Meet a New Yorker for Parks

Richie Chan

August 22, 2012

It only takes one glance at Richie Chan's e-mail signature to realize how much he loves fishing:
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For much of his life, Chan has spent mornings and evenings in the same place: the waters off Staten Island, in his waders, casting out for striped bass, fluke and blue fish. This is his time to enjoy a side of the city many New Yorkers don’t see, where gliding blue herons and cranes often provide the only soundtrack. More often than not, the fish bite for him. But sometimes, he reels in an unpleasant catch:  an aluminum can, a glass bottle, even the occasional diaper.

“I hate that!” Chan said. “Nothing's worse than a peaceful fishing night interrupted by a garbage hook.”

It’s these unfortunate incidents that led Chan to become one of Staten Island’s most active and effective leaders in organizing beach, park and open space cleanups.

Chan has lived on Staten Island for several decades – he now lives in the Dongan Hills neighborhood – and has been a part of the local environmental and maritime stewardship community for much of that time. Since 2000 he’s been a member of the Natural Resources Protective Association (NRPA) and has served as its Secretary. While his duties range from newsletter writing to membership tracking, he is probably most known for organizing cleanups.

“It’s just something I’ve taken on for the good of the island and its environment," Chan said. "Our work is never done.”

He supervises up to 16 cleanups a year, mostly in the spring and fall, and sometimes they attract as many as 60 volunteers. Regulars know Chan not only for his friendly leadership style but also for his fliers detailing the decomposition rate of marine debris which he hands out at every cleanup, along with fairs and festivals around the island.

Some of the numbers which Chan and NRPA have carefully researched: 80-200 years for an aluminum can to decompose, 400 years for a plastic six-pack ring, 450 years for a disposable diaper or plastic bottle, and up to one million years for a glass bottle.

“These are serious numbers, and people should understand the consequences for the environment when they just throw something on the beach or in a park,” Chan said. “I try to tell as many people as possible.”

The cleanups aren’t just centered in one place or even one neighborhood of the island. One weekend Chan might cover a whole section of the Bluebelt – the streams, ponds and wetlands that comprise a network of natural drainage corridors across a third of the island. Another, he’ll be in Conference House Park. But not surprisingly, the avid fisherman’s favorite cleanup events occur along the island’s miles of shoreline – whether municipal swimming beaches, craggy non-swimming areas, or tidal wetlands on Raritan Bay. He recently organized a cleanup near the “South Pole” marker at Ward’s Point in Tottenville, the southernmost point of New York State.

And the impact can be seen island-wide. Staten Island’s swimming beaches have gotten a lot cleaner in recent years, thanks to Chan’s cleanups and more effective efforts by the Parks Department. NY4P’s 2007 Report Card on Beaches gave D’s to Midland and South Beaches, and a failing grade to Wolfe’s Pond Beach. But by the 2011 report, we documented marked improvement at Midland and South Beaches, though Wolfe’s Pond is still challenged, scoring in the D range.

Chan credits the Parks Department for the improvements in Staten Island’s swimming beaches and though he finds reports of several hypodermic needles on beaches this summer disturbing, said that problem has gotten much better and is impossible to avoid altogether. Still, Chan would like to see the Parks Department focus more attention on non-swimming beaches and more effectively transport its beach rake around the island. But he understands that limited resources and budget constraints hamper the Department, concluding that overall conditions have drastically improved since he began leading the cleanups.

Like many parks and open space volunteers around the city, Chan’s passion for what he does has deep roots. He was always interested in maritime volunteerism as a Boy Scout in Rockville Center, Long Island, and recalls his membership in a junior sailors’ club almost as a rite of passage.

“I always loved being near the water, and now what I care most about is keeping those areas around the island clean.”

His hatred of littering is nothing new, though he reluctantly admits he might have been guilty of it himself once or twice in his youth.

“But I know one thing: I haven’t littered since 1967," he said. "We were sitting on the curb in Rockville Center, and my friends kept flicking cigarette butts. It was disgusting, and I yelled at them and promised to myself that from that moment on I’d never, ever, ever litter again, and I haven’t.”