East Harlem Is Facing More Than Just Gas Leaks



If the March 12th explosion was anything, it was an amplifier of problems already facing the often neglected community. The cast iron gas main believed to be the culprit in the explosion shares a lot in common with the social problems of residents above it: both have been ignored for decades, and the government is showing little intention of addressing either. Homelessness, unemployment, and covered up abuses are far too common in the world above Yorkville.

Proesters in solidarity with victims of the East Harlem explosion protest outside Con Edison's annual shareholder meeting, May 19th 2014

“A tragedy like this is more likely to happen among working class neighborhoods and where Black, Latino, Asian and poor people live,” said one attendant at a previous Con Edison protest in Harlem on March 28, according to The Final Call. Indeed, activists today seem concerned with how reminiscent the circumstances surrounding the East Harlem explosion are of prior tragedies at places with similar demographics. Residents, some who moved to New York from Louisiana, tell tales of similar patterns of neglect after Hurricane Katrina and warn of the selective rejuvenation that followed.

Lost access to the East Harlem community, if it isn’t already happening, isn’t a far fetched fear with the climate of gentrification being experienced in the neighborhood. That’s why protesters are keeping their demands focused on the health of the community and the welfare of victims and neighbors. They’ve agreed that the first step to keeping recovery centered on community progress lies in having the NTSB, the primary federal investigator of the incident, open a public hearing that would put on record the needs of survivors, neighbors, and small businesses owners impacted by the explosion.

Beyond the call for a hearing, activists remain unsure of what the best direction is for moving the community forward. As The Final Call notes, “a 2012 report from a federal agency… warned many of these deteriorating gas lines [such as the one believed to have caused the March 12th explosion] lie beneath streets in older high density urban areas.” Up to 30% of the gas mains under NYC are cast iron, according to agency data cited by The Final Call. Yet, replacing gas mains can be a costly process for both residents and Con Edison. According to one source, the utility monopoly has said it could cost billions to replace pipes across the City. And the lost foot traffic for East Harlem businesses shortly after the explosion could become the norm for some time if a neighborhood-wide pipe replacement campaign is started.

Protesters aren’t ready to let Con Edison off the hook so easily though. Along with the public hearing, they are demanding further investigation of Con Edison’s culpability in the explosion. Repeatedly cited is CEO John McAvoy’s nearly $3 million compensation packagelast year, over $900k of it provided in cash. Many are curious to what degree profit-seeking behavior influenced Con Edison’s decision-making as far as taking steps to prevent the lethal disaster.

A Google image of the buildings at 1644 and 1646 Park Avenue, destroyed in the East Harlem explosion on March 12, 2014

Regardless of the options popularly discussed in reports following the incident, creativity hasn’t been lost among those in solidarity with East Harlem’s residents. Activists are evaluating a range of ideas and strategies that could move the neighborhood forward in terms of employment, affordable housing, and green technology. A solution that would benefit all the community’s stakeholders, hold Con Edison justly accountable, and receive the support of the City government seems to be everyone’s goal.

For now, the biggest challenge is making sure an explosion two months ago, affecting mostly low income residents of color, isn’t forgotten. Some see the catastrophic results of neglected infrastructure as the gateway to reversing a culture of neglect East Harlem residents have experienced for too long.


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