words by Yessenia Funes
Photographs by Donavon Smallwood
After Superstorm Sandy, one Brooklyn neighborhood realized its concentration of auto shops posed environmental harm. The Frontline reports on community-led efforts to clean up businesses, rather than shut them down.
It’s a perfectly pleasant autumn day as I head to New Honeywell Auto, a body shop in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. It sits about a mile west of Prospect Park (sometimes known as Brooklyn’s Central Park) where the trees are turning, playing peek-a-boo with the sun and the fallen leaves. As I enter Sunset Park, however, I see fewer trees and more industry.
The Brooklyn neighborhood is a manufacturing district home to many Asian and Latine immigrants. Local climate organizers want Sunset Park to become the heart of New York City’s renewables market. Looks like they’re making it happen: this year, the city announced it will be home to one of America’s largest offshore wind ports.
I’m not in the neighborhood to learn about clean energy, however. I’m here to talk about cars. When I arrive at the body shop, Puerto Rican rapper Tego Calderon is playing on a stereo. It’s almost lunchtime. I smell freshly baked pizza nearby. I smell something else, too—is that spray paint? Whatever it is, I know it can’t be healthy. Auto shops handle harmful chemicals like methylene chloride and toluene (both of which are used to strip paint off cars), as well as oils and coolants. These toxins can become especially dangerous during a hurricane if the water or wind reaches and, then, releases them. At that point, they become fugitive chemicals.
That’s why I’m in Sunset Park. Auto shops of all kinds line the waterfront neighborhood. The problem is, so do daycares and apartment buildings. Children live and play here. Ten years ago, Superstorm Sandy signaled the climate crisis’s arrival to community members. In the years since, organizers have responded to local concerns by identifying what would make Sunset Park and its small businesses vulnerable when another storm strikes. An ongoing partnership with auto shop owners was formed. Now, organizers have developed resources and funding to prepare shops for rising floods or high-speed winds.
Climate adaptation is more than sea walls and wind farms. For some neighborhoods, climate adaptation can look like storing chemicals on higher ground. It can be as mundane as regularly checking auto equipment for leaks. That’s the thing about grassroots climate action—it isn’t always flashy, but it is always important. It saves lives.
For Sunset Park, the goal is simple: keep the community safe while also empowering local businesses.
If a healthy green future awaits us, we can’t ignore the part of society that builds and maintains cars. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency has listed the automotive sector among its six national focus areas for funding through October 2023. The sector is transforming as cars, buses, and trucks go electric, but changes must go beyond the vehicles themselves. The industry’s entire infrastructure requires a clean-up—from the mining of materials to build cars to the disposal of materials to junk them—without criminalizing imperfect mom-and-pop shops that may struggle to afford such massive changes.
In Sunset Park, there’s a new model for climate resiliency. Auto shops won’t become pollution-free and flood-proof overnight, but they’re headed in the right direction. At the very least, shop owners are now informed. And, as the saying goes, you can’t do better without first knowing better.
On Oct. 29, 2012, New York City experienced a ferocity it hadn’t seen before. Superstorm Sandy crashed into the islands of Manhattan and Long Island, bringing immense flooding with it. In New York, the storm killed 48 people. About 8.5 million were left without electricity. Over half a million homes were damaged or destroyed—mostly from the storm surge, a phenomenon where seas rise due to storms like Sandy and cause flooding.
The storm surge is what made Sandy so dangerous. Floodwaters infiltrate homes. They also infiltrate businesses. Malik Ashraf opened New Honeywell Auto seven years after Sandy in 2019. By then, his memories of cars and buildings underwater had grown distant. He wasn’t thinking about climate risks when he launched his business—not until two women with the local climate justice organization UPROSE showed up at his new shop with questions.
“If you don’t know, then, you don’t know.”
They wanted to hear how he stored his chemicals and how he was preparing for future disasters like Sandy. Though Ashraf said he kept his store in compliance with city and state laws, he wasn’t necessarily taking steps to prevent fugitive chemicals from entering the community. “It never crossed my mind,” Ashraf said. “Everything was just all over the place. Now, I’m more aware before I leave.”
To be fair, everything is still all over the place when I arrive at New Honeywell Auto. I have to watch where I walk to make sure I don’t trip. Tools are scattered across the floor, and the blue walls are lined with metal drawers that look impossible to close. They’re messy and full of disorganized bits and pieces. The shop is, by no means, a poster child for neatness and organization.
Most of that, however, is harmless to the community. What makes auto shops a public health concern are their chemicals. In 2020, the automotive sector was responsible for 16 million pounds of toxic waste spilled, leaked, or dumped into the environment. Hurricanes can transport these chemicals directly into people’s homes if they leach into moving floodwaters.
“This sets up a possibility that the very people in the communities who have already suffered a tragedy from the flooding itself now become vulnerable to a second insult and threat to their health from the chemicals,” said Christine Chaisson, a director with The LifeLine Group, an international affiliation of scientists that worked with UPROSE, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA), and independent research group RAND Corporation on the partnership.
Ashraf doesn’t want to contribute to that scenario, so he now tries to keep the car paint off the ground. The higher off the ground, the better. Other chemicals go in yellow fireproof and waterproof cabinets. He’s careful about where he positions the funnel on a used oil tank for recycling, keeping it on top instead of the side where floodwaters can more easily leach in.
These changes came after months of meetings with UPROSE—meetings that the pandemic interrupted and eventually dragged on for years with the arrival of COVID-19 in 2020. Ashraf is one of the few auto shop owners who stayed engaged throughout the process. Fewer than seven out of the 90 groups initially reached out to stayed until the end. While Ashraf was able to share intimate knowledge about auto shop practices, the advocates and scientists involved were able to develop simple, affordable, and practical tips to help reduce the risk of future fugitive chemicals.
“There wasn’t a lot of existing information to help those shop owners with becoming more sustainable and more intentional with how they were protecting their communities against the chemicals,” said Victoria Sanders, a research analyst with NYC-EJA, when I asked her why auto shops? “There was a gap in available information, so we thought that we could build that and really have a huge value added to the community.”
Many of the meetings to gather and share information happened a few blocks away from New Honeywell Auto at the offices of UPROSE and NYC-EJA. Theirs is a space full of activist art and fresh vegetables. When I went to visit a week after meeting Ashraf, the smell of fresh mint and basil greeted me. The fresh harvest will be shared with the community in the coming weeks. That’s how these groups get down; they give back.
“People come to us and say what they want,” said UPROSE Executive Director Elizabeth Yeampierre, proud of her climate-conscious Sunset Park community. We’re sitting in a conference room where the Jemez Principles are elegantly written on the wall. The principles were developed in 1996 to recognize the important role democracy plays in situations of environmental injustice and pollution. They’re built on an understanding that the community always knows best and that the people must be the ones to decide their own path forward.
Indeed, that’s at the heart of the partnership climate organizers have built with auto shop workers. While some environmentalists may prefer to see dirty auto shops shut down and cars off the road entirely, they do so without thinking about the people behind those businesses. Sure, there are the business owners like Ashraf, but there are also the employees who make a living by scraping paint off cars or popping out a dent in a bumper.
Uri Salazar has been working at New Honeywell Auto for a year. He likes his job and appreciates the efforts the shop is taking to keep Sunset Park safe. He lives here, too. Then, there’s Arshad Ghumman, a worker who didn’t care much for words but whose focus communicated his commitment to work.
I caught Muhammad Saqib after he finished his lunch. He migrated to New York from Pakistan in 2014 but has been working at the shop for four years. “This is like art. I love this job,” he said as an electric sander whirled loudly in the background. “I like to make the old cars new.” After we spoke of the floods in Pakistan, he expressed the need for leaders to take preventative steps ahead of disaster instead of waiting for bad things to happen.
And he’s right. That’s what makes the work happening in Sunset Park so impactful. It’s about prevention. It’s about preparation. It’s about climate adaptation. It’s about community.
When I ask Ashraf why he decided to listen and act all those years ago, he responds: “I honestly don’t know why.” I push, asking if he felt a moral obligation to protect his community. “You could put it that way,” he said. “If you don’t know, then, you don’t know.” After he knew, though, the answer was simple: “I was like, OK, why not?”
Why not? is the question more of us need to ask in the face of the climate crisis. Why not compost and recycle? Why not buy used? Why not better store the chemicals in your own home? Why not develop an evacuation plan ahead of a disaster? Why not expect more from our world leaders? Why not take to the streets and demand more?