My mother wiped black soot off the glass table and wrought iron chairs on the terrace with a washcloth. She wrung out the dirty rag in the sink and scrubbed it with dish soap, then went outside to rub some more. “Girls,” she called. “Lunchtime.”
It was 1967 and we had just moved into our new apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Hungry, we darted outside and clutched the grimy metal railing, pressing our bodies against the blackened bars. Looking south on Columbus Avenue we saw skeletal building frames disappearing in the smog, soon to be new buildings like ours.
While my young activist mother focused on cleaning, we picked up pebbles from a flower box my mom had planted and tossed them over the railing, hoping they’d fly above the white cement wall dividing our building from a row of burnt-out brownstones. Instead, they landed in our concrete backyard where children played. A few kids pointed up at us, shouting, Mira! Mira!
Our father caught us. “What are you girls doing? You should know better. You could hurt someone.”
Reprimanded, we sat down, covering our mouths to muffle our giggles.
We tried to eat, but soot kept floating onto our food. Sighing, my mother brushed away the black ash, leaving a dark residue on the white bread. “Eat it anyway. I hate to waste food.”
Our mother served tuna fish and tomato sandwiches on Pepperidge Farm bread, sliced down the middle. We tried to eat, but soot kept floating onto our food. Sighing, my mother brushed away the black ash, leaving a dark residue on the white bread. “Eat it anyway. I hate to waste food.”
“Gross.” Erica pushed her plate away. “I’m not eating this.”
“Me neither.” I shoved my plate too, mimicking my older sister. She was six years old, and I was four.
Determined to utilize the terrace, my mother made us new sandwiches, but the soot kept falling, so we decided to go inside. The construction exacerbated the already poor air quality in the city.
My father tried to reassure us. “Pollution is bad today. But a thunderstorm’s coming. It’ll clear things up. We can try again tomorrow.”
Happy to be living in Manhattan, my parents tolerated the noise and poor air quality. They were committed to living in New York City and making it a better place for their daughters to grow up. My sister and I knew nothing else. We sprouted out of the cement along with the nascent buildings in the neighborhood, cubist children with fractured, artistic sensibilities.
In 1967 the Public Health Service in Washington, DC, declared New York City to have “the most severe pollution problem of any metropolitan area in the nation.” In 1969, according to the New York Department of Air Resources, when the city began its daily air pollution index, not one day was labeled “good.” New York still burned garbage in incinerators, and it was routine to see smoke stacks releasing black plumes of sulfur dioxide, smoke shade, and carbon monoxide.
The flakes of black soot, which drifted onto our terrace like snow was particulate matter comprised mostly of carbon and sulfur dioxide, the result of burning fossils fuels. The interior of our apartment was dirty too, black soot coating our windowsills and baseboard heaters. The asthma I developed as a kid, and with which I struggle today, likely could’ve resulted from breathing in “suspended particulates…settling into the deep recesses of the lungs.”
If we Upper West Side kids had it bad, kids from the South Bronx had it worse, living and attending schools near waste transfer facilities and highways with unrelenting truck traffic, spewing elemental carbon or black soot, exposure to which can increase the risk of asthma. To this day “the Bronx has the highest age-adjusted asthma death rate among all counties in New York State: 43.5 deaths per million residents in the Bronx, as opposed to the state average of 13.1 deaths per million.”
The asthma I developed as a kid, and with which I struggle today, likely could’ve resulted from breathing in “suspended particulates…settling into the deep recesses of the lungs.”
In 1965, Tom Lehrer, a New York City singer-song writer and satirist, wrote and performed “Pollution” with lyrics:
Just go out for a breath of air
And you’ll be ready for Medicare
The city streets are really quite a thrill
If the hoods don’t get you, the monoxide will
Wear a gas mask and a veil
Then you can breathe
Long as you don’t inhale!
In 1968, the musical Hair opened on Broadway. One of its many hit songs was “Air”:
Welcome, sulfur dioxide
Hello, carbon monoxide
The air, the air
While you sleep
The air in New York City was so bad that an activist hippie troupe staged a “soot-in,” showering black mist and giving out befouled flowers next to the Consolidated Edison (the local electric company) building.”
This was in the late 1960’s before the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Earth Day were established, all in 1970. According to a 1992 EPA publication, Earth Day may have started with the first moon landing when astronauts took photos of the earth and there was a new appreciation for the planet.
A few years later, in the spring, when the light in the sky lingered late, my father was on the terrace using his handmade turquoise telescope, larger than me, almost as big as he was. At five feet six inches, he was a physically weak man, born with a congenital heart defect in 1928, way before there were advances in open-heart surgery.
Told not to exercise, his strength resided in his brain. A brilliant mathematician, mechanical engineer and astrophysicist, he loved imparting his knowledge and wisdom to us and anyone else he could interest, often bringing his telescope downstairs to the street to show the neighborhood kids the stars.
He called through the screen door: “Jenny. Come. I want you to see something.”
Thinking he’d show me the moon, I slid open the door, and he pointed at a chimney coughing out a cloud of black smoke.
“It’s rare to see this now,” he said, indignant. “The landlord was supposed to clean it up. He’s violating the law.”
By the 1970s, because of tougher federal standards and local laws, the air quality in New York City had improved, though it still wasn’t as good as it is today. Con Edison burned low-sulfur fuel and landlords were required to install compactors or “scrubbers, which catch particulates before they escape into the air.”
I shrugged. “I don’t care,” I said and went back inside. He followed after me, his big warm cheeks sinking in disappointment.
“If you continue with that attitude, I’m not going to show you anything.”
Knowing he was upset, I stood on my tiptoes, grabbed his arms, and looked up at him.
“I’m sorry, Daddy. Show me.”
It was too late. Not long after, my father died suddenly of a heart attack. He was 46 years old.
Even today I regret having snubbed him.
I know he would’ve loved to witness the changes in the city, to eat meals on a soot free terrace with my mother, sister, and me, to watch his grandsons grow up, and to show us the stars through cleaner air, though he would’ve been outraged that impoverished areas of New York City remained polluted.
In 2013, the New York Times reported that New York City’s air was cleaner than it’s been in fifty years. “Sulfur dioxide levels…dropped by 69 percent since 2008, and the level of soot pollution…dropped by more than 23 percent since 2007” chiefly due to “the city’s effort to get buildings that used the most polluting kinds of heating oil to convert to cleaner fuels.”
The establishment, in 2007, of the “ongoing urban air-monitoring program—the most extensive of its kind of any U.S. city,” has also played an important role in reducing air pollution.
Air pollution remains a problem throughout the country, as well. Young people are particularly susceptible with asthma affecting “an estimated 9.7 percent of American children in 2009.”
However, despite these gains, air pollution persists in many of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods where “racial or ethnic minorities face disproportionately high exposures to toxic and hazardous wastes” from among other things “fuel combustion in vehicles, boilers in buildings, power plants, construction equipment, and commercial cooking.”
Air pollution remains a problem throughout the country, as well. Young people are particularly susceptible with asthma affecting “an estimated 9.7 percent of American children in 2009.” Black and multi-race children have higher asthma rates than white children, and those living in poverty have higher asthma rates than more affluent households.
Other cities can learn from New York by converting to cleaner burning fuels and by setting up on-going air monitoring programs. But more work must be done. With all the talk in this year’s presidential cycle about economic inequality, what needs to be highlighted is that “the overall level of inequality in a society also affects health, …with poorer Americans faring much worse than richer Americans.” Fundamental changes must be made to American society such as building communities away from heavy industry and highways and increasing public transportation, which would reduce asthma and lead to longer healthier lives for everyone.
I’ll never know my father’s outrage at the endemic asthma rates and growing inequality in the U.S. today. I do know that I will always miss his passion for social justice.