Tag Archives: Reporting

A picture is worth a thousand pixels

The new photojournalism ♦

life1In 1972, after a run of 36 years and more than 1,800 issues, Life magazine published its final weekly copy. The issue was a year-in-review, featuring photo essays on the last lunar landing of the Apollo mission and the approaching end of the Vietnam War. Within the glossy pages, which now appear slightly garish and grainy, were portraits of Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli, Idi Amin and Richard Nixon. “In part because of Life, we live in an age of pictures,” wrote Time Inc.’s then-editor-in-chief Hedley Donovan. “Magazines all over the world are different because of Life; so is the pictorial make-up of newspapers, the look of advertising, even some of the technique of T.V.”

In the following 30-plus years, Life was revived in various forms — a monthly, a weekly supplement to newspapers — but it never achieved the kind of status it had in its heyday. (Today, Life exists as a website in partnership with Getty Images and back issues are available through a partnership with Google life2Books.) Yet the magazine remains iconic in the history of photojournalism as a chronicler of war, entertainment and daily life. In the world of print, there is nothing like it today. Nevertheless, photojournalism itself, unlike Life or its less-renowned competitor Look, has not been killed off by TV.

To a certain extent, photojournalism still has a strong presence in print. While National Geographic is possibly the only mass-circulation magazine that still focuses on images, text-centric magazines likeVanity Fair continue to publish occasional photo essays while others, like The New Yorker, have added photography to their pages. MaryAnne Golon, who was Time’s director of photography, recalled, “Time became more photographic with the passing of Life.” And travel and in-flight magazines rely heavily on photographers, although they shy away from the news-breaking or political potential of photojournalism.

Beyond traditional print, however, photojournalism is finding a life3new home — or multiple homes — online. Digital cameras have improved print quality and cell phone cameras have enabled anyone to be a photographer. It’s anybody’s guess, however, whether the fragmented world of online photojournalism can propel photographs from images to icons, as Life did for such classic photos as Alfred Eisenstaedt’s 1945 “Kissing the War Goodbye,” Larry Burrows’ 1965 cover photo of two soldiers in a helicopter, or Philippe Halsman’s images of celebrities captured mid-jump in the 1950s.

Bob Sacha, a photographer who has shot for Life and National Geographic, said that it was once his life’s ambition to work for such mainstream magazines. A few years ago, though, he was at an exhibition about the 1960s, where copies of Life were stacked in a corner. “As I flipped through them, they were pretty similar to what People is today,” he said. “They’ve been mythologized and their role has grown way out of the reality. Of course there was good work, but it wasn’t always great.”

life4Sacha was an early proponent of the Internet as a platform for photojournalism and was, until recently, on the board of the multimedia production company MediaStorm. He says the doom-and-gloom predictions of media pundits, educators and industry insiders obscure the fact that the still image still holds a lot of power. The challenge, everyone seems to agree, is figuring out how to harness that power online to support photographers and attract more viewers. While the form has changed in essence, photojournalists still strive to fulfill Henry Luce’s mandate for Life: “To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud.”

Stabs at building a new home for photojournalism are diverse. Newspapers are devoting more space than before to photography. Breakout blogs on major news sites, like The New York Times’ Lens blog andThe Boston Globe’s Big Picture, curate “visual journalism.” There are independent blogs, likeAPhotoADay, and cooperatives and media agencies, like MediaStorm and Talking Eyes MediaRedux andPolaris. There are self-styled online magazines, likeBurn, which is curated by Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey. Besides traditional wire services, there are projects like Demotix, a platform for citizen journalists. And there are individual photographers’ portfolio sites.

This multiplicity of forms means there are more opportunities for young photographers and for different types of projects. Alex Webb, a Magnum photographer based in New York, pointed out that “the individual photographer’s vision does not necessarily coincide with the agenda of magazines, whether in the ’50s and ’60s or later. If one looks back at issues of Life and Look, one is struck by how many uninteresting photographs were published.” Long-form intimate photo essays, such as “the [photographer] W. Eugene Smith stories — the country doctor, the Spanish village — were few and far between,” he said. Online, there is much more space for different types of work.

Along with democratization comes an increased responsibility, however. One challenge these platforms present is that of verification — of the subjects and stories captured in a photograph. The strength of sites like Burn and MediaStorm is their curation of emerging talent. In the case of Demotix, which gives citizen journalists a distribution platform, an editorial process is absolutely necessary. “In every meeting I have, whether it’s with Time or The Wall Street Journal, I always get grilled about verification process,” said Demotix’s Matt Pascarella.

life5Online platforms also face the challenge of funding. In the good old days, photographers were either staffers or were sent out on commission by publications. In a market that relies increasingly on freelance work, “a successful photographer practically needs to be an M.B.A.,” said Golon. Pascarella added that he didn’t know “what the future of being a full-time journalist” might be. “I think you’ll see journalists as individual brands who do their own P.R., cultivate their own audiences via social networking,” he said. Freelancers’ payment agreements range widely. Citizen stringers at Demotix receive 50 percent of the fee paid by papers.  According to the service, earnings vary greatly and depend on the publication, anywhere from $20 to $500.

Few publications use the traditional models of commissioning, staffing and funding that were in place when Life and Look defined the market. Only National Geographic still has the ability to routinely send top-billed photographers to far-flung locales to produce pages-long visual essays. While Photography Editor life6David Griffin would not reveal freelance rates, National Geographic Traveler’s website gives an estimate of $425 per day on assignment. Last November, Newsweek let go of four of its photo department staffers, including the director and deputy director. And with web advertising an unproven revenue source, funding remains a major problem for photojournalism online.

Photographers and online editors have turned to new sources. Said Sacha: “Publications aren’t paying, it’s foundations and corporations.” When Burn ran veteran photographer James Nachtwey’s “Struggle to Live” series on tuberculosis patients, it was funded by a medical-technology company, BD.  Sacha said that while a daily publication might pay $200 a day, a strong foundation or firm might pay $800 to $2,000 per day — but these figures apply only to very established funders and photographers.

One thing seems clear: Projects will be funded increasingly by a life7variety of sources. “What they’re doing is bundling things,” Golon said. “A photographer might get some funding from a publication and some from a website and some from a nonpolitical N.G.O. We’re moving from one print source to a network of revenue sources.”

In niche markets, this scenario is not unfamiliar.Aperture, the prestigious photography magazine, was founded as a nonprofit and has remained so for 58 years. Editor-in-chief Melissa Harris believes that for online platforms, trying to establish new for-profit models is naïve. And while she’s positive about the proliferation of photography online, she says she wishes magazines like Life still existed. “I prefer my information to be credible, contextualized and not reductive,” she said. “Many of the photojournalists in magazines are brilliant storytellers, they are not hit-and-run journalists. I have nothing against online, but I don’t think it should replace print.” Aperture covers production costs, but any fees to photographers beyond these vary too much life8to provide an average. On the whole, freelance photographers are becoming adept at juggling: producing video and text, applying for funding, working on books and so on.

According to Webb, even being a Magnum photographer is not enough. “Most of the photographers I know, whether well-known or unknown, are scrambling, trying to deal with the current ever-shifting photographic landscape. Finding funds to produce serious work is getting more and more difficult all the time.”

Finally, there’s the question of how many people view photographic work online. Harris pointed out that while Aperture has considered expanding its Internet presence, 95 percent of readers said they want the magazine to remain in print, according to a recent online survey. “I know that people collect Aperture — they don’t throw it out,” Harris said. “None of us have really figured out how to be online in a riveting way.”

“What I’m missing is mass circulation,” Golon said. “[National Geographic] is the last bastion of long-form visual journalism — a dying breed in print.” On the other hand, she said, “If you look online, you see long stories that used to be only the purview of photo editors.” In print, the move seems to be toward books or book-like periodicals that are published a few times a year. Pascarella is also the managing editor of Tar, a biannual publication that is more of an art book than a magazine. “Printed objects need to be collectibles of high production value,” he said. “I think that’s the future of print.”

But these are niche publications, expensive to produce and distribute, and available in limited markets and numbers. “Life and Look brought the world into people’s homes, a function that has increasingly been taken over by television,” Webb said. “In this sense, a still photographer seemed to play a major and essential role in the media of those days. Since then, the still photograph seems to have become more peripheral to the public at large.”

In the 1940s, Life routinely urged its readers to invest in war bonds. It also published Henry Luce’s “The American Century,” an essay on the U.S.A.’s need to enter World War II. It’s hard to imagine any online platform — let alone one based on photojournalism — that would presume to have such political clout today. Thirty years from now, any definition of our current time derived from a visual record will be far more fragmented than the way we view our monolithic past today.

Still, things could change quickly. It is “a tremendous transitional period,” said Golon. “It’s like, you break down the old house and everyone’s wondering, ‘Where are we going to live?’ But whoever figures out how to build the new house is going to make a billion.”

Originally published in The New York Review of Magazines, May 2010.

Published: May 12, 2010

Crumble in the Bronx

Threats to New York City’s Affordable Housing ♦

Note: This reported, unpublished story was written as part of a master’s program at the Columbia School of Journalism.

With her peppery grey hair cut efficiently short, but dyed a youthful honey blonde, Martha Castro is a modern matriarch. At sixty-six, this mother of five children and grandmother of ten balances a mix of contradictions. She is a former mental health worker who only recently gave up her post-retirement bartending job; a cruise enthusiast with a fear of water; and, somewhat reluctantly, the president of her building’s tenant association.


Soundview in the Bronx

Her apartment, a two-bedroom ground floor in the Soundview area of the Bronx, reflects the pride Castro takes in her family. Two-decades’ worth of accumulated objects crowd the living-dining room and a small hallway. Goblets, souvenir shot glasses and tumblers glint from every exposed surface. Framed family photos and certificates that Castro received for community service tile the walls.

A closer look, however, reveals that these walls hold more than accolades and memorabilia. Great patches of discolored paint point to massive seepage and structural problems. This Christmas, Castro hung her decorations strategically over waterlogged patches. For the past several years, she and her fellow tenants at 1585 East 172nd Street have been waging guerilla warfare against mold, vermin and cracks – trying to keep their homes from falling apart.

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Published: April 8, 2010

Uptown Takedown

Wrestling takes hold in Harlem ♦


Kappa IV students warm up before their first match. (Photo by Nate Rawlings)

In Harlem, basketball and football are the most popular sports. But at Kappa IV, a public middle school at St. Nicholas and 135th Street, wrestling is gaining traction. The afterschool classes started a month ago, when an organization called Beat the Streets teamed up with Jets of Harlem, the youth football league. Sonal Shah reports from Kappa IV. (Click play below to hear more.)




Originally published in The Uptowner, November 24, 2009.

Published: November 24, 2009

The Lady and the Landmark

Ethel Bates wants a cooking school in the historic Corn Exchange. The city just tore part of it down ♦


An architect’s 1833 drawing of the Corn Exchange. (Photo courtesy HarlemBespoke.com)

Until she starts talking, Ethel Bates looks like anyone’s grandmother with her maroon windbreaker, a dun scarf wrapped turbanlike around her head. Short, forceful and sharp as a whip, this energetic 77-year-old community activist has spent much of the last decade in court – mostly pitted against various city departments. “She’s a little dynamo,” says Garry Johnson, Community Board 11’s treasurer and Economic Development Committee chair.

Johnson’s architecture consultancy on 125th Street looks right over the Corn Exchange, a landmark building that is the locus of Ethel Bates’ legal struggles. From the street, the 126-year-old red brick building decorated with ornate white masonry looks to be in good shape, though cosseted with scaffolding. From Johnson’s window, though, the building’s dilapidated innards present quite a contrast to the ordered lines of the adjacent Metro North station.


The building after demolition began in September. (Photo by Tim Kiladze)

The city is in the midst of carrying out an “emergency demolition” of the five-story building’s top three floors. Since 2003, Bates has officially been in charge of renovating this building, one of 125th Street’s scattered 19th-century landmarks. Bates, who harbors an above-average suspicion of government, claims that the disrepair is due not so much to neglect on her part as to obfuscation by the city and to the Department of Buildings’s “secret agenda.”

The Corn Exchange was built, in the Queen Anne and Romanesque-style, as the Mount Morris Bank by architects Lamb & Lamb. With well-appointed apartments on its upper levels (it earlier had seven stories, with gables at the top), the building later became the Corn Exchange, a bank that eventually merged with JP Morgan. Used briefly as a church, the building was abandoned in the 1970s and lay empty for almost 30 years. A fire destroyed the decaying upper levels before Bates decided to adopt the Corn Exchange as the site for a pioneer culinary school in upper Manhattan.

The Economic Development Corp. had doubts when Bates first approached the city with her proposal in 1999. “I wasn’t anybody as far as they were concerned,” Bates said. Bates said she got a boost from developer Lew Rudin, who put in a cameo appearance for her at an EDC meeting – “you would have thought a saint had walked in, or God himself.” Bates eventually landed an appointment with then-deputy mayor Rudy Washington.

Washington had “heard on the one hand that here was this elderly woman that had a good heart but who didn’t know squat and it would be a disaster to let her have this building,” Bates recalled. “On the other hand she was a person who had these certain merits.” Impressed by Bates’s personality and business acumen (she had studied business at New York University and City College), Washington told Bates that he was on her side.

So she was surprised to find that the building had suddenly been auctioned off to Elie Hirschfeld (son of Abraham), who she said just wanted to sell it back to her for three times the cost. Bates sued the city. It took a year for the decision, but she won her case as well as control over the Corn Exchange. In 2003, Bates held the property deed with a promise to develop the building in three years.

It wasn’t the first time Bates had sued New York. In the 1980s, she was involved in the restoration of Marcus Garvey Park. She sued the parks department after she was handcuffed by some of their officers.


Ethel Bates speaking at a Town Hall meeting (Photo by Edmund J. Eng)

Bates’ dream of opening a culinary school stemmed from a long history with foreign travel, food and art. Bates was born in Birmingham, Ala., but moved to New York with her father, a railway employee, her mother and her six siblings when she was a child. After college, Bates traveled to Europe and lived in France, England and Italy for several years. She worked as a contract negotiator for performers and traveled to Israel, Palestine and North Africa. When she returned to New York, she did everything from being an accountant to running a bakery.

Bates wanted to open a culinary institute because she felt that “in this community you have so many people who are able to do some cooking but they can’t compete. They can’t afford the Culinary Institute of America, they can’t afford the French Culinary… you can’t go and compete with somebody who’s got a reputation behind them and all you’ve done is work in a greasy spoon place.”

She was set on this building, “a place that gives you a certain amount of cachet… That’s my idea: save the building and do a culinary institute.” Bates had already signed on Ark Restaurants and several other potential tenants for the New Corn Exchange project.

Finding a developer proved more difficult. While candidates came to her in droves, Bates felt that each was after her valuable property and had no interest in creating a community culinary institute. Her unwillingness to cede equity control kept stalling the project.

Johnson felt Bates bears some responsibility. “I believe she’s had opportunities,” he said. “The real estate boom has come and gone now.” He said he knew of a big-name developer who had offered Bates a 49 percent stake in the building and that she had refused. He also said that the Community Board approached Bates with a proposal financed by its members. If Bates could not find a developer, he said, she should have tried to open the school elsewhere first, so that it could build a track record.

Bates’ account of her dealings with developers over the years is a laundry list of shady proposals and corrupt maneuvers. About once a year, a newspaper would report that restoration was about to begin. But Bates repeatedly wound up in court, fighting with would-be developers who she claimed wanted to wrest control of the building from her. The city held off on taking any action until 2007, when it moved to rescind Bates’ ownership.

Bates said she has spent $300,000 of her own money fighting cases and paying various fines the city imposed. She also arranged for the protective scaffolding that surrounds the Corn Exchange. Eventually, Bates filed for bankruptcy in order to restrategize. “We fought it nip-and-tuck,” she said.

Bates lost her plea for bankruptcy and the matter reverted to Supreme Court, where a judge ruled in January that the city could take over the building in a non-final disposition. The city claimed that the building was a danger to pedestrians and the 125th Street station and moved to tear down its top floors. Demolition began in early September, but Bates still hasn’t given up. She says her legal status is “sensitive,” but that she hasn’t given up on regaining control.

There is a discrepancy between the Court’s ruling that the deed revert to the city and an April 20 letter asking Bates’ group to take immediate action on repair and demolition. The letter stated that if Bates failed to take action, the city would move to demolish and “recover its expenses from you.” This summer, Assemblyman Adam C. Powell wrote to the Economic Development Corporation strongly backing Bates. The advocacy group Historic Districts Council wrote to Deputy Mayor Edward Skylar in August, stating that council members had visited the building and found the proposed emergency demolition unfounded. The members asked the mayor to intercede until “a more experienced developer can be found.”


The Corn Exchange in its heyday, circa the 1920s or 1930s. Until recently, the building had five of its original seven stories. (Photo courtesy HarlemBespoke.com)

The demolition of the Corn Exchange’s top stories may have been drastic. Calling for an emergency demolition allowed the Building Department to bypass authorization from the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the name of public safety. In an April field report, investigators cited loose bricks in various places, but maintained that the protective scaffolding around the building was sound. Johnson, for one, believes that demolishing three floors was overkill and that the fifth floor is the only one that really had to go. “As an architect, I believe those are load-bearing walls,” he said.

Bates suspects that the city will wait, then propose another demolition and eventually hand the building over to a prominent developer. Developer Vornado owns the lot across the street and the Corn Exchange is prime property, with empty lots and the train station just next door.

If the building is restored by the city or someone else rather than commercially developed, it may never be profitable. Real estate agent Eugene Giscombe, whose office overlooks the Corn Exchange, thinks the building is “economically obsolete.” He estimated that even if the Corn Exchange were raised to 10 stories, the cost of building (about $13.5 million) would be far beyond the recoverable yearly rent ($1.35 million). Giscombe believes the only commercial solution would be to combine that lot with others around it. If the building remains a low-rise, he said, the landlord might be able to get tax incentives to rent to a non-profit.

In all this controversy, the building’s historical significance has been largely overshadowed. Johnson thinks the city should have better preserved the building’s shell. He pointed to the example of a mental asylum on Roosevelt Island that has been kept intact pending future development.

“Had it been in the Upper West Side or Upper East Side there would have been meltdown,” he said. “People would have been screaming bloody murder. This wouldn’t have happened. It just shows a complete disregard for the community.”

Originally published in The Uptowner, November 17, 2009.

Published: November 17, 2009

The Saints Come Marching into Her Living Room

Behind the scenes at Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Entertainment jazz sessions, an uptown institution. ♦

Over the years, Count Basie, Paul Robeson and other prominent Harlem musicians and artists have lived behind the embellished iron gates of 555 Edgecombe Avenue, just beyond Sugar Hill. In apartment 3F, jazz still lingers in the air every Sunday afternoon.

Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Entertainment jazz sessions have become an institution. For 15 years, with the help of her son Rudel Drears, Eliot has been throwing open her parlor to everyone from travelers toting cameras and guidebooks to neighborhood regulars who help pass around punch and cookies during intermission. “This is the real thing,” says German tourist Dom Schick, a recent visitor. “This is the Harlem jazz scene you hear about.”

In Eliot’s apartment, photos of Martin Luther King and John Coltrane share wall space with Michael Jackson and Barack Obama. Folding chairs are crammed into rows in the small living room, kitchen and hallway. Eliot welcomes everybody with the same enthusiastic smile. She’s “somewhere over 50” and frail but wiry, elegant in her flowing Sunday best with a halo of gray hair. Her voice is measured and she speaks with effort, but projects well – a holdover, perhaps, from her days on the stage and in the choir. Eliot opens each session at the piano, softly ushering in the evening with a hymn or spiritual.

Drears, whose father is percussionist Al Drears (who has played with Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and others), sings and alternates with Eliot on the ivories. An energetic musician in a crisp white shirt and black fedora, with blocks of cubic zirconia twinkling in his earlobes, he is prone to fits of post-performance chuckling.

About 50 people show up at 4pm every week. Though well-known musicians like bassist Bob Cunningham have been regular performers, the audience doesn’t come to meet the stars. “People come in for one reason, and that’s to listen to the music,” Drears says. “Some people find this to be a religious experience. Some people come here right after church, for communion – but it’s about the music.”

What Eliot calls “Studio 3F” has all the inclusivity of a house of worship, but with the secret air of a speakeasy. Saxophonist Gerald Hayes, who has played here regularly, calls Parlor Entertainment one-of-a-kind. “I like it because it’s cozy,” he says. “It’s personal. And it’s different. I’m just playing with two pieces, maybe three pieces, but it’s not a full band. I’m raw.”

Eliot grew up in a house with two pianos and began singing in church. Her family moved to New York in 1962, where she raised her five sons on music. “Her mother was her first teacher, just like she was my first teacher,” says Drears. Always active in the arts, Eliot appeared in the original production of Charles Gordone’s “No Place to Be Somebody”, the first African-American play to win a Pulitzer Prize. She acted in Sydney Lumet’s “Serpico” (playing a rape victim) and in a Broadway production of “The Member of the Wedding”. She wrote her own play, “Branches from the Same Tree,” in 1980, and won an AUDELCO award in 2003. She’s also taught theatre and music to children.

She started the parlor sessions as a way to cope with the loss of her son Phillip, an actor who died 17 years ago, at 32, of a kidney infection. The first intermittent performances took place at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, but soon musicians from Eliot’s circle of friends began playing regularly on Edgecombe Street. Drears remembers that “in the early days, it used to be maybe five people. Some days we would go the laundry room and say ‘Come upstairs, we’re doing a show.’”

As the word spread, mother and son had to set out more folding chairs each week. “We haven’t missed a single Sunday in all these years. We’re here rain, snow, blizzards…” Drears says.

Eliot pays the musicians out of pocket and with help from friends and a donation drum. “I don’t want to be funded, so nobody can tell me how to do it,” she says, adding that she has “lots of loans.”

“It’s kind of on a shoestring budget,” Drears says.

Three years ago, Eliot’s son Michael, a rock and R&B musician, died in his late 40s after an illness of several years. “It’s hard,” Drears says, “but God keeps us going. One of the things that makes this so great is the people that come through. They’re here to hear the music and they may be transformed.”

Regular visitor Bessie Mullings used to sing with Eliot at the Morris-Jumel Mansion; she comes to the parlor after church each Sunday. “After the second son died, she took it pretty rough,” she says of her friend. “But she still got to hold on to the piano. You can’t tell people how to heal. She’s been built up now, she’s coming back.”

Parlor Entertainment has become “the essence of my life,” says Eliot. “Everything kind of jumps off of this, and that really speaks to the universal language of music. It nourishes the soul.” At one recent performance, she told an audience that on Sunday nights, she’s “so happy that I can’t go to sleep.”

“People power” keeps the piano tuned and the punch flowing, says Eliot. “So much love and goodwill comes through these doors every Sunday. Folks have taken what is a very sad story and they make something beautiful of it.”

Originally published in The Uptowner, October 27, 2009.

Published: October 27, 2009

Community, DNA Crucial in Serial Rapist Arrest

By Rachael Horowitz and Sonal Shah ♦


Posters, like this one outside City College, offered a reward for information about the serial rapist. (Photo by Sonal Shah)

After an intense two-month search, police have arrested the man they believe is responsible for raping and robbing four women in Hamilton Heights during August and September.

DNA from the suspect, 21-year-old Vincent Heyward, matches DNA samples from all the rapes, and a 5th attempted attack, according to officers from the 33rd Precinct.

At his September 21 arraignment, Heyward tried to escape the courtroom but was easily restrained. He will next appear in New York Supreme Court on October 22. “It’s too bad he got lawyered up,” said NYPD Deputy Inspector Scott Shanley. “I want to know what drives this guy.” Heyward had been in a Virginia jail for car theft and had been released in June.

Police involved the community in the investigation, widely publicizing a sketch of the suspect based on surveillance footage and victims’ descriptions. They also circulated still photos from the surveillance.

At a community meeting, Sgt. Richard Crespo from Manhattan Special Victims assured residents that the police were following all leads from the four attacks and encouraged local residents to provide information. He even urged people to “ask your kids to snoop around.”

“If this guy’s in jail, it’s because of the community and the police,” said Officer Alan Asusta of the NYPD Crime Prevention Section at a City College meeting after Heyward was arrested on September 21.

The rapist first attacked on August 1, assaulting a 59-year-old woman at knifepoint in the courtyard of 565 W. 148th Street at 2:45 a.m.. After the second attack on August 10 – on a 23-year-old woman at 144th and Convent Avenue – police began looking for a single perpetrator.

The rapist struck again at 4 a.m. on August 18 when he followed a 69-year-old woman into the lobby of an apartment building at 765 Riverside Drive as she returned from work. She was raped and robbed inside the building elevator.

In the last attack on September 7, a 28-year-old woman was raped in her apartment on St. Nicholas Avenue. The attacker jumped to her apartment’s fire escape from the roof of a neighboring building and entered through a bathroom window.

Details of the attacks led some residents to speculate early on that the rapist might be local. “I get the feeling he might be from the neighborhood,” Raquel Monserrate, who lives at 788 Riverside Drive, said in August. Police said that Heyward lived on Edgecombe Avenue, close to where the four attacks occurred, and they later confirmed that he probably picked out victims and followed them from the subway. Monserrate was avoiding going outside to walk her dog during those quiet hours. “Since that happened, we bought wee-wee pads,” she said.

Deputy Inspector Shanley hopes that the community involvement will remain even though this particular crisis has ended. “People have to realize he’s not the only rapist in the world,” he said.

Originally published in The Uptowner, October 13, 2009.

Published: October 13, 2009

The big wheezy

Winter may well be gone, but our ashen city’s pall of pollution lingers on. A close look at Delhi’s visible air ♦

This article anchors a longer cover story on Delhi’s air pollution.

unbreathableUnion Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss may have banned smoking in public areas, but – as any masked Japanese tourist will tell you – breathing in Delhi’s free, unfiltered air poses health risks in and of itself. We haven’t forgotten the five-year respite that followed the implementation of CNG-fuelled public transport in 2002. But the smoggy winter of 2007 had many people nursing wheezes and other respiratory ailments and – despite Meteorological Department finger-pointing at a chance weather “inversion”– scratching their heads over pollution data that showed an increase in certain types of contamination. Our lungs have already proclaimed 2008 to have been another winter of discontent. So we set out to understand just what is up with the air.

Investigating air pollution in Delhi is an exercise in decoding acronyms; not only in terms of the polluting agents, but also of the various agencies that monitor and aim to reduce it. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) is the main monitoring agency under the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The Delhi Government’s Department of Environment has its own body – the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) – to which the CPCB has delegated responsibility for the NCR’s air. Because of the vehicle emissions angle, the Ministry of Transport and equivalent state-level bodies have been involved, as have various energyrelated committees, ministries and corporations. Then there are the NGOs. Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) – the driving force behind Delhi’s adoption of CNG – warily shares top-billing in the news media with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). Last year, a younger group, the Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCN), joined the fold.

The four major pollutants that the CPCB and the DPCC monitor are sulphur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (SPM, which is suspended solid particulate matter, and especially RSPM, respirable particles that are small enough to breathe in). Other pollutants include ground-level ozone, or O3, and uncombusted hydrocarbons (HCs).

So what causes all these nasty little chemicals and dust specks to clog up our skies? Interestingly, there is no in-depth “source apportionment” study that conclusively determines what percentage of each pollutant comes from which source. (There have been a few cursory studies, at best.) The CPCB has been conducting just such a study for the past two years and scientists at the organisation claimed that the final draft of it will be accessible some time this month. We don’t know the shape of it yet, but a careful analysis of such a study is just the thing policymakers could use to frame more sharply targeted laws.

But let’s look at what we know so far. According to current CPCB estimates, 13 per cent of our city’s air pollution is due to thermal power plants (Delhi has three coal-burning plants in Badarpur, Indraprastha and Rajghat), 12 per cent due to small-scale industrial activity, and eight per cent due to domestic combustion, like people burning wood for cooking and heat. The bulk, which is almost 70 per cent of the total pollution, is ascribed to vehicular emissions.

In comparison to this last wheel-borne menace, the other sources are almost insignificant. In a nutshell, this is where things stand with them. Theoretically, our power plants should already be making every effort to be as clean as they can be. According to the CPCB, SO2 pollution from coal fires has been greatly reduced after the introduction of LPG. Caroline Howe of the Indian Youth Climate Network pointed out that a large transient population of labourers was the source of the remaining fires. According to Anumita Roychowdhury, associate director of Research and Advocacy at the CSE, this can be tackled by moving people up the “energy ladder”, which essentially means making fuels like LPG and even solar cookers available to the people who’re burning wood right now. We met up with executive director of the IYCN, Kartikeya Singh, and spoke to him about industrial pollution. His take was that industry in Delhi is difficult to regulate because it is a “non-point source” – that is, made up of many small clusters of polluting industries, such as at Lawrence Road Industrial Area in west Delhi, where small workshops labour at food packaging, making metal widgets and other sundry activities. Surely even the Supreme Court can’t kick everyone and their livelihoods out of the city. So, the larger point is clearly what’s staring every Dilliwala in the face every time she steps out on a road with a hanky over her nose. Vehicular emission is what needs to be controlled, and quickly.

Several studies have tried to understand why the implementation of CNG public transport hasn’t managed to control pollution. According to one 2007 study by Urvashi Narain and Alan Krupnick (published by Washington DC-based NGO Resources for the Future), the switch from diesel buses to CNG helped reduce SO2 and CO levels, while the rise in SPM appeared to be unaffected by CNG.

We asked Roychowdhury, who heads CSE’s Right to Clean Air Campaign, why CNG measures haven’t been enough to curb Delhi’s RSPM levels, which by some estimates are second only to Cairo’s (World Bank, 2006). “What we’ve had is the first wave of reforms,” she said. “There now needs to be a second wave.” What that comes down to, at least for Roychowdhury, is to get Dilliwalas into public transport.

What is clear is that the culprit for rising particulate and NOx levels is the addition of “literally 1,100 new cars on the road every day,” as Roychowdhury put it. Though not everyone agrees on that figure, there is consensus that the wholesale move towards fourwheeled private transport is at the heart of the pollution problem. The fact that there is an increase in diesel-driven private vehicles (the cost of diesel is highly subsidised, even though Delhi’s diesel-guzzlers are often expensive imports) has also added to pollution. This is despite the fact that the diesel itself is lower in sulphur content than before.

So, everyone – from the long-timers at CPCB to the cross-country electric Reva-driving upstarts at IYCN – agrees on a solution: public transportation. “Public transport was neglected for far too long,” said Roychowdhury, explaining why bus users, as a percentage of total commuters, fell from 60 per cent to 49 per cent this past decade. As Ankur Garg, a research fellow at Indian Institute of Technology Delhi and a member of IYCN pointed out, “fixing public transport has the double advantage of solving road traffic problems and reducing air pollution.” And all roads, surprisingly, seem to be leading to the Bus Rapid Transport system as a solution. According to a survey conducted by CSE, the IYCN and the NGO Delhi Greens last year, the majority of consumers (including car owners) see the wisdom behind providing a more efficient, user-friendly bus system.

For this to work, though, certain measures need to be implemented. Singh pointed out that while the government plans to add 6,000 buses to the fleet to increase frequency and capacity, there are currently only three plants manufacturing the vehicles. “We need a greater manufacturing capacity, and also need to ensure that buses are designed with a warm climate in mind. Buses create a natural air pocket behind them as they move – leaving the back open would naturally allow for better circulation,” he suggested. According to CSE’s estimate, the city needs a fleet of 14,000 buses for a fully functional bus transport system. Roychowdhury also strongly advocated removing the yearly tax on buses (between Rs 10,000-14,000), which is much more, over the life of a bus, than the one-time tax collected from the owner of a car. To encourage people to ride public transport, CSE believes parking rates for private vehicles should be on par with other world cities. Park and ride facilities, feeder services to the Delhi Metro and space to cycle are other necessities. The Ring Railroad, built for the Asian Games, failed to be useful precisely due to its lack of linkage with other public transport systems.

There are more players at the air pollution table now, as compared to a decade ago, when the very public spat between TERI and CSE over which fuel Delhi’s public transport should use (low sulphur diesel and CNG, respectively) occupied centre-stage. The influx of youth-oriented groups like the IYCN is a positive step. The reams of pollution data unleashed by the Right to Information Act and available (almost) at the touch of a button on the CPCB and DPCC’s websites, are another step in the right direction. As more nuanced analysis of this data is undertaken – not only by government bodies but also by independent scientists – better directed public policy decisions can (hopefully) be made. “After the IT revolution, I believe we need to have an ET [environmental technology] revolution,” enthused Singh, who dreams of electric buses running on the BRT one day.

Meanwhile, as private traffic gets choked in the two measly lanes that run along the bus corridor, at least we can be grateful that, little by little, our lungs are unclogging.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, March 2009.

Published: March 6, 2009