In late October, a tropical storm developed into the largest Atlantic hurricane on record. Named Sandy, the hurricane killed more than 250 people across the United States, the Caribbean, Canada and the Bahamas, causing damage equaling at least 50 billion American dollars. The devastation from Sandy is severe; it destroyed thousands of homes and left millions without power and water.
Some areas recovered fairly quickly, others weren’t as lucky. One of the areas that has only just started to recover is Far Rockaway in the New York City borough of Queens. I spent the past two days in this neighborhood on the Rockaway Peninsula and had the most eye-opening experiences.
The Rockaway Peninsula
The peninsula, known for its long sandy beaches, has historically been defined by contradictions between east and west. In the immediate post war years, mass suburbanization and modernization of travel diverted the Rockaways’ traditional summer tourist population. Property owners ‘winterized’ their summer bungalows and the City, desperate for housing for the poor, sent subsidized renters to the converted summer homes. These neighborhoods in the east deteriorated rapidly, but the area didn’t become a truly underserved and forgotten borderland until the 1950s and 1960s, when the City decided to demolish the worst neighborhoods and built dozens of public housing buildings to house the displaced and the poor. Far Rockaway became one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods . By 1975 the area, whilst only housing five percent of its population, contained 57 percent of all low-income housing in Queens. In 1990 one third of the peninsula was on public assistance and nearly one-quarter of households had incomes below 10,000 dollars.On the west end of the peninsula life couldn’t be more different with its gated communities and lavish beach homes. The middle part of Rockaway was until a decade ago largely unoccupied and was supposed to become the new ‘Hamptons’. Housing units were being built to fill the heart of the peninsula. But eager developers overbuilt the neighborhood. Most of the privately developed units didn’t sell. Matt Schwarzfeld of City Limits, a non-profit organization that strengthens awareness and engagement in civic, economic, social and criminal justice in New York City, remarks: “Because they considered their investment already lost, many speculative developers struck deals with the city to house the formerly homeless in order to recoup at least some money. Some of these developers-turned-landlords have neglected basic maintenance responsibilities. Concentrations of absentee landlords plus high-needs people with minimal access to basic services and amenities means entire neighborhoods have been neglected.”
Battered by SandyBoth east and west were hit hard by Sandy. The very western tip of the peninsula, Breezy Point, is one of the coastal communities hit hardest. 131 houses burned down to the ground and most of the others flooded halfway up or were knocked right off their foundations. Most people in this area evacuated. In the east which wasn’t as devastated, the majority of people didn’t evacuate. There are numerous reasons why people chose not to evacuate, but from speaking to the residents I can conclude that one of the main reasons is that they had nowhere to go. Many preferred to ride out the storm in their homes (located in evacuation zone A) rather than going to overcrowded and unsafe shelters. For weeks these residents, whose homes flooded, had no heat, no power and no water. People were left with nothing and help took four days to arrive. The situation got much worse when the first snowfall of the year, on the 7th of November, blanketed the region and caused even more misery to those already battered by Sandy. I observed the damage in the east and the west, spoke to members of the National Guard, Fema, Occupy Sandy and locals who are affected by the storm.
Things have gone back to normal in Manhattan and other parts of the City and it seems that Far Rockaway’s vulnerable population and their needs in the aftermath of Sandy are not a priority. Locals are resilient and work hard to rebuild their homes. Hot meals are being provided and many volunteers work around the clock. The Queens library on 1637 Central Ave was the first place that opened its doors after the storm to support and feed victims. I was at the library yesterday to interview people who are themselves victims but work non-stop to help others. The library functions as a distribution center for food and clothes, people can access the internet, charge their phone and have a hot meal.
We have just celebrated Thanksgiving and whilst most of us sat around a festive table having a great time, many were out there who couldn’t do the same. That’s why I am asking for your help . Please donate to the Queens Library Foundation. Their website is www.queenslibraryfoundation.org. You can also attend the Benefit for the Victims of Sandy on Sunday December 2 at 7 PM at KJ Farrells, 242 Pettit Ave., Bellmore NY.
Read more about Sandy in the January/February issue of the United Academics Magazine, themed: Love Hurts – The Damaged Issue.