EARTH DAY 40 in New York City: The Festivities Begin

Forty years ago this week, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers poured into the streets of Manhattan to demand clean air, safe water and environmental protection in every sphere of city life.  Similar events took place across the nation, as millions of Americans helped launch the modern environmental movement.

This is how the New York Times, in an April 23, 1970 story by Joseph Lelyveld, described the Manhattan events that day:

 “Huge, light-hearted throngs ambled down autoless streets here yesterday as the city heeded Earth Day’s call for a regeneration of a polluted environment by celebrating an exuberant rite of spring….Political leaders, governmental departments and corporations hastened to line up in the ranks of those yearning for a clean, quiet, fume-free city….

“For two hours, except for crosstown traffic, the internal-combustion engine was barred from Fifth Avenue between 59th and 14th Streets….Fourteenth Street between Third and Seventh Avenues, left free for pedestrians between noon and midnight, became an ecological carnival….”

Much has changed since April 22, 1970.  In many ways, environmental quality has improved, although significant challenges remain both here in New York City and around the nation. 

But one thing that continues is the effort to bring people together -- to celebrate our natural resources; to teach children about our air, water and land;  and to petition governmental officials and business leaders for action.

Headquarters for Earth Day activities here is the appropriately named non-profit organization: Earth Day New York.  This is the team that produced the giant Central Park event on Earth Day’s 20th anniversary, as well as galas of all shapes and sizes every year since. It is a shoestring operation, run for many years by its President, impresario Pam Lippe, with her deputy Betta Broad. 

NRDC’s own Kate Sinding will be speaking on Thursday, April 22nd at the event with top billing – Earth Day at Times Square.   Exhibits will run from 8AM to 4 PM, with live performances and special commemorations of Earth Day’s 40th anniversary from 11 AM to 2 PM.  Appropriately enough, the event will take place at the new pedestrian plazas created by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan on Broadway, between 45th and 46th streets. Kate will be speaking about  one of the most important environmental issues in New York today: proposed natural gas drilling upstate that threatens public health, the environment and the safe drinking water supply for millions of New Yorkers, including all of New York City (read more about it on Kate’s blog here).

And the event in Times Square is just one of the city’s many festivities, which began last night with the Earth Day New York’s kick-off celebration at Grand Central.  Three genuine New York environmental problem-solvers were on hand to receive awards given out by the Board of Directors of Earth Day New York and the NRDC Urban Program. 

This year’s Earth Day award-winners:

*Christine Datz-Romero, the dedicated, long-time director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center.  She’s been a pioneer in composting and electronics recycling here in New York City. She is an unsung environmental hero. 

*Cecil Corbin Mark, the talented program director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice.  Along with Peggy Shepard and Vernice Miller, Cecil has been fighting to improve northern Manhattan’s environment and over-burdened communities throughout New York for years.  He’s a star. 

*The Greenmarket Program of GrowNYC (formerly Council on the Environment of NYC).  Since 1976, this wonderful operation has been bringing farmers to New York City to sell fresh foodstuffs to city residents in open air markets.  It has become a national model of sustainability.  Congratulations to Greenmarket founders Marian Heiskell and Barry Benepe and to current leaders Bob Kafin, Marcel Van Ooyen, and the entire Greenmarket team. 

One of the key features of Earth Day celebrations in New York City in recent years has been their decentralized nature.  The environmental movement is both larger and more diverse today than it was in 1970.  As a result, events are being planned by many local organizations throughout all five boroughs and indeed in virtually every city and town in the tri-state region.

The Earth Day New York website lists more than 157 separate Earth Day events in April alone -- many of which will take place on or after April 22nd.  These celebrations range from a Green Office Summit, beginning at 2:30 on April 27th in midtown Manhattan to a Spring Planting Workday, which starts at 11:00 AM on April 29th at PS 186X in the Bronx.

There are wonderful things happening at many schools throughout the region.  (This makes perfect sense since the first Earth Day was marked by “teach-ins” at college campuses around the nation.)

The Earth Day New York website lists a host of educational activities scheduled for this year.  It also links to a speakers’ bureau with volunteer experts available to speak in classrooms on a wide range of topics from arctic melting to zero emission vehicles. 

In addition, a wide array of groups and businesses will participate in a two-day EarthFair at Grand Central this Friday and Saturday.  Interactive displays, live musical entertainment, environmental information in all forms, and plenty of organic (and non-organic) food will all be available along Vanderbilt Avenue. 

Fred Kent, the long-time head of the non-profit organization Project for Public Spaces, was a main coordinator for New York City’s first Earth Day celebration.  And 40 years later, he is still working to bring transformative change to our streets and neighborhoods and to improve the quality of  life in cities and towns around the world.

Here are a few of Fred’s thoughts on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day:

“It was a transformative event in an era of great social change.  The Civil Rights movement, anti-war protests, the Women’s Movement, and Earth Day set up the possibility for change….

“Those of us taking part in these movements remember our experiences as good times, but there was also a deep sense of malaise all around. War. Racism. Poverty. Violence. Cities, particularly, were in deep trouble….

“But even problems this big did not squelch widespread desire for a better world and the willingness to look at problems in fresh ways….Ever since, we have seen small but steady progress on many fronts – even in cities, which were once written-off as a hopeless cause….

“Today, 40 years after the first Earth Day, the desire for transformative change is once again intensifying….” 

Here in New York City, that is certainly the case.  People from all neighborhoods in every borough continue to seek clean air, clean water, more green space and a healthy environment for themselves and their families.

In the weeks and months to come, we’ll be presenting in this blog space lots of ways for you to help make all this happen.  Meanwhile, we hope you have the chance over the next few days to celebrate the city’s environment and the benefits that we now enjoy, thanks in no small measure to the environmental advocacy movement that took off right here in New York 40 years ago this week.