Watching and waiting for Ebola

ebolaBy Len Maniace

Ebola is something happening over there – but in short order it could be happening here. This outbreak is far bigger than any before, and that makes one wonder, what’s different now? Is it happening in a part of Africa that’s more hospitable to its spread, or has the virus changed?

It’s not hard to imagine a traveler infected with Ebola arriving at a U.S. airport. The question then is how quickly can that person be identified and prevented from infecting others? The nation has an early warning system to detect infectious disease that’s become far more elaborate as a result of September 11,  probably the only thing good to come out of that event.

New York City possesses a particularly sophisticated early-warning system.  An important part of these detection system is the screening of symptoms of patients going to hospital emergency rooms. Some hospitals in New York are isolating patients with Ebola-like symptoms as a precaution. None are believed to be infected. Kennedy Airport, the city’s main arrival site for international travelers has isolation rooms for exactly this purpose.

Helping to make the city’s system even better was the 2003 SARS outbreak in which much was learned about how to handle international outbreaks with potential for rapid spread, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Travis Bassett told WNYC news.

No one has a crystal ball to see what happens next. By September we may have moved on to other concerns. On the other hand, Ebola could arrive, unidentified. And in that case we could have more immediate concerns than lawsuits against the President, young refugees crossing into the U.S., or even rockets being fired in Gaza and Israel.

Here are links to some quick and easily readable information on Ebola:

WNYC: Commissioner’s five Ebola takeaways.
Daily News: Health Commissioner says NYC prepared to rapidly identify Ebola.
Popular Mechanics: Why this is the worst Ebola outbreak yet.
NYC Department of Health: Ebola basics.

Here’s a link to a series of stories on Ebola from The New York Times.


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Did state really OK Flushing Meadows shopping mall in 1961?

Citi Field

Developers cite a 1961 law as permission for building a shopping mall next to Citi Field on official city parkland.

Full disclosure: The author of this article is president of the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, a civic and environmental nonprofit that has contributed funding for the lawsuit opposing the shopping mall at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

By Len Maniace

The David and Goliath dispute over whether developers can build a mammoth shopping mall on city parkland that’s served as the New York Mets’ parking field finally got its day in court yesterday.

Arrayed on one side were New York City and the developers, Related Companies and Mets owner Sterling Equities. Three attorneys, including former Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals Judith Kaye, presented that case. The other side ­– a group of nonprofit organizations, local businesses,  residents and state Senator Tony Avella – were represented by a single attorney.

No decision was reached yesterday, but the hearing provided a dramatic glimpse of a major New York City land-use battle at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park worth billions of dollars.

And based on the arguments heard by state Supreme Court Justice Manuel Mendez, the case could be decided on issues such as: whether shopping could be considered “recreation, entertainment, amusement,” and whether the state Legislature’s 1961 permission for a portion of the park to be used for a Mets’ stadium and parking, amounts to “direct and specific approval” for a 1.2 million square foot shopping mall.

The developers argued yes on both points, yesterday.

“People go to shopping centers and malls for entertainment and recreation and amusement,” contended attorney Jonathan Frank.

Attorneys for the city and the developers contended that their plan complied with seven uses cited in a 1961 state law allowing a portion of Flushing Meadows to be used to build a stadium and parking field while remaining official New York City parkland. The lawyers, however, focused not on the land remaining park space, but on a section of the law allowing for uses that:

FMCP courthouse

Mall opponents talk to press after court hearing. Fom left: Harbachan Singh, Queens Civic Congress; Irene Prestigiacomo, Willets Point United; state Senator Tony Avella; Joseph Ardizzone, Willets Point United; Michael Gruen, City Club of New York; John Low-Beer, plaintiffs’ attorney; Ben Haber, activist/plaintiff; Copyright 2014 LoScalzo Media Design LLC.”

…provide for the benefit of the people of the city, recreation, entertainment, amusement, education, enlightenment, cultural development or betterment, and improvement of trade and commerce, including professional and amateur scholastic sports and athletic events, theatrical, musical or other entertainment presentations, and meetings, assemblages and conventions and exhibitions for any purpose…

The developers contend the phrase “improvement of trade and commerce,” also allows for construction of the mall.

The developers’ lawyers buttressed their case – and indeed spent much of their time – pointing to their redevelopment plan for a nearby site that contained several hundred small auto-related businesses. A mall on the Citi Field parking field would generate enough money to finance that otherwise separate housing and a hotel project on a site that’s long been targeted by the city for redevelopment.

The mall-opponents’ attorney John Low-Beer, however, was quick to point out the redevelopment of the auto-related businesses on Willets Point was not the issue before the court.

“This maybe the greatest project since sliced bread, but the city still has to follow the law,” said Low-Beer, referring to the housing and hotel project on Willets Point.

The mall-plan critics’ lawsuit boils down to three main points: that the city failed to get state Legislature approval for what’s known as alienation of parkland; that the land must be rezoned before any non-park use can take place; and that any city lease of the land or rezoning requires a city planning review known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which did not take place.

The intent of 1961 state law, Low-Beer maintained, was not to permit a shopping mall on the site, but to serve as a vehicle allowing for construction of the stadium and parking field. The land, he noted, remained as parkland.

“Shopping may be great fun, but it is not a public purpose,” Low-Beer said.

Low-Beer noted that converting parkland to a non-park purpose requires a special act by the state legislature. He pointed to a 2001 case requiring the city to go through that procedure in order to build a water treatment plant in Van Cortland Park in the Bronx, even though the land would eventually be returned for park purposes.

The decision in that case by the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, read in part:

Our law is well settled: dedicated park areas in New York are impressed with a public trust for the benefit of the people of the state. Their use for other than park purposes, either for a period of years or permanently, requires the direct and specific approval of the State Legislature, plainly conferred.

That decision was written by Kaye, then the court’s Chief Judge, and Low-Beer argued that it clearly upheld his position in this case. Kaye argued that the decision was not in conflict with the developers’ position because of the 1961 law.

The mall supporters have two weeks to submit further legal arguments on the lawsuit, after which Justice Mendez will issue a ruling.

Posted in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, land use, New York City Parks | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Squirrels – the scourge of city gardeners

By Len Maniace

We’ve always known that city gardeners need to be tough. There’s concrete-tough soil, too much shade and, if you are working in a public area, unappreciative humans who walk through your planting area, and maybe even make off with your plants.

Squirrel closeup

Sciurus carolinensis, or the eastern gray squirrel, ready for his or her closeup.

But as New York City has become more orderly and open to gardening  and urban farming, another problem is becoming apparent: squirrels. They dig through newly planted areas, methodically nip off buds before they flower, and chew the bark off tree branches eventually girdling and killing them.

This may seem like peanuts to gardeners in the suburbs, where a major industrial-research complex has grown up around the war against deer. It’s not, however – though peanuts maybe part of the problem, as in soft-hearted city dwellers who regularly feed peanuts to squirrels.

Case in point: The gardens in the Queens apartment complex where I live have improved dramatically in recent year – and so too have our problems with the eastern gray squirrel, or Sciurus carolinensis. Perhaps they were always there but, we just didn’t notice. We’ve discussed several measures to control the squirrel population. We nixed the trap-and release squirrels (nearby squirrels would move in,) squirrel birth control (same deal, neighboring squirrels would fill that vacuum;) and poisoning them was ruled out as cruel and dangerous.

Several people suggested that feeding and providing water for squirrels would distract the critters from our plants, until we decided that such a measure would only increase their population making our garden more vulnerable if the free food and water ever stopped.

Squirrel barrier

A squirrel barrier made of pigeon spikes has reduced their numbers in what had been their favorite tree.

So instead of any concerted action by the garden, I’m running a test project that I hope might limit their access to a favorite breeding ground in our garden.  Last year, I counted eight squirrel nests (known as dreys) in a mature sugar maple tree in our largely enclosed courtyard where most of our serious gardening is done.

Not only was the tree serving as a squirrel condominium, judging by the number of small branches dropping beneath the tree, squirrels were methodically gnawing at branches, leaving some larger branches nearly leafless.

Over the winter I considered measures to keep the squirrels out of the tree, including wrapping sheet metal around the trunk to prevent them from getting any footing. But this seemed too ugly.

Instead I bought a box of pigeon spikes designed to keep the bird off buildings. (They consist of a series of three-inch long metal spikes secured plastic base.) I doubled them up to make the barrier more formidable and then wrapped it around the trunk about 10 feet off the ground. It worked initially. I saw squirrels scamper partially up the tree, reach the barrier and then come down. Two weeks later however, a squirrel appeared high in the tree and I noticed that the rodents had opened up a gap in the barrier. Equipped with plastic ties, crushed red pepper and a jar of Vaseline, I repaired the damage and then sought to make the barrier unpleasant, too.

The strengthened barrier seemed to work. A few weeks ago, I spotted a squirrel climbing up the trunk, run into the barrier and then reverse directions. But as I’m writing this, I just spotted a squirrel some 20 feet up in the tree. Can squirrels laugh?

My Garden

One of our gardens in the Greystones in Jackson Heights.

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A bounty of blooms from native plants at Alley’s salt marsh

This story covers our sixth visit to a salt marsh and surroundings at the northern end of Alley Pond Park, where we have been documenting the progression of seasons.


Spartina grasses are in summer form filling much of the Alley Pond Park salt marsh.

Our children are growing up. Well, not literally our children, but the plants that we first glimpsed as they emerged from the ground early this spring.

The growth of those botanical babies has been dramatic. Some wetlands plants, like the common reed or Phragmites australis, are taller than a tall man, though they were only a few inches in late March. The burdock, or Arctium – a plant with mammoth leaves and burrs that inspired the invention of Velcro – is at least six feet.

And many of these plants are in bloom, some spectacular, others subtler, requiring a close-up look to appreciate. Seen together, they are a great advertisement for the beauty of native plants. Of course not many of us have for a garden the varied habitat of an 18-acre wetland, plus surrounding uplands, as is the case in this stretch of Alley Pond Park.

Our guide last week was the always-informative Aline Euler, the curriculum and grant developer at the Alley Pond Environmental Center. Euler is a good advertisement for the nonprofit center, whose mission is to provide educational programs about the salt marsh and vicinity for children and adults.

Pink Asclepias

The native butterfly weed, Asclepias incarnata, in full bloom.


Cattails, Typha latifolia, are a distinctive sight near marshes.

Called Inkberry, Pokeberry, Poke Sallet or Poke Salad, this native’s scientific name is Phytolacca americana.

Inkberry, Pokeberry, Poke Sallet or Poke Salad – it’s officially Phytolacca americana.


One of the first plants we come across is Phytolacca americana, also known as Inkberry, Pokeberry and especially in the South, Poke Sallet or Poke Salad. The plants are three to four feet tall, have striking purplish-pink stems and white flowers clustered somewhat like a bunch of grapes. Though most of the plant is considered toxic, it’s been used as a folk remedy and as a food – but only after processing, which can involve its repeated boiling and the disposal of the remaining liquid each time. Sounds like a lot of work when escarole or collards would work just fine.

Heading out through the wetlands, Euler is thrilled to see the thriving Spartina alterniflora, a marsh grass important to many wetlands’ species. The grass seemed off to a slow start in May and early June, far behind the taller and faster growing Phragmites. Much of the Spartina we see – along with many of the native species in sight – were planted a few years ago in a project that doubled the wetlands’ size from nine to 18 acres. “I am shocked to see that it has come back so well. It’s beautiful,” Euler said.

jewel weed

Jewelweed. or Impatiens capensis, is a relative of impatiens.


Thistles, including Cirsium vulgare, are bee-friendly plants.

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace, Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, is a relative of the carrot.

Many of the native plants now in bloom are notable favorites of pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Among them are coneflowers, Echinacea purpurea; butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa and Asclepias incarnata; and a variety of thistles, including Cirsium vulgare. That insect-friendly reputation is confirmed as we watch insects repeatedly visit these plants. Incidentally the most prominent of the thistle varieties we see is  common thistle, though it’s not a boring plant. The flower that bursts from a spiky globe is a deep purplish pink and the plant’s stem and dark-green leaves equipped with daunting sharp protuberances.

Queen Anne’s Lace, Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, is in bloom. Queen Anne’s Lace is also known as wild carrot and when broken, its tap roots smells like the typical carrot. Though this European native is considered invasive in parts of the country, it’s not a problem in the park – especially when compared to the porcelain berry, Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, which is sprawling over more plants as the summer continues. Euler rarely fails to mention the porcelain berry’s damaging nature, nor a chance to yank the offending vine off shrubs and perennials.

Early July is still too soon to see some perennials in bloom. We find only a scattered handful of flowers on the jewelweed or Impatiens capensis, which seems to grow naturally in beds, much like its garden relative the ever-popular impatiens. The plant’s orange blossom is the only native orange flower in the park, Euler noted. We have another reason for a return visit in August: the rose mallow/rose swamp mallow, or Hibiscus moscheutos. Judging from the many buds on these plants, it should be worth the wait. Though its huge blossoms, up to 10 inches across, look tropical, the rose mallow is native to the region. It’s an increasingly popular plant; varieties of rose mallow are available in local nurseries.

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Support for climate-change action from an unlikely source

Climate change

Scientists say climate change is producing more severe storms and raising sea levels, putting more human settlements in danger. Photo credit: The Risky Business Project

Some prominent Republicans are raising an alarm bell over global warming. And for a change, they are saying the threat is serious and humans largely responsible for it.

On Saturday former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. compared the lack of action on climate change to the nation’s failure to address financial issues that led to the 2009 stock-market collapse. In his New York Times Op-Ed piece, Paulson provided a glimpse at a climate change report released this week by a bipartisan panel that includes Republican former Treasury Secretary and Secretary of State George Schultz.

Paulson, who served under President George W. Bush, called for a tax on carbon dioxide emissions – the leading greenhouse gas. He described the tax as “a fundamentally conservative” approach. Paulson’s description is probably an attempt to sweeten this bitter medicine for fellow Republicans, many of whom consider any tax increase anathema. In contrast, many environmentalists have backed a carbon tax for decades.

What makes a carbon tax so effective is that it forces consumers and businesses to automatically consider the damaging environmental effects of carbon dioxide in each economic transaction. A carbon tax bakes this into a process that people use every day: deciding if a price is reasonable in comparison to the expected benefits.

While taxing carbon-dioxide emissions may seem liberal to some, it works by tapping into a fundamental of the market system, the laws of supply and demand. In this case, it’s the idea that demand for a product drops as its price increases. Higher prices for climate-disrupting carbon fuels also make clean fuels such as wind and solar power more attractive economically.

For average folks, a carbon tax means they may decide to walk or bicycle instead of taking the car for some trips, or to buy a more fuel-efficient car, or to live in an area better served by transit – in order to reduce energy costs. Among the decisions businesses would be forced to consider: whether it makes sense economically to use a polluting fuel or switch to a cleaner energy, and even whether to locate operations in cities and compact suburbs to attract employees who would want to walk, bike or use transit to get to work – instead of setting up shop in auto-dependant hinterlands.

Taxing things that are damaging to us is not exactly a revolutionary concept; alcohol and tobacco carry higher taxes than other products. In fact, higher cigarette taxes are often cited as a major reason why smokers quit.

It’s not clear how much influence this new push on climate change will have on the Republican Party as a whole. The Republicans speaking out on the issue are moderates in an increasingly conservative party. Still it’s hypothetically possible that this effort might bear fruit, if enough moderate Republicans team up with Democrats.  As with the case of Nixon going to China, it may take Republican action on climate change to get us on the right track. Of course, it would have been better in both cases, had Republicans not previously whipped up public opposition to relations with China and action on climate-change.

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A June blizzard and other surprises at an NYC salt marsh

This is a report on our fifth visit to a salt marsh and surroundings at the northern end of Alley Pond Park where we are documenting the progress of spring. 


Cotton-like strands, which help disperse cottonwood seeds, piling up.


By Len Maniace

A blizzard of white puffs blew through the park Monday, piling up on paths and grass, and even coating ponds. They are cottony strands that hold seeds, which until recently were growing inside the seed pods of the eastern cottonwood tree.

In the last few days the pods have burst open, allowing the seeds of Populus deltoids to take flight in the breeze and disperse through the park’s salt marsh and surroundings.  A walk on the boardwalk to the salt marsh at the northern end of Alley Pond Park shows just how effective this means of dispersion is. A scattering of fast-growing, young cottonwoods poke through lower growth.

cottonwood trees

Young cottonwoods sprouted far from parent trees after seeds were dispersed by wind.

Though the cottonwood puffs are a highlight – young students on nature walks repeatedly ask about them – there are other changes in the three weeks-plus since our last visit. Trees have leafed out in abundance, so that some views once-filled with blue sky are blocked by a thick green canopy. Even a black walnut tree (Juglans nigra) has finally leafed out, though it looks stunted compared to nearby oaks, red maples, weeping willows, and cottonwood trees which responded to spring sooner. This native is prized for its nuts and especially by furniture makers for its hardwood.

As usual on these visits, we set out for the salt marsh. We’re accompanied by our usual guide, Aline Euler, curriculum and grant developer at the Alley Pond Environmental Center. Housed in the Alley Pond Park just off Northern Boulevard, the center provides educational programs about the salt marsh and vicinity for children and adults.

No sooner than we leave the center, we spot a wild rose (Rosa multiflora) packed with small white roses, and in front of that, the mammoth leaves of burdoch (Arctium.) We’ve seen both plants before, but the wild rose was just leafing out and burdoch was much smaller. The latter is reminiscent of rhubarb with it huge leaves and an edible stem. Burdoch is considered a medicinal and is sometimes part of macrobiotic diets. Its burrs were the inspiration for Velcro; its flowers, which begin in July, that resemble those of the thistle.

roses and burdoch

Rosa multiflora in bloom behind mammoth burdoch leaves.

Soon we came across a sun-bathed, foot-tall plant with many yellow blooms; Euler identifies it as a wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis.) The plant originated in the Mediterranean and then spread through much of the temperate zone. The greens of the mustard are edible when the plant is young and the seeds can be used to produce the condiment of the same name, though there are several species that are more commonly used to produce mustard.

We see plenty of birds, including the red-winged blackbirds which began arriving from the south shortly before we began our visits in late March. We spot a pair of snowy egrets flying low over Alley Creek, the waterway that flows north through the park before emptying in Little Neck Bay.

Next, it’s a pair of ducks, whose species stumps us. They are both brown and about the same size, so we rule out mallards and wood ducks. After checking Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies, I  speculate they are black ducks, which despite their name are brown. Unlike many other ducks, male and female black ducks are similar looking. Though black ducks have a blue patches on each wing, they’re not always visible as the birds swim and from a distance. Finally, I spot one of the few wild mammals we’ve seen on these visits, a rabbit – variety unidentified – that darts into the brush.

Dame's rocket

Dame’s rocket – a popular wildflower that’s included in some seed packets – in the wild.

We’ve discussed the problem of invasive, non-natives plants in our reports of earlier visits, but on this trip their potential for damage is clear. Porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), a fast-growing vine, is already climbing and completely covering some shrubs and small trees. By late summer the vines will be so thick they will block out much light, interfering with photosynthesis and severely weakening their hosts. Nearby common cord grass (Phragmites australis) is already seven-feet tall and is crowding out some the marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis), a plant that blooms with light pink flowers in August. “These plants have so much to overcome,” Euler said.

And yes, the marsh mallow is the basis of the candy marshmallow, though the plant’s sap is no longer used in making that concoction.


Horsetails look like young pine trees, but they are an ancient and very different plant.

In the woodlands, we spot some plants for the first time. The purple-flowering Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) originated in Eurasia, but the plant is now widespread in this country. So widespread that Dame’s rocket is considered an invasive weed in some places – though not in New York.

Dame’s rocket resembles wild phlox, but there are a few differences. Dame’s rocket is already in bloom, while wild phlox won’t begin blooming until later this summer. Also, the flower of a Dame’s rocket have four petals and their leaves alternate, while phlox has five petals and its leaves are opposite each other.

We come across something that is truly striking; an area that appears to be covered with six-inch-tall evergreens.  They are horsetails (Equisetum,) an ancient plant that dates back to the days of the dinosaurs, when their early relatives grew 90 feet tall. Some varieties are called scouring-rush and were widely used to clean pots and other cookware.

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Reported: Compost collection coming to some NYC homes

composting bins

New York City is distributing bins for its curbside composting pickup program.

New Yorkers, are you ready for your brown plastic bin for the city’s curbside-pickup composting program? Well, not all of you; the city is expanding its composting test project to 70,000 new homes in Queens and Brooklyn. It’s already  in Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace neighborhood and Staten Island’s Westerleigh.

Today’s New York Times has a story on the program, which the city hopes can divert much of the 3.2 million tons of food waste that costs $300 million to ship to landfills. That would be a tidy savings. And unlike most cmopost, which is used to boost the quality of soil, this compost would be used to produce methane gas that would be burned for energy.

- Len Maniace



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