By Laura Gottesdiener
On the bumper-to-bumper commute to the Upper East Side on Dec. 4, Luis Casco wanted to know one thing: Couldn’t he just talk how he would back at his church in Far Rockaway?
“You know, like ‘Hi, my name is Luis, and I’m here to tell you about what’s going on in my community?’” he asked. All the technical phrases and activist jargon was intimidating the 22-year-old, whose entire organizing career fit into the span of approximately five weeks, beginning a few nights after the Atlantic Ocean met Jamaica Bay and stretching up until that very moment, when he was on his way to a press conference at Mayor Bloomberg’s apartment to remind Manhattan that at least one area of the five boroughs still resembled a war zone.
The rest of the car agreed, and when Casco stepped up to the front of the press conference an hour later, he did exactly that, declaring in his low voice: “We have a mold problem. There’s two-year-old babies in these homes, people with asthma getting sicker. I lost my home. I don’t have a home. We need emergency housing now.... How would you feel, Mayor Bloomberg, living in these homes?”
Casco spoke with confidence, but, as the snapping cameras of the Associated Press and the New York Times photographers demonstrated, he wasn’t back at his church in his working-class, mostly Hispanic neighborhood in Far Rockaway. Instead, he was standing closer to the stage of global power than he’d been in his life — and the event that had catapulted him to this position was, curiously, the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy.
Almost two months after the hurricane slammed into New York City, Casco’s neighborhood in Far Rockaway is in a curious state of make-believe. In the minds of those stationed in City Hall, life on the farthest outskirts of Queens, a peninsula that was home to 115,000 people before the storm, has once again become functional. Tolls have been reinstated; city school busses are running; street parking laws — and the inevitable accompanying tickets — are back in effect; rent is due.
Yet, underneath this veneer of forced, revenue-generating normalcy, the eastern area of the peninsula, where Casco and other working-class, mostly people of color live, is decidedly not back to normal. According to Queens State Senator Joe Addabbo, there are still 10,000 homes without electricity and heat in the Rockaways, and — according to reports by numerous on-the-ground organizers — the majority of those houses are in the poorer neighborhoods of Far Rockaway.
The island’s only hospital is packed to capacity, schools are shuttered indefinitely, and on block after block families are living in mold-infested houses. Other toxins are more subtle but no less damaging for the Rockaways: the eviction and rent-hike notices (letters whose delivery is delayed because post offices are still closed) and the increasingly common sight of suited speculators canvassing neighborhoods offering a quick, easy (and predatory) buy-out.
These persistent problems exist in all of the hard-hit areas of the outer boroughs, from Coney Island to Red Hook to the southern coast of Staten Island. Yet, perhaps nowhere are these current and future threats more intense than in the brightly-painted bungalows and tall public housing towers of Far Rockaway, where every force — from the churning Atlantic to the city’s mighty real estate industry — threatens destruction. In the face of these dangers, however, community leaders like Casco and grassroots organizers are working toward a very different vision: a post-Sandy reconstruction that builds a more equitable and sustainable New York City. And the surprising part? So far, they’re winning.
Pat Carter, a nearby neighbor of Casco and a Far Rockaway resident since 1982, began a food and clothing distribution center on the front porch of her neighbor’s turquoise-painted bungalow on Beach 24th Street immediately after the storm hit. Her story is like hundreds of others from across the affected areas: She began handing out canned food, then blankets, then clothes, expanding her operation to an adjoining bungalow porch, then a third. Sturdy winter boots arrived, then a solar-powered generator hauled on a tractor trailer with California plates. Residents flocked by the hundreds to receive goods — and lend a hand.
Now that the need for these immediate items has died down, Carter is making bigger plans. In collaboration with organizers from Occupy Sandy, a recovery network that includes many participants from Occupy Wall Street, she’s launching a new community group to keep the recovery momentum going.
“We need to organize the community from here [24th Street] all the way to 32nd Street,” she said. “A lot of people have come together to work on disaster work, and we don’t want to move. Now we need to do something to keep the community together.”
An upbeat, almost jolly retired New York Police Department detective, Carter rattled off a list of initiatives, many already underway: programs for the teenagers to reduce gang activity. A pre-existing plan to convert the freeway underpass into a pedestrian and bicycle-only zone that now looks feasible. A push to include some of the bungalows to the National Registry of Historic Buildings in order to avoid mass bulldozing. Even an ambitious proposal to find financing to install solar panels up and down these blocks and turn these tiny houses into a national model for alternative energy use.
“A lot of stuff should be able to happen now,” she said. As she unrolled her grand plans, at least a half-dozen passing neighbors, teenagers and adults alike, called out, “Hey Pat!”
“They’re my volunteers,” she explained.
Weather-related disasters are powerful opportunities to radically reshape landscapes — both physical and political. Areas like the bungalows in Far Rockaway are prime locations for disaster capitalism, especially since New York City’s coasts have long ceased to be a “catch basin for the poor” (as one New York Times essay described the areas), and are now the primary target of expensive redevelopment. Over the last few decades, the city’s land-use policy has been to promote as much luxury building along the city’s waterfront as possible, from Brooklyn Bridge “Park” to Willets Point in Queens to the public-private partnership Hudson Yards, the largest private development project in the nation, which broke ground two blocks from Manhattan’s West Side highway a month after the storm. (The highway and adjacent areas flooded substantially during the hurricane.)
Yet, elites and transnational corporations — the 1 percent, in Occupy speech — aren’t the only ones who can take control of a crisis. Because social justice groups were some of the first responders on the ground, beating out federal agencies like FEMA in immediate relief, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is shaping up to be a two-sided contest between those who would capitalize on the crisis in order to privatize and those who are envisioning a progressive reconstruction, one that would not only replace the washed-away resources but also meet the neighborhood’s perpetual needs.
HEALTHCARE FOR ALL
“This is a perfect time to be talking about universal healthcare and access to clinics,” said Mary Caliendo. A reverend who worked in the geriatrics department of Cornell Medical College, Caliendo has now been organizing alongside volunteer doctors and healthcare professionals in the Rockaways for weeks. This network already established the YANA health clinic on the western side of the island — which spurred the city to create two mobile clinics of its own.
Caliendo begins to list her top health concerns: hypothermia, mold, respiratory distress, tetanus. And then, of course, the mental illnesses: depression, growing agoraphobia (fear of leaving the house), people already diagnosed as bipolar, schizophrenic, or recovering addicts going weeks without their medication. Official reports say that so far at least eight Rockaway residents have died since the storm hit, some from post-storm injuries like falling down darkened stairwells or bleeding to death from cuts.
“If we had a single-payer plan, we wouldn’t be having a health crisis right now,” Caliendo said.
Instead of waiting for legislative change, however, Caliendo and others are making the change happen on the ground, creating free clinics and peer mental health counseling groups on the eastern side of the peninsula.
Within a week of the storm hitting, housing organizers from around the country began discussing the potential to create community land trusts — structures that allow a community group, rather than an individual, to hold the title to homes or land — in devastated areas. Meanwhile, as the threat of mass displacement sets in, some have begun speaking about using anti-eviction tactics and vacant home or land takeovers, especially of city-owned property.
“Eviction defense will be a key way to defend the best interests of the people,” said Diego Ibanez, a community organizer who has been working in the Rockaways since the day after the storm hit and is now part of a campaign to stop eviction and demolition.
Although New York is a real estate city, there have been dozens of successf-ul housing and land struggles to prevent displacement in the past — including fights in this very area of Far Rockaway to prevent stretches of bungalows and public housing towers from being demolished.
“And it was stopped. The bungalows are still there, and the public housing is still there,” explained Tom Angotti, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College, and the author of New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate.
“In the broad scope of things it may not seem like a lot, but these things reverberate,” he continued. “But I’m certain that it gives some of the real estate people pause before they start to meddle in territory where they know they’re going to find opposition.”
Meanwhile, for a community that rarely sees investment — the creation of exclusive condos not included — a newly formed
participatory budgeting council, comprised of community leaders and organizers who have been doing recovery work since the storm hit, is slated to make decisions about how outside funding is allocated. The city has yet to commit to funneling any of the billions of dollars in federal reconstruction funds it expects to receive. But some of Occupy Sandy’s $612,000 in donated funds that have been put aside will be turned over to the participatory budgeting council to direct the funding of long-term projects.
As Luis Casco said at a recent neighborhood meeting at St. Gertrude’s church on 38th Street, “This is about breakfast programs, day care centers, after school activities. ... This is going to take two to three years, but it will make the Rockaways better.”
For other young leaders in Far Rockaway, the recovery isn’t just measured in concrete numbers of new health clinics or funding for social programs. The work is also about changing the perception of the neighborhood and of what the residents themselves are able to accomplish.
At the same meeting at St. Gertrude’s, one woman explained, “Everyone looks at Far Rockaway like it’s the ghetto or the slums. ...This also has to be about telling our own people, ‘Step up out of that house so we can fix the situation at hand.’”
ACROSS THE CITY
On Dec. 6, the city launched its first offensive. The community-led response to Hurricane Sandy had spread across the city: In Red Hook, public housing residents were hosting community meetings and marches to demand fairer treatment by the New York City Housing Authority. In Staten Island, immigrant workers from El Centro, a day laborer center, were volunteering their construction expertise, gutting neighbors’ houses and constructing dry wall for free. And across the city, long-established advocacy groups, such as the Good Old Lower East Side in Manhattan, which distributed food, supplies and medical assistance for nine days after the storm, were planning to come together to consider how climate justice — a global movement to stop climate change and its lethal effects — can be a greater focus of their organizing work.
It was time, in short, for the city to take some power back. At a downtown press conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that Marc Ricks, a vice president in the infrastructure investment team at Goldman Sachs, would be the head of the city’s long-term Sandy recovery effort. Bloomberg also doubled-down on his luxury redevelopment plan for the city’s waterfront. The industry lobbyists’ behind-the-scenes proposals — which, as Naomi Klein has written, include everything from rebuilding roads and tunnels as public-private partnerships to suspending labor laws and corporate regulations in the hardest-hit areas — floated in the air as the stored-away weapons in the Mayor’s arsenal.
But community organizers have a long-term trick of their own: uniting the Sandy reconstruction effort to the campaigns to stop austerity and fiscal cliff cuts to social services — a relationship that humanizes the financial policy battle in a way that few could have expected.
Jeremy Saunders, a lead organizer at Voices of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY) explained that austerity measures weaken the infrastructure, both physical and social, in the city’s poorest communities, which will make these neighborhoods less prepared to respond to and recover from the future climate-related crises that scientists predict will be ever more frequent, particularly in low-lying areas where public and low-income housing is located.
“The economic system we have now is the post-Katrina New Orleans model where there’s displacement, gentrification and privatization [after a storm]. We’re making the alternative model. We’re asking: ow can we make a disaster into an opportunity to make New York City sustainable?” he said.
The long-term goal, he explained, is to combine the struggle for economic justice and climate justice — all the while the effects of inaction are on display only a few subways stops away from the city’s power brokers.
And the biggest challenge, in his mind, isn’t a Goldman Sachs VP heading the city’s recovery; it’s the community’s own mental limitations.
“I think our biggest problem around Sandy right now is that, as a community, we can’t even conceptualize how big an opportunity — and how big a threat — this really is.”
THE ROCKAWAY COUGH
Right now, the Rockaways has a dry hacking type of cough that one resident described on television as a “slight choking.” Public health officials say it’s likely a result of mold and airborne pollutants. To them, the solution includes face masks and bleach. But for local leaders, the “Rockaway cough,” as it is called, is the vocalization of the storm’s immediate impact, but the underlying issues tie together budget cuts, environmental justice and future disasters, demonstrating the way that an “alternative model” for recovery should work on multiple fronts.
The lack of access to mental and physical health care began before Sandy, when the New York State Health Department shuttered Peninsula Hospital, located at Beach 50th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, leaving only one remaining hospital on the island. Meanwhile, residents also express concern about the long-term health impact of waste or pollution-generating sites in the neighborhood, such as the MTA bus depot at 47th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard and the now-inactive garbage dump site in the 30s where, after it closed, the children used to play football because there was no neighborhood field. (A new field recently opened.) Across New York City, pollution sites are disproportionately concentrated in low-income communities of color, exposing these residents to more of the toxins related to the city’s massive energy use, despite the fact that African Americans, on average nationally, emit 20 percent less carbon per person than white Americans.
And then, of course, there’s the greatest public health crisis of all: future climate-related disasters that may eventually submerge the Rockaways for good. New Yorkers overwhelmingly think that human-created energy emissions contributed to the severity of Hurricane Sandy. A poll by Siena College found that 69 percent of those surveyed thought the storm was related to global climate change.
Given the growing acceptance of this phenomenon, the question of how much to rebuild on low-lying areas like the Rockaways is contested. Scientists predict that within this century the seas will rise at least 2.6 feet, an increase that will submerge about half of the Rockaways peninsula underwater.
Yet, from the front porches of the surviving bungalows, at least the short-term future of the peninsula looks surprisingly promising. On Beach 24th Street in Far Rockaway, Pat Carter is making concrete plans: each block will have a captain and a co-captain tasked with knowing every family’s needs; those block captains will share that information with the rest of the neighborhood, creating a horizontal network to respond to long-term challenges in the same way that the immediate relief effort was organized.
“I hope everyone can see what everyone else’s needs are and then help each other with them,” she said. She explained that this type of neighborhood organization would never have been possible pre-Sandy.
“And then this summer we’ll have a beach party,” she said, standing across the street from her bungalow. Behind her, less than a block away, was the Atlantic Ocean, which had surged up her street on the night of the storm, rising about two feet up the concrete wall in front her house and flowing, she said, from all four directions.
Continuing her thoughts she said, “We’ve got one of the nicest beaches in New York City. So we’re not going to have just a block party. We’re going to have a beach party.”
Laura Gottesdiener is an organizer with Occupy Wall Street and is the author of A Dream Foreclosed: The Fight for a Place to Call Home, forthcoming from Zuccotti Park Press.