At Red Hook Houses, an enclave of fast-moving, efficient altruism
The morning after superstorm Sandy pushed the waters of the New York Harbor up and over the streets of Red Hook, a staff member of the Red Hook Initiative, a neighborhood community center, cautiously checked on the organization's headquarters.
She was stunned by what she found. The building, which sits on the edge of the storm-ravaged Red Hook Houses, the largest public housing project in Brooklyn, had incurred no flooding or loss of electricity, unlike almost every other building in the area.
“We have no idea how that happened,” said Jill Eisenhard, the executive director of the group.
By mid-morning, after R.H.I. opened its doors, people were showing up in droves to charge their cell phones. The majority of residents in the Red Hook Houses had not evacuated, despite a mandatory evacuation order and the presence of buses offering transport to shelters like Brooklyn Technical High School.
“In a matter of hours, we transformed from a small youth development center into a major hub for the disaster relief effort here,” Eisenhard said of The Red Hook Initiative. “The number of people volunteering their time and donating food and supplies has been unbelievable to see.”
Including one contingent that has been making itself known throughout the many poor neighborhoods affected by the storm: Occupy Wall Street. Volunteers organized by the movement under the moniker Occupy Sandy arrived on bicycles, asking if they could set up a kitchen on R.H.I.'s premises.
“They threw it together and started putting up hot meals right away,” said Eisenhard. “We know how to reach a lot of people and businesses in the area. But we don’t have the skills to put a kitchen up that fast.”
As Chloe Cockburn, a civil rights lawyer with ties to Occupy, put it: “What we build last fall in Zuccotti Park has been put to use and come alive here.”
Beginning Tuesday afternoon, a team of over a dozen Occupy organizers, working in collaboration with RHI staff, has helped provide two hot meals each day to around 1,000 people. For support, they’ve drawn on an extensive network of volunteers through the website interoccupy.net, and established a distribution hub at St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park, where thousands of pounds of donated clothes and supplies have poured in.
As of Saturday morning, only three of the development’s 30 buildings had power, according to a spokesperson for the New York City Housing Authority. Another update is expected later today.
While around 80 percent of those who lost electricity citywide during the storm have seen their power restored, according to a statement released by Con Edison on Sunday, residents of the Red Hook Houses worry that they may not see power restored for another week or more. At issue is the repair of the buildings' own electrical systems, which could take a while even though the underlying Con Edison grid is restored beneath it.
The condition in the Red Hook Houses, as with project developments in flooded areas across the system managed by the New York City Housing Authority, has been an intense focus of the local media. It's used sometimes as a parable of the disparate effects of the storm on rich and poor. And the whole system has been roped together in several articles describing fear and crime in the projects in the wake of the storm.
What’s resulted is a kind of sanctuary of altruism and mutual aid, even as rumors spread of robberies and vandalism inside the darkened buildings.
“I think many in the Red Hook community feel geographically and psychologically disconnected from the city,” said Carlos Menchaca, an aide to speaker Christine Quinn who has been conducting community outreach in Red Hook since Wednesday. “But over the last few days, with the coordinated support from the immediate surroundings like Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, that hasn’t been the case at all.”
Being rescued by their neighbors, Menchaca said, “may have been more empowering for the people of Red Hook than being rescued by a federal agency.”
And while there was no shortage of evident suffering on a visit Friday afternoon to the Red Hook Houses, the disposition of the residents seemed less urgent, in part because of the local efforts of R.H.I. and Occupy.
In her third-floor apartment in the Red Hook Houses, Deshon Rosario, 41, had been without power for five days when I visited her on Friday.
For warmth, she was boiling two pots of water on the stove, as her daughter’s one-month-old son slept in a back room. Hours earlier, she’d received a notice under her door announcing that the tap water was no longer safe to drink.
“It’s been horrible,” she said, adding that her grandson had caught a cold from the frigid temperatures at night “Once it goes dark, it’s dark.”
But despite such conditions, she was helped and also cheered by the regular arrival over the preceding three days, more than once per day, of grocery bags packed with canned soup, bottled water, paper towels, toilet paper, baked beans and other supplies.
“Honestly, it’s the response from the community that’s keeping us going,” she said.
By Sunday night, an Occupy Sandy Wedding Registry was live on Amazon, based on updates of what was needed in the most affected areas of the city. The “gifts” included Coleman LED Rechargeable Spotlights, Seventh Generation Baby Wipes and Gardena 2-stroke Gas Powered Water Pumps.
Over the weekend, a few Occupy organizers at RHI addressed what they considered an inadequate response from city, state and federal organizations.
Conor Tomas Reed, a volunteer with Occupy Sandy and professor at Baruch College, said the National Guard had shown up in Thursday, delivered pallets of food rations and bottled water in Coffey Park, and left shortly after.
“They showed up in camouflage, waving peace signs," said Reed. "A lot of the residents were rolling their eyes, like, Where were you three days ago?”
Zoltan Gluck, another Occupy volunteer and student organizer at the City University of New York, said it had taken four days for NYCHA to open the Miccio Community center down the block, which now serves as a center for clothing and supply distribution.
“It just shows the inadequacy and ineptitude of massive government bureaucracies,” Gluck said.
All week, the Red Hook Initiative has been swarming with activity. On Friday, Laura Papadimitropoulos, a physician at Maimonides Medical Center, working as a volunteer medic, was coordinating with doctors and pharmacists to get resident’s prescription refilled. Now and then, she dispatched a volunteer to deliver ice to diabetic residents, who could no longer cool their insulin.
Lisa Sikorski, an artist and prop stylist from Bedford-Stuyvesant, had been volunteering in the kitchen since Wednesday.
“It’s crazy the amount of people who are pitching in,” she said. “We’re getting hot chicken from the guy across the street, and tons of hot food from caterers and restaurants and houses nearby.”
In the Miccio Center’s basketball court, dozens of volunteers manned tables heaped with donated clothing, toiletries, pet food, batteries, flashlights, and stuffed animals. The line outside stretched for two blocks, but the mood among those waiting was surprisingly upbeat.
Cheryl Watkins, 56, an employee for the Police Athletic League, said she lives on the 11th floor of a building without electricity. For days, she had been collecting water in her bathtub from the standpipe on the roof, and using it to flush the toilet.
“I mean, I hate to walk up those 11 flights of stairs in the dark,” she said, laughing. “But I’m loving the help we’re getting from Red Hook Initiative. They’re stepping up right now.”
Another resident, Kim Davis, 35, praised the amount of supplies that RHI and Miccio were giving out.
“My mother lives in Jamaica,” she said, “and right now she doesn’t have a place to go for food, for water. A lot of houses are gone. Compared to that, everything is good here.”
Some in line had come to Red Hook from worse-off areas seeing less service from volunteers and government agencies.
Desines Rodriguez, 26, drove from Coney Island to Red Hook with her husband and eight-year-old son on Tuesday. The roof of her apartment, on the seventh floor of the Gravesend Houses, had caved in the night of the storm. She was now staying with 10 others in a small house nearby, which happened to have light and hot water.
“We've been standing in line for a while,” she said, craning her neck for a view of the entrance. “But people are actually trying to help us here.”
In a wry aside, she took the city to task for not having a more comprehensive disaster plan.
“What if the whole city floods?” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “The highest point in the city is Prospect Park. So if I don’t wanna drown, I gotta stand in the park?”
Those around her laughed at the idea.
Others I met had returned shortly after evacuating.
“I went to Queens for a few days,” said Nathaniel Mack, 22, who has grown up in the Red Hook Houses. “But I came back because I was homesick.”
Near the front of the line Rodriguez had been entertaining, Ricardo Reed, 51, a resident of the Red Hook Houses, was filming the scene with his 12 megapixel Canon video-camera. The day after the storm, he said, he had walked the length Van Brunt Street, documenting the devastation.
“Red Hook has a stigma from the old days, when it was all gangsters and Mafia stuff,” he said. "But we’re a strong community. We’re like a bunch of worker ants: most days we go around, doing our own thing. But if there's a disaster in one location, we all swarm together and make sure everybody's okay.”
Photos by Jed Lipinski except where otherwise noted.