John Lindsay was mayor of New York. It was the spring of 1970, when the United States was bogged down in a far-off land in the Vietnam War and divided at home, labor strikes roiled the country, and the Beatles officially broke up. On April 22, 1970, 39 years ago, a spirit of passion, anger, and celebration came together on the first Earth Day: An estimated 20 million people took part in teach-ins, festivities, and demonstrations across the U.S. By 2009, Earth Day has spread to a global affair, with 180 countries marking it. New York City has plenty to see and do as part of Earth Week.
New York rarely does anything small, and so it was with Earth Day, 1970. The city was the site of one of the largest, most impressive Earth Day celebrations in the nation. On Mayor Lindsay’s orders, the city closed Fifth Avenue between 14th Street and 59th Street to vehicles for two hours. One horse-drawn buggy, carrying members of a neighborhood association, was the sole vehicle in the “autoless” space, as one reporter called it.
The New York Times gave front-page coverage to Earth Day, with the headline “Millions Join Earth Day Observances Across the Nation.” Underneath the banner headline, a photograph of Fifth Avenue showed the entire avenue filled with thousands upon thousands of people. On the street, a group of demonstrators carried dead fish in a net to call attention to the fish kills occurring in waters such as the polluted Hudson River. “You’re next, people,” they shouted, according to the Times.
Midtown Manhattan was part of a citywide convergence. Between Third and Seventh avenues, 14th Street, closed to traffic, became an ecological carnival. Teach-ins, demonstrations, and other events drew huge crowds to Union Square in the largest outpouring there since the socialist rallies of the 1930s. Governor Nelson Rockefeller rode his bicycle to Prospect Park and then gave a speech there. Schoolchildren, supplied with brooms, shovels, and rakes, cleaned up beaches and parks across the region.
The day witnessed not only people campaigning for cleaner air and water, less waste, and greater wildlife protection, but bringing in other causes, from civil rights to ending the Vietnam War. The singer Odetta sung “We Shall Overcome” on one end of 14th Street, while a rock group shouted “Power to the people!” at the other end, according to the Times.
From Then to Now
Think about where we have come since then, as individuals, and as a city, nation, and a world in the past four decades. As a high school senior in the spring of 1970, I helped fill our senior Lincoln High School yearbook with images of the war, the draft, food drives, and black armband demonstrations, but I just felt the first stirrings of care about the environment. Today, I believe the survival of our Earth is at stake, and my daily life is filled with many more actions taken with care for our planet and its people in mind. By the 1960s, waters such as the Hudson River were pollution-infested and dying, especially for 20 miles north of New York City and 20 miles south of Albany. This morning on a cable news show, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the leaders of the environmental group Riverkeeper, could say proudly that the Hudson today is far cleaner and is a rich source of fish. But threats to it remain. The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Environmental Protection Agency, and countless actions, regulations, and governmental bodies, now help protect our environment and reduce pollution.
Yet consider that 39 years ago, “global warming,” “climate change,” and “greenhouse gases” were not part of our everyday language, and now there is a do-or-die attitude about dealing with and solving these issues. To quote former Mayor Lindsay on that first Earth Day, “…beyond words like ecology, environment, and pollution there is a simple question: Do we want to live or die?”
So join in Earth Day wherever you are, and let’s keep it up as Earth Year leads to the 2010 40th anniversary of Earth Day. Here is a sampling of Earth Week and related green events and activities in New York:
- Grand Central Terminal will feature Earth Fair 2009 on Friday, April 24, and Saturday, April 25 indoors and outside the station. It will include information on green homes, holistic health, and environmental actions; yoga; organic food; and children’s activities.
- Grand Central Terminal is also showcasing a light show from April 20-26 of “giant earth images” with environmentally themed quotes, messages, and photographs.
- Earth Day in Central Park 2009 will take place on Sunday, April 26. It includes information about the park’s green initiatives, live performances, planting and mulching projects, tree care and composting demonstrations, and crafts with recycled materials.
- The lights at the top of the Empire State Building will go dark tonight at 9 p.m. as part of a demonstration in support of Earth Day. The landmark skyscraper is in the midst of a major green-building makeover.
- MillionTreesNYC and the New York Restoration Project are having tree giveaways on April 22-25 at Wave Hill in the Bronx, April 25-26 at the Queens Botanical Garden, and May 1-2 at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island. Further information here.
- The South Bronx Earth Fest is a family celebration of the environment and the South Bronx community. It will occur on Saturday, April 25, at St. Mary’s Park, St. Ann’s Avenue between East 146th and East 148th streets.
- The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx is having a number of activities in honor of Earth Month. (Click on events.)
- Last but not least (in my book), the Red Horse Cafe in Brooklyn’s Park Slope is celebrating Earth Day by not serving beverages in disposable paper or plastic on April 22. It has also been encouraging patrons to bring their own mugs and is debuting a new line of stainless steel and ceramic mugs. Way to go, Red Horse!