The first Earth Day in New York — and around the United States — took place 50 years ago on April 22nd, 1970, when as many as 20 million people across the United States commemorated the birth of the modern environmental movement. In the city, New Yorkers joined those around the nation in demonstrations, congregating at both the New York Public Library and Union Square, with a goal to not only clean up the city but to increase public awareness about environmental problems that still plague the planet today.

Union Square crowds (left) and clean air bubble (right). Environmental Action Coalition records.

Union Square crowds (left) and clean air bubble (right). Environmental Action Coalition records.

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Union Square crowds (left) and clean air bubble (right). Environmental Action Coalition records.
Courtesy of the NYPL's Manuscripts and Archives Division

Mayor John Lindsay spoke from the steps of the Library that day, where he was joined by writers Alfred Kazin and Kurt Vonnegut. The crowd marched to Union Square, where Lindsay spoke once again about the importance of reducing pollution, and policies that could improve quality of life. It was to be a monumental teach-in, not only raising awareness of global ecological threats, but also tackling local issues like lead paint abatement and drinking water quality. And unsurprisingly, NYC had the largest turnout in the country, with a crowd estimated to be around 100,000 strong.

The Environmental Action Coalition formed to organize the day’s events here, including informational booths and a clean air “bubble” in Union Square and a 45-block pedestrian mall along Fifth Avenue. New Yorkers across the city gathered, witnessed, learned, taught, and held aloft signs, like this one which is now housed at the Library.

The first Earth Day poster, with Union Square as location

The first Earth Day poster

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The first Earth Day poster
Courtesy of the NYPL

Earth Day’s widespread support catalyzed the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Water Act, and extended Clean Air Act, and after fifty years of momentum, we see its influence in today’s Green New Deal.


As part of our month-long Dear NYC series, we're looking at New York City gems hidden away at the New York Public Library. The NYPL’s four research centers offer the public access to over 55 million items, including rare books, manuscripts, letters, diaries, photographs, prints, maps, ephemera, and more. Integral to these robust collections is the Library’s extensive material related to New York City, and as NY works to come together, cope, heal and recover from the 2020 pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the many issues that divide us, it is important to look at that history and remember: New York is resilient. New York is strong. New York has seen its share of hard times. And, as always, with Patience and Fortitude (the names given to the Library’s beloved lionsin 1933 by Mayor LaGuardia for the virtues New Yorkers needed to get through the Great Depression) we will get through it, together.