Greenpoint Landing and the expansion of the Brooklyn Greenway.As a work-resident of Greenpoint, the soundtrack to my daytime life is a near constant wash of brutal jackhammer vibrato and diesel-spewing growls emitted from a stream of trucks. As you might have noticed, the neighborhood, from the edge of Williamsburg to the Pulaski Bridge, is getting seriously tore up by mega-developments like
It’s easy to speak about the consequences of all this change in abstract terms, and harder to know exactly who will be impacted, when, and how. But that’s not really the case when it comes to feral cats like Kool-Aid, a mangy little black-and-white dude who lurks around the neighborhood’s abandoned lots and the in-between spaces. Clearly, his way of life is about to change. As new construction threatens the colony where he and about ten other cats live, their caretakers are scrambling for a way to assert something like squatter’s rights.
Like myself, Jessica first picked up on the phenomenon of organized feral cat feeding from a flyer announcing “Feeders needed!”
“I was like, ‘Oh that’s cute,'” recalled Sarter, an animal lover who owns two cats. “Some of them were very affectionate and, I don’t know, I just really liked doing it.”
Eventually, the Williamsburg resident started caring for a colony managed by another woman along the Greenpoint waterfront along West Street. After the woman disappeared, Sarter was suddenly the only person providing Kool-Aid and his companions with food, fresh water, and shelter. “I was like, ‘Shit, this is not where I saw this going,'” she said. “But it was just one of those moments where you’re like, ‘Well it’s me.’ I couldn’t just not go.”
Thankfully by way of those flyers, Sarter has recruited around ten volunteers to help care for the cats and, in the case of the blizzard, dig them out from nearly 30 inches of snow. For a while, the colony was looking pretty spiffy, complete with straw-filled shelters the cats can huddle inside of for warmth. “We made a little garden for them, too,” Sarter explained. “People say, ‘The cats are great, they’re so much better since you started feeding them.’ Their neighbors know them. Other people stop by, too, to feed them besides our volunteers.”
But things have recently taken a complicated turn. A couple weeks ago, a construction worker in the area gave Sarter a call. “‘It’s all coming down, and I don’t wanna get your stuff damaged,'” she recalled the worker telling her over the phone. Sarter rushed down to the colony. “I was just devastated. It was freezing cold that day and I’m talking to these guys and they’re knocking everything down, just shredding that whole area– they’re going to expand the street and just move us out.”
The men were working on the Brooklyn Greenway’s extension along West Street. The $10 million piece of the larger project will extend bike paths and pedestrian walkways alongside the borough’s waterfront and install green infrastructure, which will help guard against flooding and prevent storm water from entering the sewage system. Now, construction is finally underway after falling more than a year behind schedule.
While the Greenway issue is often framed as a simple dichotomy of bike lanes/ no bike lanes, it’s more complicated than that, obviously. Just compare the experience of riding your bike along Kent Avenue in Williamsburg– which inevitably involves dodging tourists, flipping off drivers who cut you off, and just barely missing a French bulldog with your front wheel– with that of traveling along West Street, which, save for truck traffic, is so quiet you can almost hear the noxious filth burbling up from the East River.
There’s no doubt the Greenway will have an enormously transformative impact. The area where the colony is based is bustling during the day, but ghostly quiet at night, with sparse housing, converted industrial buildings, and abandoned lots taking up most of the area. “The cats, they’re not really by anything, they’re off the beaten path– there’s some offices or whatever, but they’ve just become a part of the neighborhood,” Sarter noted.
It’s not surprising that not everyone’s down with the project. In 2013, Vinegar Hill residents expressed their disapproval of the plan, which threatened to rip up their cobblestone streets, a hallmark of the nabe. Likewise, some Greenpoint residents are opposed to the Greenway. At a Community Board 1 meeting last fall, one resident told the Brooklyn Paper he was concerned about the project turning the West Street area into a “clusterfuck.” According to Streets Blog, at a November 2012 meeting the CB1 Transportation Committee Chair said he’d “gotten a lot of comments from the community in opposition to the plan,” and expressed his concern that he city was pushing forward regardless.
Of course, the Greenway isn’t the only project in the area that has met with opposition from the waterfront community. Greenpoint Landing, a behemoth of a development underway since last summer, will add some 10,000 new residents. Some Greenpointers worry it could lead to the area being “homogenized, pasteurized, sanitized, and super-sized.”
After the construction worker called her, Sarter was forced to move the shelters away from the area and leave the cats where they were. Now, what remains are some makeshift homes for the cats and a feeding station jammed up against the construction barriers. When I visited last weekend, the cats didn’t seem to mind the rubble itself too much, but then again the workers were nowhere to be found. “The guys have been very helpful,” Sarter explained. “They’re trying to work with us and they were like, ‘Look, I’ll keep moving it as much as we can.'” She and some of the other caregivers reached out to the community liaison from the DDC, the go-between for the community and the developers. “We’re trying to see if we can’t find a more permanent solution,” Sarter said. “Right now I only have two little shelters out there, thankfully it’s pretty warm.”
When the construction is complete there will be a large parking lot for Greenpoint Landing residents where the colony once was, and the busy Greenway expansion will run alongside it. “I was thinking about trying to get in touch with [the developers] about putting some shelters back there– they could use the publicity is what I was thinking,” Sarter said hopefully. “Across the street there’s a big condo and apartment building going up, and they’re building these parks and all this stuff along the water, so maybe they could incorporate [the cat colonies] into their plan, I don’t know if they would or not.” She stopped, maybe guessing the improbability of such an arrangement.
Naturally, Sarter is aware of her charge’s personalities. “There’s some that are very affectionate, and some are friendly but they’re just skittish, and then there’s one who’s a mean old bastard,” she explained. “He’s blind and he looks like he’s been through it, so I give it to him.” When their home was moved, Sarter said, “the cats were all upset, because nobody was feeding them, they were all weird.”
I asked Sarter if she could think of a place nearby where the cats could be placed. “I feel like, at this point, I don’t even know where they could go– we’re kind of at that point, like, where else can you push them to?” she said. “They live right here at the edge of Greenpoint, you know, this is the last remaining untouched area along the water.”
Sarter and her colleagues are part of a loose network of volunteers supported by the Mayor’s Alliance for Animals. In addition, Kathleen O’Malley, director of the Feral Cat Initiative (which is under the auspices of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals) is also helping to find a solution to the Greenpoint colony’s woes. “It’s really best for the feral cats to remain outside and find a safer place to go, a place that’s not going to be bulldozed and made into a wide boulevard,” O’Malley explained.
The Feral Cat Initiative’s official policy is to “decrease the population of community cats” by way of Trap Neuter Return (TNR), which O’Malley said was “the humane and effective method of controlling feral cat populations.” In some cases, kittens and younger cats living in colonies can be placed in homes, but generally if they’re feral they’re not super down with humans and are bound to live out their days on the streets. Under TNR, feral cats like the ones living in Sarter’s Greenpoint colony are sterilized and returned to their colony. “So they’re not going to breed, they just need a place to live,” O’Malley explained.
In Red Hook, she was able to work with the Brooklyn Greenway to relocate feral cats to a temporary home at the Port Authority marine terminal. But the problem in Greenpoint is “very difficult,” O’Malley said. Even after construction, it’s hard to imagine the cats could make their home here again. “The redevelopment is going to be so dramatic that the space of earth and shrubs where the cats are taking shelter now, it’s no longer going to exist,” she explained. “There’s really not going to be any cover for the cats anymore in that particular spot. So that’s why we need to move them hopefully elsewhere in the neighborhood.”
But why not move the cats somewhere completely different? Well, that’s not workable, either. “There’s no magic barn upstate that’s going to welcome all the unwanted cats of New York City,” O’Malley said. “And secondly, it’s hard on the cats to relocate them properly– you can’t just uproot cats and dump them in new territory, that’s cruelty. Cats are territorial animals and unless they are accustomed to a physical spot and know where to find food, know where to find shelter, they’re going to become extremely stressed, they can become ill. If they don’t know where to find food, they can starve and it’s really not good.”
For now, O’Malley and the caregivers are still working to find a solution, but everyone knows it’s going to be an uphill battle. And unfortunately the problem isn’t a unique one either. “Displacement of community cats is going on all over the city,” O’Malley explained. “You have the gentrification of neighborhoods, row-house neighborhoods where you’ve had empty lots for a number of years, or where people in the neighborhood have created community gardens, either official or impromptu, and cats often live in those sort of empty, unused spaces. But then as the neighborhood begins to attract developers and those pieces of land start to get developed, then it’s a question of where do the cats go?”
As we were leaving the ramshackle home of Sarter’s Greenpoint cat colony she reminisced about how easy things were up until recently. “It just went from this little hobby thing to this big deal,” she said. “I dunno– there was something so neighborhoody, so Brooklyn about it.”