Earth Day and Environmentalism in the City

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More than 100,000 New Yorkers celebrated the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, forming the largest gathering in the nationwide celebration. New Yorkers flocked to Union Square for speeches and concerts. Mayor John V. Lindsay closed Fifth Avenue to cars, enabling marches and picnics in the blocked-off streets. 

Initiated the previous year by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day events were organized nationally by a handful of young activists and local volunteers. Originally envisioned as an antiwar-style “teach-in” at colleges, Earth Day went beyond campus activism to unite anti-litter campaigns by schoolchildren, mothers who sought cleaner air, protestors of pesticides, and proponents of population control together under the banner of “a future worth living.”

The first Earth Day marked a pivotal event in the birth of the environmental movement, giving New Yorkers new awareness and motivation to “green” their city. Some viewed the festivities as bad for business or a distraction from other issues. Yet, ultimately, support for Earth Day exceeded expectations. By the end of 1970, the Nixon administration established the Environmental Protection Agency and passed the Clean Air Act. 

Environmentalism gained momentum in New York in the 1970s and 1980s. Residents created recycling centers and community gardens, and environmental justice activists fought pollution sources clustered in poorer neighborhoods. The city is cleaner today, but environmental concerns remain. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 spurred many New Yorkers to confront climate change. In September 2014, over 300,000 people joined the People’s Climate March in Manhattan to urge world leaders to prioritize global warming.

Key Events

Global Year    Local
  1881 The citywide Department of Street Cleaning is created, though routine trash collection and street cleaning do not begin in earnest until 1895
Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring helps to launch the new environmental movement 1962  
  1968 Under Mayor John V. Lindsay, New York City creates the nation’s first Environmental Protection Administration
Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson conceives of Earth Day 1969  
First Earth Day celebrated nationwide Federal government creates the national Environmental Protection Agency and passes the Clean Air Act 1970  
After the defeat of proposals to increase reliance on garbage incinerators, New York City institutes recycling through Local Law 19 1989  
  1990 The 20th anniversary celebration of Earth Day attracts nearly one million people to Central Park
  2001 Closing of Staten Island’s Fresh Kills, at one point the largest landfill in the United States


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