The American Museum of Natural History is the Exxon of the Upper West Side.
Like Exxon, the museum is an enormous economic enterprise with a global market and an outsize impact on its immediate surroundings. Its trustees are billionaires or millionaires; titans of industry, government and the arts. Its executives are highly compensated. It engages top-flight public relations firms. It deploys lobbyists to extract tens of millions of tax dollars for its budget. Like Exxon, the museum is secretive about its plans. Like Exxon, it tries to convince its neighbors that it is a benevolent force in the community providing jobs and boosting the economy. Like Exxon, the museum believes, presumptuously, that what’s good for them, is good for everyone. Finally, like the energy behemoth Exxon, the American Museum of Natural History is an organization out of step with a global consensus on climate change and the environmental crisis we all face.
In November, the museum unveiled a plan to increase its footprint in Roosevelt Park where it already occupies more than half the land. But, at a time when the world’s leaders agree that we must curtail global warming, the museum’s plan would increase it by clear-cutting trees and polluting the air. Weeks after the city celebrated the planting of one million trees, the museum announced this plan which would slaughter at least a dozen mature elms and others. In an era of endangered species, the museum’s plan would create habitat loss for at least 46 types of birds. In a period where citizens are demanding transparency from their institutions, the museum has been allowed to move forward with its destructive design without any public meetings.
The museum’s plan would also involve tearing down some historic buildings and blasting into the rock formation under New York City’s Teddy Roosevelt Park. Noise pollution would skyrocket. Years of construction would throw residents, visitors and businesses into a mix of dust, confusion and delays. In a city where neighborhood parks are rare, every square foot of greenspace is sacred. The museum’s plan would annex and destroy 180,000 square feet of parkland.
In the cultural world, the American Museum of Natural History stands with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney and The Guggenheim. World-class institutions all. Unlike the others, the museum has no satellite sites. Its campus is confined to the park and buildings, which are owned by the citizens of this city.
The museum sits in the city’s most segregated school district, and New York City is one of the most segregated school systems in the nation. The museum’s plan would reinforce this racism by investing a billion dollars in a museum, in a school district whose schools are 75% white in a city where Blacks and Hispanics make up 75% of the students. The district is glutted with private schools, private tutors, nannies and gifted and talented programs. Manhattan hosts more than 100 museums. Science and cultural institutions abound.
Many New Yorkers are concerned when they learn about assaults on the rainforest by rapacious corporations, like Exxon. They support a host of environmental organizations (the Rainforest Alliance, the Sierra Club and NRDC, for example) dedicated to combating habitat loss, extinction and pollution. But, what of our own trees, and what about the ecosystem of Roosevelt Park? What about the impact of elevated levels of ozone and particulates on our children and seniors whose respiratory systems are those most vulnerable?
Thousands of neighbors have signed petitions rejecting the museum’s aggressions. Hundreds have spoken out against it or picketed. And more needs to be done. Unfortunately, Community Board 7 is unwilling to provide the leadership the Upper West Side needs to protect its parkland and people. The board has aligned itself with the museum and sacrificed its neutrality by promoting the museum’s plan and discouraging or ignoring its opponents.
Like Exxon, the American Museum of Natural History must be held accountable. Like Exxon, the museum needs to respect public space, not pollute it. Like Exxon, the museum needs to move away from its plantation mentality and accept neighbors as stakeholders not peons. And, like Exxon, if the museum doesn’t shift gears, its international reputation as a center of science and scholarship will be damaged by its callous disregard for Mother Earth.
Cary Goodman has been a neighbor of Roosevelt Park for the past 39 years.