July 13, 2024

Mone Choy is 68 and lives in the New York City neighborhood of Inwood, on the northern tip of Manhattan, on a fixed disability income of $1,901 a month. Her rent is frozen at $1,928. She lives with chronic health problems that cause her to be unable to work. In addition to a few other side gigs, Choy covers the rest of her expenses by collecting bottles from her building’s recycling and taking them to a nearby redemption center.

One luxury her budget leaves no room for, even during a heat wave like the one that scorched the city last week — and is still raging around the world — is air conditioning. She has several AC units in her apartment (gifts from friends concerned about Choy’s health), but because she can’t afford to turn them on, they sit uninstalled.

“When I experience heat, my blood pressure shoots up and I get dizzy,” Choy said. To stay cool on hot days, Choy must find air-conditioned spaces elsewhere in the city. To do so, she’s relying on a resource the city government has touted as central to its response to extreme heat: the hundreds of “cooling centers” that open across the city when a heat advisory is issued. This is listed on a city website, with a map of accessible sites. Almost all of the cooling centers are in libraries and senior and community centers. The list also includes museums, Salvation Army locations and Petco stores.

Last Friday, Choy at 4:30 am. woke up, three hours before the heat would make her apartment unbearable, to pack everything she needed for her day’s journey into a shopping basket. She had packed her lunch, snacks, incontinence supplies and an extra set of clothes in case of an unexpected lack of access to the bathroom. “I don’t have extra money to … buy something I forgot,” she said.

Next, she checked the weather report and transit system service alerts and planned her route. “I take the information about the cooling center and put it together with my own personal knowledge of senior centers and the ones that I think are better funded and less likely to have broken toilets — this happens because a lot of senior centers are located in NYCHA [public housing] buildings.”

She made her choice of senior center based on its proximity to one of the city’s publicly listed privately owned public spaces, or POPS. These are spaces inside private buildings such as corporate offices, and they are usually made accessible to the public by the developer of the site as part of an agreement with the city, in exchange for zoning concessions. Choy says the cooling centers located at senior centers tend to close early for cleaning — “you get kicked out by 4:00, 4:30 – 5:00 if you’re lucky, the hottest part of the day.” The privately owned centers usually stay open until 9:00 or 10:00. After packing her bags on Friday, Choy left home at 6 a.m. to catch the bus to St. Peter’s Church in Midtown, where she planned to stay until it closed.

There were about five other people using the senior center as a break from the heat, but more seniors came in at lunchtime for the free meal it offered. Normally, Choy is a very sociable person and likes to chat with the other visitors, but on Friday she didn’t feel like chatting. She said she was “tired and resentful and just in a place of general low-grade fear. I go: ‘It shouldn’t be like this in June, so I fear what July and August will be like.’” At the cooling center, she spent her time reading the news on her phone and felt increasingly discouraged.

One place she likes to be on a hot day is a library—she likes to read, and it’s an environment where “you don’t have to put up with people who give off crazy energy that you don’t want to be around.” don’t want.” But in her neighborhood, Choy said, the library was closed to make way for a new apartment building. It has been replaced with a temporary library that does not have a public bathroom.

Heat waves have put a spotlight on the declining fortunes of New York City libraries, which have become a cultural battlefront in municipal politics under the administration of the city’s mayor, Eric Adams. In November, Adams announced budget cuts to the library system that ended Sunday services at city libraries. Its most recently announced proposal for next year’s budget, which is currently being negotiated in the City Council, will make further cuts to the library system and will likely have the effect of most libraries closing their doors on Saturdays as well. Adams’ budget proposes cutting an additional $125 million from the libraries’ capital budget — the source of funding for repairs to library HVAC systems.

The library cuts were the source of protests and opposition from the city council — and the intense backlash may be about to persuade the mayor to reverse course. Yesterday, the news paper Gothamist reported that an upcoming agreement between Adams and the City Council will restore funding to the library system, likely allowing Sunday service to resume at libraries across the city.

In a press conference before the heat wave, Adams said: “Global warming is real and we want to make sure that climate change and the heat that it brings with intensity, that people are aware of how to deal with it during a heat wave.” He presented the online map of cooling centers, noting that the sites include “many of our public libraries.”

In a landmark 2002 book, “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago,” about the 1995 heat wave that killed more than 700 people and spurred the formation of New York’s cooling centers, sociologist Eric Klinenberg determined that access to social infrastructure and public space helped determine which neighborhoods had the most deaths. He later served on a climate planning commission in New York City called PlanYC, where, he told Grist, he “advocates for the city to supplement its branch libraries … so they can be updated with heat and air conditioning systems that work reliably and convert are in relief centers during extreme weather.”

According to him, the city’s current approach is far from that vision. “Mayor Adams has consistently shown that the library is not a priority when it comes to city services. And the way I see it, it’s hypocritical for his administration to tell New Yorkers they can rely on the library during a dangerous heat wave, when they’ve essentially made it impossible for New Yorkers to rely on the library in their daily lives to make. Klinenberg said.

But the Adams administration responded touchable to criticism that it undermines its own heat relief efforts with the library budget cuts. Last week, city comptroller Brad Lander noted that, on the first day of the heat wave last week, all of the city’s libraries — 41 percent of the cooling centers — were closed because Juneteenth was a federal holiday. Zachary Iscol, the commissioner of emergency management, who oversees the cooling centers, taken to social media calling the controller’s comments “a reasonably material misstatement.”

Lander told Grist that figure comes directly from the city’s data on its cooling centers, which his office analyzed in a 2022. report. That report also found that half of the cooling centers were closed on Saturdays, and 83 percent were closed on Sundays.

“We are not currently investing in the civil infrastructure we need to keep people safe in the climate crisis nearly as much as we know we should. The libraries are the biggest example of that,” said Lander.

Last Friday afternoon, Choy decided to leave the senior center to buy a bag of ice. As soon as she stepped outside, she said, “I just remember sweating immediately. It was hard to breathe and I was so thankful that the little pharmacy was right around the corner and I didn’t have far to walk. I stayed in the store for 15 minutes before making my purchase. I felt my heart start beating really fast; I didn’t want it to move into a light-headed situation.”

She went back to the senior center and stayed there until 3:30 a.m., when the cleaning staff started spraying down the tables and she felt unwelcome. It was 94 degrees outside, but because she had already bought the bag of ice to cool her down for the trip back to Inwood, Choy decided to take the bus back to town instead of going to the nearby POPS step. When she got there, she sat in the air-conditioned Manhattan Mini Storage closet that she rents for about a dollar a day and stocks books and bottled water.

About 350 people die annually from heat-related causes in New York City. Only a handful of these cases are heat stress deaths, or those directly caused by heat. In most cases, the heat worsens people’s existing illnesses and comorbidities. Among the most important risk factors, according to city data, is access to air conditioning at home — and the funds to turn it on.

“Given that extreme heat is by far the deadliest impact of climate change already — and unfortunately it will be much more so in the years to come — we are nowhere near where we need to be to get ready for that,” Lander said.

In what should seem like a simple policy fix, the state offers low-income residents help with heating and cooling their homes through its Home Energy Assistance Program — but the help offered through this program. strongly skewed after heating. The limited funds available for cooling assistance can only be used to buy an air conditioner, not to pay for running it – and what’s more, these funds tends to run out early every summer. Choy carefully monitors her power consumption to ensure she doesn’t spend more than the low-income subsidy she receives from her power company, Con Edison. “If I transition, then I have to carry a balance, and then you have to deal with the rules of ConEd. Do they want to make a payment arrangement? How long do they let you go with delinquent debt,” she said.

Choy’s apartment takes a while to cool down, even after temperatures outside drop. So around 8:30 a.m., as soon as it cooled enough for Choy to feel comfortable outside, she left the storage center and sat down on a bench in her neighborhood. At 11:30 she went home and went to bed, preparing to repeat the day’s journey in the morning.

New York City is only at the beginning of what is expected to be an unusually hot summer. Temperatures usually climb in July and August, and can also be increased through a La Niña weather cycle. For Choy, that means more moving between cooling centers, and in her experience she sees a sign of what’s in store for many more people – especially the needy, elderly and disabled – as global temperatures rise.

“I don’t think a lot of people make this connection, but I’m deliberately claiming to be a climate refugee,” Choy said. “I feel like I’m a canary in the mine. The way I live every summer is how many people will have to live.”

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