Read the full story in Popular Science.
When COVID-19 swept through New York City in the Spring of 2020, it did so unevenly. Hardest hit by far were communities of color, where the death rate was roughly double that of white neighborhoods. Overlapping constellations of reasons drove this—such areas house more essential workers, living in more crowded homes, with less access to health care—but among the more insidious was chronic exposure to air pollution. A nationwide study from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health found that COVID deaths increased by 8 percent with each additional microgram per cubic meter of fine particulate matter, the contaminant most closely linked to highways, truck traffic, and power plants. Given that the dirtiest and cleanest neighborhoods in New York City have an annual difference of about 4 micrograms per cubic meter, areas near heavy industries net a lot more deadly infections.
The residents of the Queensbridge Houses, the nation’s largest public housing project, worry this puts them at greater risk. “I’ve heard the conversation in the park over the last three months more than in the last five years,” says Suga Ray, a neighborhood activist and community builder. “People are talking about the plants over there,” he says of the Ravenswood Generating Station, whose iconic red-and-white-tipped smokestacks create an omnipresent frame for the skyline.
Queensbridge consists of 26 Y-shaped buildings in the shadow of the bridge that connects midtown Manhattan with the borough of Queens. Forty percent of its approximately 7,000 occupants live below the poverty line; 96 percent are nonwhite. Ravenswood, which can supply up to 20 percent of the city’s peak electricity needs, sits kitty-corner to these projects, and started generating power in 1963. The Queensbridge Houses opened in 1939. “That’s how you know it’s systemic,” Ray says. “They could have put it anywhere else. We create these structures in communities dominated by Black people.”
But in an American era defined by divisions and reckonings—both racial and environmental—Ravenswood is trying to clean up.