A Sad South Bronx Saga: Eco-Friendly Mill Pulped

Tilting at Mills: Green Dreams, Dirty Dealings, and the Corporate Squeeze , by Lis Harris. Houghton Mifflin, 241 pages, $25.

Allen Hershkowitz’s idea had something for everyone. With the help of a coalition of community groups and business interests, the veteran environmentalist would build a high-tech, eco-friendly paper mill in the South Bronx that would provide hundreds of jobs in a devastated section of the city, ease the deadlock between city newspapers and their paper suppliers, create an exemplary site for recycling solid waste (and thus hand a feather to Governor George Pataki to dress up both his environmentalist and business-friendly hats), and make some executives at giant international paper-making conglomerates very happy and very wealthy.

But this is New York City-where, when it comes to development (industrial development in particular), you can have too much of a good thing. That’s the lesson of Tilting at Mills: Green Dreams, Dirty Dealings, and the Corporate Squeeze , a minute analysis of the rise and fall of Mr. Hershkowitz’s ill-fated mill.

Former New Yorker staff writer Lis Harris, author of Holy Days , a memorable first-person account of life among the Lubavitchers of Brooklyn, covers every imaginable segment of city politics. And almost everyone-from economic-development czar Charles Gargano (here painted as a terminal naysayer and grouch) down to a ragtag group of environmental activists in the Bronx-seems bent on coming between Mr. Hershkowitz and his objective. Ms. Harris follows his eight-year ordeal managing “the beast,” as people who were working on the paper-mill project called it.

A thirtysomething senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Mr. Hershkowitz was more used to doing scientific research, and helping the NRDC in its endless government lobbying and litigation against private companies that litter and pollute, than starting businesses. But after the infamous 1987 garbage barge was sent back to New York after circling the continent looking for a dump, he got interested in how businesses could be made to profit from environmentally responsible practices. Paper waste accounts for nearly half the contents of the landfills overflowing across United States. There’s been little interest, in this country, in upgrading equipment to produce fine-quality paper from recyclables, but the technology exists, notably in Europe.

“[Allen Hershkowitz] had seen with his own eyes,” Ms. Harris writes, “efficient urban recycling programs that were meeting the ever-growing demand for recycled pulp, and new technologies were also supposedly coming along that used low-grade wastepaper to produce a higher grade of finished product. This was an exciting discovery for him, because the pulp and paper industry, which had relied on wood since the 1850’s, was the third biggest industrial greenhouse gas emitter (after the chemical and steel industries) in the world and probably contributed more to global and local environmental problems than any other industry.”

An idealist to the marrow, Mr. Hershkowitz early on enlisted neighborhood residents as co-conspirators. But his choice was poor: He teamed up with Banana Kelly, a crusading nonprofit real-estate development firm that had worked to rehabilitate crumbling neighborhoods-and had, in the process, earned the enmity of then–Borough President Fernando Ferrer. Problems at Banana Kelly, ranging from accounting irregularities to charges of misappropriation of funds, began to emerge while the organization was involved in the paper-mill project. (Last year, after a two-year investigation, Banana Kelly’s chair and chief executive, Yolanda Rivera, and the firm’s board of directors were forced to resign. Mr. Ferrer has taken it over and pledged to serve as the chair of the agency at least through April.)

Other groups signed on to Mr. Hershkowitz’s project, wanted or not: The South Bronx Clean Air Coalition would consistently send outspoken members to public meetings about the new mill. They made outlandish claims that the mill-designed to beat rather than meet state and federal clean-air and waste-disposal guidelines-was a polluter being foisted on the community. Before long, their interest betrayed something other than civic virtue.

“I would like to help you with your problems with the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition,” a representative told Mr. Hershkowitz after one of many public meetings. But the offer of help came with a $70,000 price tag. This betrayal-from exactly the quarter the rumpled environmentalist felt most comfortable with-is perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in Tilting at Mills . As the story progresses and the project runs into one roadblock after another, the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition emerges as one of the chief enemies of the proposed paper mill. (Banana Kelly, meanwhile, sinks into inefficiency and apparent corruption.)

Ms. Harris deftly maneuvers the reader through the complexities of city and state politics-the kind of nitty-gritty not often found in the quick-bite narratives of the daily papers, where this tale originally unfolded without attracting much notice. Governor Pataki consistently declared his support for the project, even as members of his staff sought to undermine it. At a meeting where Mr. Hershkowitz was presenting his plans and pleading for state aid, Mr. Gargano is said to have turned to a partner and asserted, loud enough for all to hear: “This is bullshit!” But days earlier, an aide to Mr. Pataki had told Mr. Hershkowitz that, after a meeting with Mr. Gargano in Albany, he should go by a separate elevator bank to see Diana Taylor (better known now as the Mayoral paramour and a major player in the Pataki administration), whom Ms. Harris calls Mr. Pataki’s “trusted amanuensis.” In her office, even after meeting with rejection from Mr. Gargano, Mr. Hershkowitz found someone interested in moving the project along.

Tilting at Mills is told almost entirely from Mr. Hershkowitz’s perspective, which is troubling. Lingering questions about Ms. Rivera, the former chair of Banana Kelly, remain unanswered as Ms. Harris’ requests for follow-up interviews go unanswered; Mr. Gargano is not allowed to make his case to the reader; and the ideas advanced by the Regional Plan Association and other groups (they wanted to return Mr. Hershkowitz’s site, a former railyard on the Harlem River, to its original use and thereby bring rail freight traffic back into the city) are quickly disposed of without apparent input from the proponents.

Mr. Hershkowitz is a compelling character with a noble agenda. But Ms. Harris seems to want to humanize him-and so, for example, has him watching his children play in the snow on New Year’s Day while he fields phone calls for the mill project. These passages are awkward and unnecessary.

But overall, Ms. Harris avoids the obvious pitfalls. Here we have a hugely complex project that ultimately dies of a million bureaucratic bee stings. Will reading of the project’s slow demise be as torturous as working on it for the better part of a decade? No worries: The narrative moves along quickly to its conclusion. Though the reader is aware from the beginning that the mill will never be built, the final twist is a surprise: The scheme was finally doomed only when the NRDC was named in a lawsuit by a paper company that had wanted in on the deal earlier. The NRDC pulled Mr. Hershkowitz out of the project, and that was the beginning of the end.

Ms. Harris was helped considerably by Mr. Hershkowitz’s copious journal notes, which also include inspirational quotes from various historical muckety-mucks. At the end, she provides one of her own, from Teddy Roosevelt-a quote a friend showed Mr. Hershkowitz to buck him up: “Credit belongs to the man who … at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

It’s difficult for the reader to walk away feeling encouraged by that sentiment. Recent reports show that the virgin-paper pulp industry is projected to grow more than 77 percent by the year 2020, with the concomitant effects of deforestation and water pollution that “green” paper mills like Mr. Hershkowitz’s would have helped to mitigate. Since Mr. Hershkowitz has thrown in the towel, no champion has appeared to take up the cause again.

Tom McGeveran is a reporter for The New York Observer . A Sad South Bronx Saga: Eco-Friendly Mill Pulped