The stakes are high for people in the Rockaways. More than a month-and-a- half after Superstorm Sandy, winter is setting in and many of the ten thousand residents of this Queens neighborhood still lack heat or electricity. Many have no hot water. And there’s another festering crisis: mold. It’s lurching up Rockaway walls, crawling on ceilings, covering mattresses and baby strollers, and threatening to breed an epidemic. The smell of the green fuzz fills beachside homes that on October 30 were submerged in swelling tides. The administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched a “Rapid Repair Program,” but Rockaway residents are growing increasingly frustrated with its glacial pace.
“In the Rockaways you already had a lack of healthcare,” said Jeremy Saunders with the community justice group Vocal-NY. “You already had half the population living below the poverty line. It’s a place where the city has pushed a lot of poor people living with AIDS. A lot of people who were formerly incarcerated. Its already where they have amassed a lot of marginalized people.”
Now, supported by Occupy Sandy volunteers, residents of the Rockaways are starting to fight back.
On Saturday, about 100 people displaced by the storm and those who remain living in cold, damp residences with nowhere else to go, met at a shopping mall on Mott Ave. and Beach 21st St. Coming together as a community, they hoped to draw media attention to the ongoing disaster and to hammer home their demand that the Rockaways and other Sandy-rattled neighborhoods be made safe for habitation by December 31. From Mott, the crowd headed through Far Rockaway’s battered streets, toward coastal homes in a neighborhood locals refer to as “the Bungalows.”
“It’s devastating out here,” said Linda Bowman, who has lived in Far Rockaway for 40-plus years. Despite the wreckage surrounding her, Bowman remains rooted in her community and is fighting for it to get the resources it needs. She said the city has to step up.
“All they’re doing is talking, talking, talking. They’re not doing anything. We need help. We needed help weeks ago. Now, I figure we should have a deadline on December 31. Everyone out here should have lights, heat and this mold removed. If not, we should march to City Hall,” she said.
In contrast to the sluggish official response, communities have been helping each other. Approximately 16,000 people have volunteered with Occupy Sandy, a citywide relief network established by veterans of the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park. Working with churches and other community organizations, they’ve opened medical clinics, delivered food and basic supplies to those in need, conducted mold remediation and picked up hammers and sledges to help rebuild. They’ve also advised storm victims who are trying to navigate complicated city, state and federal bureaucracies to ensure that they receive the maximum amount of help possible from the government. But it hasn’t been enough to meet the gaping demand. Some accuse the Bloomberg administration of outsourcing the rebuilding effort to the rag-tag group of revolutionaries whom, a year before, he violently evicted from their encampment in the Financial District.
Occupy Sandy sends out numerous alerts daily for volunteers or supplies through Facebook, Twitter, text-message loops and its website, but Saturday’s gathering brought their coordination efforts into the streets across the city.
However short-lived, this action was the first large-scale attempt by the network to mobilize its forces in moving more concretely than ever from relief to resistance. At 5 p.m., four hundred victims of the hurricane from many of the city’s outlying, storm-ravaged areas and Occupy Sandy activists converged at Bloomberg’s Upper East Side Mansion to remind the billionaire mayor of their plight and to communicate their December 31 ultimatum. The mayor didn’t come out to greet them; instead the NYPD erected barricades and blocked the sidewalk on both sides of the street. Sandy’s victims were forced to content themselves with a picket on a nearby sidewalk for a few minutes, until the police got itchy, and, after making a few arbitrary arrests, muscled them out.
Many of those whose lives have been touched by Occupy Sandy have undergone a process of politicization. “I never been one that’s too much of an activist in any way,” said Rockaway resident Virginia Deer who lost her business in the flood, “but when something like this happens to your community you realize that you really have to hold someone responsible.” At a speak-out on the steps of a tattered bungalow on Beach 29th St., Deer said she fears the mold growing in her apartment is putting her three-year-old daughter’s health in jeopardy. “The things the city has been telling us to do have not been working because the mold is continuing to reappear. That’s not something you want to play around with when you have a kid that has a heart condition. There needs be some kind of evaluation so that we know if our places are livable or not.”
With a respirator on his chin, Carlos Quisbe took a break from tearing down mold-infested drywall to listen to the speech Deer gave on his front stoop. He has insurance but it only covers the structure, not what was inside. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) hasn’t promised anything until January, at the earliest. FEMA has told him to leave, but he hasn’t. He knows the mold is dangerous, but he is still sleeping upstairs since he can’t afford to go anywhere else, and he’s afraid his few remaining possessions could be stolen by burglars prowling the half-vacated neighborhood at night.
“The system doesn’t work,” he said, adding that things are worse for the undocumented community, since they can’t even apply for FEMA aid. “If you don’t have documents, you don’t exist.”
Not far from the Bungalows stands a largely vacant mecca of livable housing. On Rockaway Boulevard a large condo development spreads out along the water on the island’s eastern shore, virtually untouched by the storm. A billboard in front of the housing complex advertises two-family homes at “Arverne by the Sea.” While little work has been undertaken in Rockaway’s poor and working-class communities, construction crews have been hammering away on the condos at Arverne, homes that few in the Bungalows can afford.
“That’s always the problem with capitalist society,” said local activist Josmar Trujill, “You’re going to have empty, glorious housing and people out on the streets. This just kind of puts the spotlight on that contradiction.” Trujill said he received a check from the FEMA to find a place to stay after the storm, but it wasn’t enough. “You can’t just leave it up to people going out and renting market-rate apartments. You got to be able to provide housing. There’s talk of FEMA providing trailers, but I’d like to see something more long-term.”
Residents are worried that their neighborhoods could be slated for demolition and replaced with an Arverne-style development. Some landlords have been handing out eviction notices in the Rockaways. Others have hiked up the rent. Tenants accuse them of using the storm as an excuse to wash them out and gentrify.
“People are being bullied and harassed,” said Susan Max. Her landlord has attempted to jack up her rent by $300 to cover the cost of flood damage. Some tenants have moved out, but Max has chosen to stay, organize and fight. Occupy Sandy has put her in touch with a lawyer who has agreed to represent all 26 remaining tenants in her building and take their landlord to court.
There are other modes of gentrification. A lot of the Rockaway politicians are big champions of Aqueduct Casino, a major gambling complex in Rockaway, raising concerns in the community that Sandy could be used to instigate large-scale corporate development. State Senator Joe Addabbo said that while he “enjoys the work” that unions do and he likes small businesses, he wouldn’t rule out welcoming big-box stores to the Rockaways.“We do have a segment of the population that is non-union and we have to find them work as well.”
Truvon Shim is part of that non-union population in the Rockaways. He was fired from his job at Wendy’s in downtown Brooklyn because of time lost due to the storm. After a strike last month by workers at 27 fast food locations demanding higher pay and the right to unionize, his boss called him up and offered him his job back. Shim learned from his experience and he’s been sharing it with other workers. He spoke Thursday at a rally held by security workers at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“When we stand together we can make your presence felt. Don’t be scared to stand up,” he told employees of Air Serve, who recently voted to walk out on December 20, ahead of the holiday travel rush. They, like Shim, hope to form a union and win a living wage.
Air Serve employee Prince Jackson wasn’t impacted by Sandy. His home wasn’t flooded and his lights are on. But nonetheless he grapples with the normalized disaster of poverty. Despite working 40 hours per week, Jackson eats out of his church’s pantry.
“I personally can’t afford groceries,” he said, “My salary is just enough for me to pay my rent, my transportation costs, my clothes to be clean. After that, I really don’t have any money.”
I asked Shim if he sees a connection between the low-wage worker struggles that have been cropping up in recent months and the activism of Occupy Sandy. “When one person steps up, no one hears their voice,” said Shim. “But when a community steps up, their voice is heard loud and clear. We stand together as one, we form like Voltron.”
On the steps of the bungalow at Beach 29th, the crowd chanted “Far Rock rising!” and “people power.” But along with people power, Occupy Sandy activists are also working to harness natural forces as well. They’re pushing for a recovery that not only meets their day-to-day needs but also looks down the road at issues of sustainability and climate adaptation in case one of Sandy’s sisters comes blowing their way again.
“People are conscious of the fact that what happened with Sandy is not normal,” said Occupy Sandy activist Jessica Roth. “People know that it’s because of global warming. They are really behind the idea of rebuilding clean and green and in a way that keeps jobs local.”
Roth hopes to help set up solar panels and other forms of localized energy production that would have kept homes warm had they been implemented before the storm. She says the winds that left so much destruction in their wake could be harnessed to power homes and prevent future disasters.
“If the Rockaways were based on clean energy going into this we would have been in a completely different situation. We would have had battery packs off of solar that were storing energy. We would have had wind turbines off the coast, which can pull up to 30 miles an hour off winds coming into the shore.”
Meanwhile, State Senator Addabbo has his mind on gas. While he says he is opposed to fracking, a carbon intensive method of methane extraction widely opposed by environmentalists, he supports the construction of a 30-inch pipeline that Williams Transco plans to build that will pump highly-pressurized, inflammable, fracked gas through the Rockaways.
Forging a recovery for the 99 percent and mitigating against the threat of future climate disasters while staving off disaster capitalism — that’s a tall order for this seaside hamlet. For Jeremy Saunders of Vocal, Saturday’s rally was just the beginning, and its objectives went beyond the immediate stated demands.
“It’s not even just about getting those 10,000 people back in their homes. It’s about long-term recovery,” he said. “There are going to $30 to $40 billion dollars in development money rolling into this city. We could use those billions to build more health care clinics, to actually employ community members to build environmentally sustainable housing, for economic and climate justice at once. We could use this as an unfortunate opportunity.”
Long-term visions aside, if Sandy victims don’t wake up in their own homes on New Year’s Day, the mayor might just have Voltron knocking on his door.