-April issue of Utne Reader magazine. The main article, Environmental Justice for All is long, but engaging, and from that link, you can click onto the two other articles written that month on the topic. In summary, the stories addressed the complex and often uncomfortable issues that surround environmentalism from a poor, urban perspective. People of color are the ones most often living in the most blighted places on the planet; it's hard for them to care about these issues, because of the struggle to survive. And yet, poor people in cities have shouldered nearly all the burden of polluting industries, while getting none of the benefits of the shift to a greener society, especially when politicians like Mayor Palmer make empty promises. People here are exposed to more toxins, more pollutants, more exhaust, and are therefore more likely to become sick, than folks living outside the city where clean-ups have happened far more regularly, and people are more aware, able to organize, and in a better position to understand the ramifications of taking care of our planet. They're better able to fight off the expansion of this, or the building of that, and so, the cities (in general) are the places where the freeways are expanded, and the landfills are built, putting our residents even more at risk.

Also mentioned in the article was that most environmental groups have traditionally been filled up with white people, primarily; people who are able to give the time to the broad issues, like global warming, or drilling in the Arctic. People of color, many of them who are underprivileged in the city, are too busy figuring out how to put food on the table, and paying the bills, and can't be bothered with a lot of the loftier environmental ideals. One of the articles in the magazine talks about a number of ways people in cities can begin to reap the benefits of a green economy, but it's more involved than an mayor's annual photo opportunity with the Litter March. The Green Jobs Act of 2007 authorizes $125 million annually for "green-collar" job training that could prepare tens of thousands of people for jobs like installing solar panels, weatherizing buildings, and maintaining wind farms; people here in Trenton could take advantage of this training, giving them viable job skills, in what will hopefully be a greener future. Priority is given to veterans, displaced workers, and at-risk youth: perfect for Trenton's population. Trenton is poised — with so many buildings in need of an upgrade — to utilize this hypothetical highly skilled workforce.

Also, around the country, organizations have been able to receive government grant money to help young people who've come in contact with the criminal justice system get a chance for paid internships so they can become highly specialized professionals in green construction/rehabilitation.

In the Bronx, a citizen-led organization offers a 10-week program to residents, giving them hands-on training in brownfield remediation and ecological restoration. The organization, Sustainable South Bronx, has also raised $30 million for a bicycle and pedestrian greenway along the South Bronx waterfront that will provide both open space and economic development opportunities. This example is not only close to home, but also fantastic to see, since it seems here in Trenton, our administration continues to grow more distant and irrelevant by the day; that we might be able to take some matters into our own hands is very inspiring.

So, it's now just after 4 on Friday afternoon; the kids have poured out of the schools to head home for the weekend, littering my yard with candy wrappers and chip bags and drink containers. We'll certainly have it all cleaned up before Tuesday, the day of Trenton's 21st Litter March. I feel badly for criticizing something as well-intentioned as the Annual Litter March, but as much as it's cute to see the kids walk around the city and listen to their teachers, it just seems that maybe Trenton kids, after all these years, are not getting the lesson with this particular activity. After all, they are the ones who put the little crab plaque with the dire warning on the sewer drain on my corner; warning everyone that it drains right to our waterways, and yet, they are the same kids who push their litter/spent oil/broken glass down there. To be fair, if the Litter March inspires one kid to commit to a lifetime of not littering, especially if s/he comes from a family of litterers, that's not a bad thing. But we need more. And it needs to come from the top. Mayor Palmer has got to stop talking and start acting. We need to start finding ways to improve our living conditions here; and I'd bet we citizens can do it without the help of this city's administration, though it would be far more appropriate for our leaders to, ahem, lead the way. We need to find the grant money, and take advantage of these training programs. The mayor can tell us to keep our homes at an appropriate temperature for the time of the year, but I'd like assurances that City Hall is recycling, and maybe even considering installing solar technology. He ought to pull the plug, once and for all, on all of the out-of-city contracts, including the contracts for his own lawyers in his lawsuit against the people. He should encourage the committees and boards in this city to look at sustainable, progressive, sensible ways to meet our changing needs. And, he should, as our mayor, and supposed neighbor, live here, instead of requiring two sets of vehicles and security teams — one for fake and one for realsies — each and every day.

Majora Carter, who runs Sustainable South Bronx, says that it's crucial to frame the environmental debate in terms of opportunities that will engage the people who need the most help. She said it hasn't been easy, but there have been huge accomplishments. "It's about sacrifice for something better and bigger than you could have possibly imagined." I'm not sure if our mayor is up for that kind of challenge, but I think many of us in Trenton are.

Happy Earth Day.

For more on the Green Jobs Act, click here.

For more on Sustainable South Bronx, click here.

Trenton, in springtime. Route 1 needs The Litter March more than anywhere else in the city, maybe. It is nice to see the forsythia and crab apple (I think) blooming on the other side of the bridge, though.

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