Beware the Emerald City

The Sustainability Myth: Environmental Gentrification and the Politics of Justice, by Melissa Checker (New York: NYU Press, 2020).

Reviewed by Chloe Ahmann, Cornell University

“I ordered them to build [the Emerald City], and…I put green spectacles on all the people, so that everything they saw was green.”

“But isn’t everything here green?” asked Dorothy.

“No more than in any other city,” replied Oz.

L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Surely this is the revelation Melissa Checker has in mind when she calls Manhattan an “emerald city” (p. 4): the whole thing turns out to be a humbug. The Wizard is a fraud, the jewel-tone is a fiction, and the glasses work to pacify the masses. There are no glasses in her new book, The Sustainability Myth, but there is a “distorted reality” (p. 26). Under the banner of “sustainaphrenia” (p. 7), Checker details how perceptions of New York City as a bastion of sustainable growth depend upon acts of distraction, abstraction, and co-option that hide growth’s corrosive effects. Akin to Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) schizophrenia, sustainaphrenia displaces anxieties about climate change from their proper object and mobilizes them to support the “façade” of green development (p. 47). But beneath the surface, Checker shows, green development harms the environment and cuts lives short on the “browning” periphery (p. 14).

Environmental gentrification is a key circuit through which sustainaphrenia does its work. Epitomized by former Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030, environmental gentrification describes the use of sustainable initiatives to serve high-end development, and is one of the book’s organizing themes. Pitched as a win-win scenario that would shake the city from an economic slump while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions, PlaNYC 2030 made greening a vector for capital expansion. But at what cost? Readers encounter renovated parks, energy-efficient buildings, farmer’s markets, bike lanes, gardens. And they meet Black and brown activists who fought hard for these improvements, only to find that such changes priced them out of town. Checker does not mince words when she argues that the city’s “greening” serves its “whitening” (p. 76).

Checker brings an ethnographer’s eye to these dynamics, and the resonances with her first book, Polluted Promises (2005), are strong. But The Sustainability Myth is not a classic ethnographic monograph. It is a portrait of the city system over the longue durée, attentive to the legal, economic, and political forces that have shaped New York’s five boroughs over the past two centuries. This historical depth is one of the book’s strengths, because it shows that green development is no new phenomenon. “Zones of [environmental] privilege” have long developed in relation to “zones of [environmental] sacrifice” (p. 87). It is the tense but productive interplay between these zones and how they are made in relation to each other—more than any single site—that structures this book’s inquiry.

To tell this complex tale, Checker draws on eclectic methods: archival research, media sources, online fora, public meetings, and many years of living and working in New York. But readers will find an ethnographic base on Staten Island’s industrial North Shore, which offers a clarifying counterpoint to the emerald city. The North Shore is a “forgotten” (p. 3) part of town with more than its fair share of toxic developments. As indefatigable activist Beryl Thurman teaches Checker, the concentration of such developments here enables greening elsewhere. Checker does not let her reader stray far from this uncomfortable fact, even as she moves throughout New York. The North Shore is her space outside the spectacles, and it serves as an object lesson in the paradoxes of sustainability.

In a sense, the North Shore is infrastructural: indispensable to the system but best kept in one’s peripheral vision; a place that does the city’s dirty work. It offers plain evidence that some New Yorkers pay the price of others’ flourishing. Checker’s decision to look at New York from what I’d call its infrastructural inside illuminates what I read as the book’s central question: If the city is sustainable, what does it sustain? Her answer is racial capitalism, although she does not use this phrase. Throughout the book, readers find that capital accumulation depends on the siphoning of resources—land, time, energy, and more—from racialized people. In Part I, Checker develops this argument through a typology of environmental gentrifications: green (when lavish new parks boost property values), industrial (when heavy industry gets displaced to the urban periphery to make room for small-scale manufacturers downtown), and brown (when developers use public funds to selectively repurpose toxic properties). In each case, she shows how discourses of sustainability have historically “veiled the accumulation of privilege” for wealthy white denizens while “neutraliz[ing] narratives about environmental racism” (p. 45–6). In her chapter on “green gentrification,” for example, readers learn how the creation of urban green space has long “provided cover for land grabs” (p. 206), from the eviction of freed slaves from Seneca Village to establish Central Park in the nineteenth century to rising rents in contemporary Brooklyn that displace minoritized communities. Even programs designed to mitigate this problem often end up reproducing it, and Part I is rich with descriptions of these double binds. Checker suggests they are the predictable outcome of solutions that fail to apprehend the root of things.

In Part II, Checker turns her attention to the politics of sacrifice and the exhaustion it produces for activists, who must navigate their own set of double binds. This is where Checker’s skill as an ethnographer comes through. She captures the draining inertia that comes with winning that coveted seat at “the table” (p. 211); she conveys the bizarre contortions nonprofits must perform to secure grant funds; and she critiques the academic rituals of engaged scholarship (symposia, conferences, classroom visits, and so on) that rely on activists’ unpaid labor to validate the university. “Rather than fostering democratic action,” she shows, civic engagement efforts like these steal activists “away from their long-term goals” (p. 16). This is a valuable insight with implications far beyond New York. And it is where Checker locates the “gravest dangers of the sustainaphrenic era” (p. 155): that it might just produce apathy.

So what is one to do? For one, remove the spectacles. Problems created by growth will not be solved by yet more growth; there is no quick fix for climate catastrophe. Scholars interested in urbanism, environmental justice, grassroots movements, and critical geography in and beyond the United States will find this lesson familiar. But Checker’s reminder that sustainaphrenia is as old as the urban form is a signal contribution. It suggests that, if there is any hope of addressing these challenges, it will come from reimagining the city.