I live in Brooklyn, and earlier this fall I was experiencing a little Brooklyn-fatigue. (Maybe you were, too? Have you heard that Parisians say, “c’est tres Brooklyn!” to describe a culinary zeitgeist involving food trucks? But then again, that might be hyperbole…) I love artisanal cheeses just as much as the next guy, and I am totally down with locavore cuisine, but I was starting to feel like I might live in the most navel-gazing, self-congratulatory community in America. And the irony seemed to me that over the past decade, my neighborhood had become less edgy, increasingly white, gentrified and suburban-feeling. I said to my husband as we walked home from dinner one night, “We may as well live in the suburbs. Look, every car parked on our block is an SUV!”
Enter Hurricane Sandy. We were unscathed, never lost power or Internet, but our neighbors did not make out so well. I’m not referring to our brownstone dwelling neighbors, but to our neighbors in the Gowanus Houses, just a block from our home, and the Red Hook Houses less than half a mile away. Thanks to my Twitter feed from Occupy events and Free University, I learned that the Red Hook Initiative was collecting food, water, clothing and flashlights for the thousands who were still without power and had lost so much in the storm surge, and organizing volunteers.
The Thursday after the storm, since classes were cancelled and there was no way to get to work, we walked over to RHI with all the water we didn’t use during the storm. We left the water, but were told to visit the Miccio community center down the street if we wanted to help out further. I definitely did want to help after our surreal walk from unscathed Carroll Gardens to Red Hook, where evidence from the flooding was everywhere and neighbors were sharing stories in front of the one open deli just on the edge of the water line.
Later that day, I went to Miccio with an artist friend to help out in any way we could. As we walked through Red Hook, we saw devastation, but we also saw a community digging out, and they weren’t doing it alone. People in rain boots and rubber gloves were everywhere to help the residents and businesses whose buildings had flooded during the surge.
When we arrived at Miccio, we were put to work immediately distributing donations (the lead volunteer told us that because we taught college students, we could strike the right balance between sympathy and efficiency to keep the line moving; “like retail,” he said!! Hmmm.). A row of tables faced the double doors of the center’s large rec room. Behind the tables lay the bounty of donations, categorized by type, and outside the doors was the beginning of a line that snaked around the block of people patiently waiting for these goods. Our job was to speak with each family one by one about what they needed: prepared food, toiletries, clothing, cleaning supplies? Then runners would go to the various stations and grab appropriate items. Blankets, diapers, cleaning gloves and brooms were all coveted items.
As the afternoon went on, I was amazed at the organization of this place; donations kept appearing, and peoples needs were met. “Does anyone speak Cantonese?!” someone would shout, and a Cantonese-speaker would be found. The people who came for donations (who would be without power or hot water for over a week ) had so much grace, and those who came to give gave earnestly, with no thought of tax receipts or recognition.
For the rest of that week, whether I was going to Miccio or the grocery store, I always noticed people walking to and from Red Hook in their rubber boots covered with dirt, riding bikes with baskets full of flashlights, batteries and food, and yes, even SUV’s packed to the gills with cleaning supplies and coats.
So, I won’t be bailing on Brooklyn (or hating on it!) anytime soon <wink!>.
Seriously, though, I have been doing a thought experiment lately that I am hoping could be made real in the aftermath of Sandy. What if everyone gave what they could, financially or with time and effort, when there were people nearby in need? What if my bourgeois Brooklyn enclave always advocated for our neighbors who have less? Not just with toilet paper and flashlights, but with enduring resources that would benefit our community as a whole? What if, for example, we began to invest in the public schools in our neighborhood because that, too, is a basic need like shelter, blankets, food and water? It’s just a thought experiment, but here’s hoping that’s the legacy of Sandy.