Their Shocking New Neighbor


From the moment they learned that Con Edison intended to build a 23,000-square-foot substation smack against their houses, people in East Harlem—mostly black and Latino—worried that the power facility would make them sick. Last summer, they began meeting with company officials and pleading with local leaders to stop the project, which they feared would generate stray volts and electromagnetic fields— environmental conditions thought by some researchers to cause diseases ranging from childhood leukemia to Alzheimer’s.

Now it seems the plant may indeed be making the neighbors sick—before it’s even finished.

Plans call for the Parkview Substation to rest directly against a row of townhouses in a low-income development called the M.S. Houses, just off Park Avenue at East 129th Street. Lyannett Ervin Lindsay lives with her family on the eastern edge of the work site; its corrugated fence touches her bedroom wall. Her hair secured in a kerchief, Lindsay goes from room to room to point out a fine layer of grit that has drifted in. Heavily industrial East Harlem has never been a healthy place to live—people there call it Asthma Alley. Lindsay says her young son Jalen’s asthma had been under control, but has flared up since construction began in December.

“This is really killing us,” she says. “In my room, I get all the dust, and in my sons’ room. No one at Con Ed says nothing. They don’t come and say, ‘Do you need anything? Is the dust coming in your house?'”

She drags her fingers across her bedroom windowsill and says, “See this? Nothing but dust.” The kids’ room is in the same condition, covered not with the usual dark soot of city life, but with dirt the same light brown color as that in the open construction site next door.

A couple of apartments down, Nilsa Diaz holds up a pair of inhalers she now uses—one for when she goes outdoors, one for when she’s inside. Diaz says she has lived in the M.S. Houses for three decades and never had trouble breathing before. After Con Ed started construction, she says, the dust poured in and her lungs clogged up. “Right now, I’m wheezing,” she says—and she is. “I never had asthma in my life, and now I get the asthma. This is my second time getting bronchitis. This is no joke. I can’t continue this way.” She says that her teenage son, Gregory, has seen his asthma return, and that they’ve both had recent stays in the hospital.

Barbara Soden, who lives in the tower section of the M.S. Houses, shares her misery. Soden says that she, too, has had bronchitis lately. She and Diaz talk about the rats that have shown up in the courtyard lately, the incessant banging of heavy equipment,
and—of course—the ever-present dust. “Forget about your mirrors,” she says, as Diaz nods.
“I’m tired of washing them. You can’t keep it up.”

Soden comes from another world. She grew up on Harlem’s Sugar Hill, back when it was still sweet with affluence. Now she belongs to the Community Association of the East Harlem Triangle, a nonprofit chartered by the city in 1969 to develop housing. “It’s unbelievable what Con Ed is doing,” she says. “Where else could they do this?”

The Con Ed project was approved by all the usual government agencies. Dozens of environmental and work permits are displayed on a site wall. Con Ed spokesperson Alfonso Quiroz says the utility’s position is that no reliable scientific or medical research has shown that electromagnetic fields are harmful. Even so, the company takes a variety of measures to reduce the public’s exposure. As for the mess of construction intruding on people’s lives, Quiroz says Con Ed hasn’t heard the complaints, but added that he isn’t surprised. “It is a regular construction site,” he says. “We are using very strict standards that everyone follows on a construction site.”

Even if it’s not an environmental crime, the Parkview Substation in its half-built state is an affront to environmental goodwill. Already, this part of East Harlem is bound by three major bridges and the Harlem River Drive, and it hosts a bus depot, a sanitation garage for its trucks and those of Central Harlem, a municipal salt pile, and the elevated tracks of Metro North. Amid the constantly blowing grit and squealing traffic, this small stretch had been a refuge.

From her bedroom window, Lindsay has watched as the view slid from relative quiet to something more like all hell broken loose. First Con Edison tore down the six-story warehouse a few feet away from her apartment in the M.S. Houses. Then construction crews moved in, busting up the ground for a new foundation, ripping trenches in the street out front, and piling who-knows-what chemicals outside. A large yellow box labeled “Flammable” sits within 10 yards of her pillow.

From the street, her apartment looks like the kind of place you’d abandon as fast as you could. “What I need is for them to get me out of here,” Lindsay says. Construction is expected
to last until 2008, and then the current will flow.

Hannah Brockington, president of the East Harlem Triangle, says it’s almost as if the city is trying to strangle East Harlem. Con Ed says substations generally sit close to where the demand is, but Brockington suspects the utility is preparing to serve the demands of a wealthier redevelopment slated for 125th Street.

“If they even gave a damn about people, they would know that this is not the place to put that thing,” she says. Brockington is still fighting for her neighborhood, but she can see the losses adding up. “I’m not even against them taking East Harlem, because with the asthma rates, if we could find another place to go, we would.”

Perhaps, on some grander level, that’s the operative idea. An artist’s rendering of the future Parkview Substation shows an attractive building decked in varying shades of red brick, marked with bright windows and shiny louvered vents. Out front stand a pair of white guys in fashionably skinny suits. The blond one, on the left, wears a shirt with peach and white stripes and a white belt. His jacket is open to the comfortable weather, his eyes turned toward the limitless horizon.