Post-Sandy, Housing and Environmental Issues Rampant in Working Class NYNEWS, News Left, PEOPLE Thursday, December 6th, 2012
From left to right: Bethany Li (AALDEF), Alisa Pizarro (Red Hook Initiative), Jason Chan (CAAAV), Damaris Reyes (GOLES), Garrett Wright (Community Development Project), Sukhdev Sandhu (A/P/A Studies at NYU) [Gina Chung]
By Gina Chung
On Monday evening, the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU hosted a panel on the effects of community organizing in working class neighborhoods and ethnic communities that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Curated by Open City Creative Nonfiction Fellow E. Tammy Kim, the panel included staff attorneys Bethany Li of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) and Garrett Wright of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center; community organizers such as CAAAV‘s Jason Chan and Aliza Pizarro of the Red Hook Initiative; and Damaris Reyes, Executive Director of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES). Photos by Open City Creative Nonfiction Fellows Anelise Chen and Rishi Nath, photographer Yuko Torihara, and Our Chinatown contributor Gina Chung (a.k.a. yours truly) played on a slideshow behind the panelists throughout the evening, depicting post-hurricane scenes and images of Chinatown and LES.
A/P/A Studies professor Sukhdev Sandhu opened the evening with remarks on how the recent storm has brought the increasing inequalities of New York City into sharp relief, and the fact that New Yorkers will now have to grapple with the effects of extreme climate change in their own backyards. While New York City has certainly weathered its share of crises both natural and man made, Sandhu emphasized what would become a recurring theme of the evening’s talk: that natural disasters like Sandy do not affect all neighborhoods of this diverse metropolis in the same way, and that it is often the poorest communities, and communities of immigrants and people of color, that suffer the most.
In his introduction to the panel discussion, NYU Associate Professor of Journalism Suketu Mehta continued the conversation on New York’s diversity by comparing the city to its iconic pizza slice, which, in the days immediately following Sandy, was one form of sustenance available from the few food businesses that stayed open: “democratic,accessible, multicultural, tasty.” Mehta waxed poetic on the important role of New York’s immigrants and the contributions that they have made: “These New Yorkers always had a strong sense of identity. . . . Continuity saves the city in the bad years. They kept faith in the idea of New York, the possibility of New York.”Some panelists described how they themselves had been personally affected by the storm. Reyes’s home and office were in Zone A, and in Red Hook, power was not restored for weeks. Many of the organizers found themselves conducting ad hoc community relief, setting up impromptu phone charging stations and distributing food and supplies to elderly and disabled residents who were unable to access relief sites or were trapped up multiple flights of stairs in high-rise buildings without power or water. More recently, there has also been an increasing focus on case management work, as residents struggle to reclaim lost wages, file claims, and address housing issues and already strained relationships with landlords. Both Chan and Wright discussed the challenges that undocumented immigrants face in filing claims, and Wright mentioned that most efforts towards financial relief for undocumented workers have come from communities, rather than state-led intiatives. ROC-NY (Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York), for example, has set up an emergency cash assistance fund for all NYC restaurant workers who lost wages during the storm.
The lack of an immediate response from the government came up frequently throughout the evening’s conversations. “I feel the government doesn’t care. I don’t know why they wasn’t there. Some people in Manhattan had lights the second day. Some in Red Hook waited two, three weeks. Freezing, no electricity, no elevator. Regular people – this is how supplies and everything came to our neighborhood. Where was the government?” said Pizarro.When asked in what ways Sandy has highlighted NYC’s pre-existing inequalities, the organizers cited a visible lack of preparation and resources. “FEMA doesn’t work for everybody,” said Reyes, before going on to relate how GOLES had been working to address sewage blockage problems even before the storm. Residents have been reporting trouble breathing, as well as allergy and asthma symptoms, due to the effects of chemical and sewage-tainted floodwaters. In Red Hook, Pizarro said, officials came a week after the end of the storm, and no food supplies were available in the initial days. Information access was also a problem, due to the lack of Spanish language services and the fact that alerts and notices were often sent through email, a service not accessible to some elderly residents.
For denizens of Chinatown, a lack of language and translation services, as well as little support from local officials, complicated relief efforts on the part of organizations like CAAAV. In fact, Chan said, police even tried to shut down food and phone charging distribution in Chinatown on the pretext that residents were liable to start rioting. “There are no new issues: poor housing conditions, no one paying attention, landlords do what they want - This is a better excuses to push people out now. It makes our work even more important now,” said Chan, who expects poor landlord-tenant relationships to be exacerbated by the storm.
Public housing units are particularly at risk, with some fearing that the storm will encourage developers and builders eager to capitalize on a weakened resident population. “Developers have already issued a survey [asking] ‘Did your opinion change after Sandy?’ And people still want to live here,” said Reyes, citing the Lower East Side’s proximity to the water as a draw for developers.
All of the panelists agreed on the need for organizing and community involvement in the long-term, not only in times of crisis. “We need to have the community come out and tell the government that they want these changes. Long-term organizing is necessary for structural change,” said Chan. “Where’s the plan that was supposed to come out of 9/11?” said Li, recalling when Chinatown and LES communities were not considered to be in need of relief supplies after 9/11. “In Jersey City, [residents] had to protest to demand government services. What is the back-up plan for disabled government agencies in areas that have been hit hard in the past?”Tweet
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