Smokestacks over Greenpoint's Little Poland

| 16 Feb 2015 | 05:59

    Let's say you're Polish and that you fled Soviet oppression in the early 80s and settled, like Polish immigrants before you, in and around Brooklyn's Greenpoint. Since then, New York has not made you rich and powerful, not in any sense current or demotic. Still, you've made the most of the opportunity. You've enjoyed the freedom, worked, paid taxes, built a community, sustained your cultural heritage and added your own special shimmer to the vast pullulating ethnic constellation of the city. Moreover, you've helped revitalize a section of Brooklyn that the politicians and the urban planners, even the most roseate among them, had long since consigned to the shitheap of urban lost causes.

    So you're Polish and experiences from back in the satellite era, those carbon-choked days of your native Gdansk or Warsaw or Pultusk, have sharpened certain senses. Among them, you can detect a state-sponsored reaming before it has broken the plane of the horizon. For this reason, a recent Wednesday night finds you in attendance at a public meeting in which the state of New York, under the auspices of the Public Service Commission, has descended from Albany to lay out the procedures it will use to approve or not an 1100-megawatt power plant that TransGas Energy, a private energy corporation with a checkered history, has proposed for construction on an eight-acre parcel of land along your waterfront.

    The mere idea of this power plant is so despicable and slimy, so plainly wrong that you, 1000 of your neighbors and state representatives, local community board executives and even a few concerned emissaries from Williamsburg's boho-elite (your most direct beneficiaries) have packed the grand, century-old auditorium of the Polish National Home to voice opposition. Coming here, you are aware that TransGas Energy filed its legally required public announcement two days after the terrorist attack, when everyone, especially the media, was still punch-drunk. The state's timetable being an immutable thing, your community has had to play catch-up even to get a protest going.

    As a result, the evening's preliminaries are tetchy. Unvalved rage backs up on itself and blows holes in decorum over silly matters like the necessity of having a Polish translator. The translator is not dismissed, however, and you are relieved. It would be hard to follow otherwise. So you look around at all the familiar faces. This isn't some empowerment lovefest. The usual suspects?the environmentalist bromide brigades, hipsters wont to commit "art" in the name of causes?are nowhere in sight. No, tonight it's more serious than that. Tonight it's more like a funeral.

    Over the next four hours arguments against the power plant are put forth by members of your community. They hew mostly to the environmental and health impact that such a large plant would have on what is already one of the most toxic neighborhoods in the country. There are the depressing citations of the foregone: 17 million gallons of Mobil oil product leaked into Greenpoint's soil, ruining the local aquifer, with only 2.6 million gallons recovered to date; Radiac, the city's only nuclear waste dump, the erstwhile dioxin-spewing Greenpoint incinerator; Keyspan, Marine waste transfer and Newtown Creek sewage treatment plant all situated within Greenpoint's narrow borders. There's the fact that Greenpoint's child population suffers from one of the highest asthma rates in the city, and the knowledge that plants like the one proposed by TransGas Energy emit ultra-fine PM 2.5 particulate, which is linked to asthma, cancer and heart disease.

    Still, what's brought you here isn't about that. What's brought you here is deja vu. In the satellite days the public was, as a matter of course, uninvited from the decisionmaking process on such issues. That was just one aspect of communist totalitarianism that stuck in your craw. Only now, here, a proposal that threatens your community will be approved not by direct vote, nor by a committee chosen by the electorate, but by a group of appointees, called the Electric Generation Siting Board, who are selected in advance by one person, the governor. (In '99, the state legislature, at Pataki's urging, amended an obscure bill called Article X, which gave the governor sole power to appoint siting boards that make final decisions regarding major electric generating facilities.)

    So you run the math in your head. You've got the energy lobby with big heaping dookie wads of cash, a gubernatorial incumbent facing a potential tight one in 2002 and a group of appointees, the Siting Board, beholden to the governor. If it weren't so maddening you might find it curious, the way history follows you. Instead, your eyes glaze over and you drift into a mental picture of those few youthful idylls spent on the lush, tree-canopied banks of the river Wista. A bit later, you envision the gorgeous Battery Park waterfront, how it sprawls. Finally, you see Greenpoint as it appears from the Manhattan side. "Well yeah," you think, "that's Greenpoint." At times, the facts are so obvious as to be innocuous.

    The final and lasting image from this night is something you see only once: an illustrated placard depicting four massive smokestacks rearing up and over the onion domes of your church, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration of our Lord, at Driggs and N. 12th. Smokestacks over the onion domes. At a proposed 300 feet, the real things would do just that.

    It occurs to you that the proportions in that illustration are like those of the opposition in which you've come to participate. Neither is overblown.