Heat Waves in New York Highlight Climate Inequality

It’s Going to Be a Hot Summer. It Will Be Hotter if You’re Not Rich.

When heat waves hit, everyone suffers. But the pain will not be shared equally throughout New York City. Here, the neighborhoods where climate inequality will hurt the most.

By Anne Barnard, Corey Kilgannon, Jazmine Hughes and Emma Goldberg

Photographs by Stephanie Mei-Ling

May 28, 2022

As summer begins, danger lurks behind New Yorkers’ joy at getting back to beaches and parks. Blazing heat is expected to blanket most of the country, setting records as it has for several years running.

The Northeast is most likely to spike above average summer heat according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. While the West battles drought and wildfires, in aging cities like New York, the climate crisis takes its most threatening form as pockets of heat that can suffocate and sudden downpours that can drown and destroy, both deadliest for the most vulnerable with the fewest options.

On scorching days the recipe for relief is simple: nature, cool water, books, a shady stoop. In New York, a city where life unfolds in public spaces, the ingredients are supposed to be available to all. Just as rich and poor share subways and sidewalks, anyone — in theory — can enjoy public pools, parks, libraries and tree-lined streets.

But in practice, these public spaces do not serve New Yorkers equally. As the planet heats and a lingering pandemic makes indoor gatherings risky, public places to stay cool and occupied become necessities, not just for recreation, but for health and safety.

That respite is often least available to those who need it most. All last summer, New York Times reporters roamed the city to see the disparities and how these differences affect people’s lives. What they learned reveals clues about who will suffer most in this summer's expected heat waves, and how better policies could make the hot weather not just easier and more fun — but also less deadly.

In Crotona Park East in the Bronx, 41 percent of residents fall below the federal poverty line, 24 percent of households lack air-conditioning and few have cars to reach beaches or forests.

By contrast, in Carnegie Hill on the Upper East Side, one of the city’s wealthiest, whitest sections, 96 percent of households are air-conditioned. So many residents have money and flexibility to flee the city that during the hottest weeks last summer, some streets felt empty; the advantages of nearby Central Park were left largely untapped.

Indoors, too, were stark divides. Public libraries are soothing refuges that double as emergency cooling centers. But wealthy SoHo, for instance, has a sleeker, better appointed library than the Washington Heights branch, where, on a sweltering July day, the air-conditioning was on the fritz.

Heat kills about 350 New Yorkers each year. But the risk is not shared equally. Black New Yorkers are more than twice as likely to die from heat as white residents, city data show.

Differences were compounded in the flash floods that hit the city after Hurricane Ida last August, another climate-driven hazard. The 11 city residents who died as storm water filled basement apartments lived in neighborhoods that were already more vulnerable to heat.

These are inequalities that New Yorkers see every day without always realizing their impact.

The city’s pools are free. But the rules – no snacks, newspapers or even colored t-shirts – can feel draconian.

In areas where few can afford pricier summer activities, pools are crowded, with long lines.

“Locks out, bags open!” a Parks Department worker shouted. Shakema Edwards and her two young daughters stepped up. They had waited about an hour on the sun-baked street to get into the Betsy Head Pool in Brownsville, Brooklyn, one day last summer.

Ms. Edwards, 35, lifted her shirt to show the attendants that she had on a properly lined swimsuit. They searched her bag for what counts as contraband at the city’s public pool decks: bottled drinks, snacks, newspapers, flotation devices, even colored T-shirts. Two police officers stood by, wearing bulletproof vests and armed with 9-millimeter pistols.

“It’s not fancy,” Ms. Edwards said. “But it’s what we got.”

The few white plastic chairs were taken, so she would have to settle for spreading a towel on the concrete pool deck. The elevated subway clattered by every few minutes. Bathers splashed in a crowded, roped-off area of the sprawling pool; the rest of it sat empty, a lifeguard explained, for lack of staff to watch it all safely.

Many wealthy New Yorkers — those with access to second homes, vacations, children’s camps and road trips — have never been to a public pool. But 1.5 million people visit one of the city’s roughly 50 outdoor pools every year, and for residents of modest means, disproportionately Black and brown, they are a summer staple.

New York still has less than one pool per 100,000 residents, fewer than most U.S. cities, with more per capita in the whitest, wealthiest boroughs, Manhattan and Staten Island, according to the Trust for Public Land. Black and Latino children still lag in access to swimming lessons and drown at higher rates.

The Betsy Head Pool in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

“We don’t own cars, so we can’t drive to lakes and beaches and stuff,” Jesse Amaro, a home health aide, said outside the Crotona Pool in the Bronx. It was on one of last summer’s hottest days, and the line to get in stretched far down the sidewalk by early afternoon.

She surveyed the sun-beaten line of would-be bathers, their only relief a spray of mist from a hose looped around a street sign. It would take her and her small daughter an hour to get in, and then at 3 p.m., when pools close for an hour for cleaning and staff breaks, they would have to either end their swim or brave the line a second time to re-enter. Ms. Amaro, 46, decided to skip it. They headed home.

These struggles contrast with the glamorous ambitions of 1936, when the city opened its 11 largest pools. They were designed as extravagant bathing palaces for the masses, symbols of civic pride and public investment. During the New Deal, the federal government helped build these grand, elegant spaces for poor New Yorkers — mostly white back then — whose children often drowned trying to cool off in rivers.

But many New York pools, like others around the country, remained segregated. Some have claimed that Robert Moses, the powerful parks commissioner, purposely built them in the hearts of white and Black neighborhoods, not on the edges, creating de facto white and Black pools.

To deter unrest during the racial tensions of the late 1960s, the city began opening dozens of smaller pools in underserved, overheated Black and Latino neighborhoods.

Draconian policies, enacted decades ago in response to violence in the pools, continue to restrict what bathers can take onto pool decks, infusing the pools with what Ms. Amaro called “a prison-yard mentality.”

Every year 1.5 million people visit one of the city’s roughly 50 outdoor pools.

After McCarren Park Pool, in Brooklyn, was shuttered in the 1980s for renovations, some white locals who had complained about the influx of Black and Latino crowds from outside the area supported keeping the pool closed.

When it finally reopened for swimming in 2012, numerous fights and arrests spurred new debates along racial lines.

Mark Focht, a deputy parks commissioner, said the city had recently sought to improve pools in the hottest, neediest areas. Sixteen aging pools across the city have received upgrades totaling nearly $5 million, he said, to create the vibe of a country club or resort.”

Also, some rules that “can feel restrictive” are being relaxed, he said. For example, the city now allows bottled water on pool decks and distributes bracelets at some busy times so guests can leave the line and come back later.

But the grandest pools still fall short of past glory. In Upper Manhattan one day last summer, crowds waited outside Highbridge Pool, where dancers in the movie “In the Heights” used bright inflatable floats (which, in real life, are banned in the pools). Yet much of the pool remained closed to swimmers because there weren’t enough lifeguards.

Heat can be deadly in areas like Jamaica, Queens, which is dominated by heat-absorbing streets.

But in nearby Jamaica Estates, the sidewalks are lined with grass and trees, which reduce the heat.

Inconveniently located pools may not sound like an urgent problem, but climate change raises the stakes. The city’s climate panel expects 57 days annually of at least 90-degree heat by 2050. Heat sends hundreds of New Yorkers to emergency rooms each year, killing some 350. Between 2000 and 2012, city data show, about half of those who died of heat-related causes were Black; half were from poor areas. Many who die fall ill at home.

As New York grew, poorer people — including waves of immigrants as well as Black Americans migrating north — ended up in less desirable, cheaper areas, places that tended to be hotter, lower-lying, landlocked, flood-prone or swampy. Racist redlining, zoning and spending policies brought more blacktop and pollution and fewer green spaces. Poor and Black and Latino New Yorkers are more likely to have health conditions that are exacerbated by heat, like asthma, heart disease and obesity.

On satellite maps, areas like Jamaica Estates — a district of large villas on shaded lawns in Queens that contrasts with neighboring streets of narrow rowhouses and few trees — stand out as green blotches in a sea of gray. Surface temperatures on the same day sometimes differ by 20 degrees or more between neighborhoods, or even blocks. In the Bronx, vegetation covers 63 percent of wealthy Riverdale; several neighborhoods to the south, in low-income Mott Haven, only 18 percent is green.

Waiting for a bus at Jamaica Center in Queens. Surface temperatures on the same day sometimes differ by 20 degrees or more between neighborhoods. Credit…

Trees cool the air as water evaporates from leaves. Simply seeing them, studies show, improves mental health, and shady streets invite exercise and social connection.

Experts are calling for speedier, wider coordinated action to save lives and shore up the city’s future. An environmental and civic coalition, Forests for All, is pushing for a comprehensive plan for a canopy of trees to cover 30 percent of the city by 2035, up from 22 percent, mainly by adding trees where there are fewest.

“The urban forest is a critical resource, locally and globally,” said Emily Maxwell of the Nature Conservancy, part of the coalition. “We want to expand it in a way that reaches our most heat-vulnerable communities.”

While green space can be found around the city, a bulk of the funding goes to large parks in the city’s wealthiest boroughs.

Parks that serve communities of color are more likely to lack basic services like trash pickup.

Residents flock to parks seeking shade but often find disappointment.

New Yorkers of color are more likely to be among the 33 percent with no park within a five-minute walk, and have less nearby park acreage per capita, according to New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy group. The bulk of city funds supplementing tight Parks Department budgets goes to parks in Manhattan.

Playing with her two daughters at Crotona Park, Nicole Foster, 30, has noticed a decline since her childhood. Bits of litter floated atop scum on a pond where people used to kayak and fish. Soot covered the padlocked tennis courts. Paint was chipped, garbage uncollected.

“Somebody needs to put some money into this park,” she said. “It’s not as nice as it should be.”

Nicole Foster, with her daughters, says that Crotona Park in the Bronx used to be nicer.

In another Bronx park, St. Mary’s, in Mott Haven, Willie Neal, 54, had the opposite impression: Things had improved. Working out on gym equipment, he surveyed functioning tennis courts, fresh paint, a dog run, new benches and tables, and remarked, “It wasn’t like this when I was younger.”

While race, income and geography play a role, the stark differences among city parks have complex roots — making the problem hard to address equitably.

Crotona and St. Mary’s serve similar neighborhoods: 40 percent poor and 96 percent Black and Latino. But only one, St. Mary’s, got $50 million in improvements in the past five years, mostly from City Hall. Crotona Park got half as much in 13 years: $22 million from various city offices.

The Parks Department gets a small share of the city’s budget, and individual parks try to win more from disparate sources — vying with one another and other community priorities.

“The city has not committed the amount of money to get a truly equitable parks system,” said Adam Ganser, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks.

Basketball at Crotona Park. A disproportionate share of residents of the area lack air-conditioning.

In his three terms as mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg established a public-private system. Blockbuster parks, largely near central, high-income areas more likely to draw tourists, were lavished with money, even as they raised funds from affluent neighbors. Mayor Bill de Blasio continued the trend but also focused new attention on underserved parks with little recent investment.

According to Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner under Mr. de Blasio, “This administration said, ‘Let’s stop waiting for manna to fall from heaven; let’s get the city to allocate a huge pot of money and we’ll invest it in these parks.’”

One initiative finances parks in dense neighborhoods that in the past 20 years received less than $250,000 in capital funding. The Anchor Park program channeled money to a single large park in each borough for major improvements. In the Bronx, St. Mary’s was the jackpot winner. Crotona is still waiting.

As both candidate and mayor, Eric Adams declared that he would bolster parks spending to a new baseline, 1 percent of the city’s budget, which would amount to around $1 billion. Instead, his proposed budget allocates about half that.

“Low-income and communities of color need green space, which is essential for mental well-being,” said Shekar Krishnan, the chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Parks and Recreation. Mr. Krishnan represents parts of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, areas of Queens that were hit hardest by Covid; they also rank 50th out of 51 Council districts in green space. “The Council expects Mayor Adams will follow through with concrete actions that will fulfill the promise he made about parks budget.”

The mayor’s deputy press secretary, Charles Lutvak, said in an email that the budget represented “a down payment on his ‘Percent for Parks’ pledge,” which will be achieved at some time during his mayoralty.

Libraries provide critical relief and services, but libraries in wealthier areas tend to be newer, with features like coffee shops and art.

Yet, even with more austere settings, people in poorer neighborhoods find comfort in the services provided by their library.

Libraries have always been havens, especially during heat waves, extending hours as official “cooling centers.” But when the risk of shared indoor spaces during the pandemic complicated libraries’ roles, the loss was hardest for those who rely most on public spaces.

When public libraries reopened fully last July after more than a year of tight restrictions, Kait Scalisi, 34, said she stood among the bookshelves of her local New York Public Library branch and cried.

“There’s something magical about walking into a place that offers such escape and support,” she said.

Her branch, in Washington Heights, is an austere brick building near a laundromat. It is not the city’s fanciest, or its sparest.

Neighborhood life happens there. Students from public colleges do research; retirees read the news; toddlers hunt for “Daniel Tiger” books. People rely on the library for basic needs. Eliza Sepeda does homework there; her apartment is noisy, packed with younger siblings. Many come for Wi-Fi; close to 20 percent of nearby households lack internet service.

SoHo’s Mulberry Street library building once housed a chocolate factory, as well as David Bowie’s apartment. It has a trendy coffee-shop feel: exposed brick walls, sculptures made of old books, green upholstered chairs. But it also serves its neighbors. Visitors from across the city mix with wealthy SoHo residents and their nannies.

“We were nannyville before the pandemic,” said Meghan Klaus, a children’s librarian.

In Washington Heights, the library’s work area is more utilitarian, with more computers after a 2014 renovation, but cooled on one particularly hot day only by electric fans. The temperature issue was rapidly resolved.

Anthony Suarez, an afternoon regular, likes the branch’s modesty. Public libraries changed his life: In 2008, when he was homeless, he visited the sprawling Bronx Library Center to get online and meet people. He found a job counselor.

“Some of the other libraries are kind of ‘bougie,’” Mr. Suarez, 60, said as he ordered equipment for his next new career, voice-over acting. “I like to go to libraries that are eclectic.”

Stuart Miller contributed reporting.