The wave of destruction that that descended upon the Rockaways in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, compounded by government neglect and the absence of official aid organizations, is not the first time that section of the city has been overcome with violence and fear. The wave of arson and disinvestment that swept through the Bronx, Harlem and large portions of Brooklyn during the early and mid 1970’s also took a terrible toll on the Rockaways, though I never saw it mentioned at the time, or for that matter in the historical literature about those difficult years in New York’s History.
I experienced this first hand in 1979 when I drove out to Rockaway to interview a former NYC school teacher and union activist, named Alice Citron, for my book Communists in Harlem During the Depression. Her address put her in a section of Rockaway, Edgemere, where I had spent many summers as a child staying in the bungalow of my grandfather, who was a garment worker. Although the bungalows were wooden, and in retrospect, extremely modest, I remember magical days and nights in that area in the early 50’s, running into the surf, playing ski-ball on the boardwalk, eating delicious knishes, and listening to the adults political arguments. The area had been packed with people, almost all of them Jewish, who had survived the Depression and were enjoying a first taste of prosperity and security. It was a joyous place.
Now, in 1979, it had the atmosphere of a ghost town. Alice Citron’s house stood on a beach block where 90 percent of the land consisted of vacant lots, with only three houses standing. Across the el tracks, near the bay side, stood a large public housing project. When I rang the door bell, Alice and her husband came to the door, accompanied by two huge dogs. Before we started her interview, which focused on the role Communist teachers played in fighting for better schools in Harlem and the teaching of Black history, she told me what the neighborhood was like today.
Rockaway had become the land that God , and the city of New York, had forgotten. In the housing projects across the street, senior citizens, most of them black, were trapped in their apartments by fear of crime. The Citrons with their huge dogs, and their car, sometimes shopped for them, and brought them to the doctor when they were sick. The neighborhood had become a kind of urban concentration camp for the poor, a place where the beauty of the surroundings was little compensation for fear, neglect, and the absence of basic neighborhood amenities. The Citrons, who had lost their jobs during the McCarthy area didn’t have the money to move out so they stayed and helped their neighbors cope. They were in their 70s then, and had no where else to go.
For years after, I was haunted by what I saw that day, and what it told me about class and race in New York City. Ten years later, when I was coaching CYO basketball, I returned with a team from Park Slope to play a game at a Catholic parish not far from the Citron home, St. Rose of Lima, but I didn’t have the time to drive around. I never found out if the neighborhood had been rebuilt, or whether life had gotten better in the projects of the Rockaway Peninsula.
Now, with reports of residents living without power, food, and water, surrounded by piles of debris the storm had scattered, terrified of crime, the memories of that visit came rushing back and along with it, the rage and frustration I had felt at the time.
Once again, the people of Rockaway were being neglected. Once again, they were reminded because of their color and economic status, they were not really “citizens.” And once again, they were living in the land that God, and the City of New York had forgotten.
This was written Mary Kate Burke, an Inwood (northern Manhattan) resident who helped transport donations to Far Rockaway: (bold and italic formatting mine)
First of all, a big hearfelt thank you to the neighborhood! Your efforts today were tremendous. I am now reporting back from what we experienced/found in Queens this afternoon with all of your donations. I would like to stress that my suggestions are only meant for the areas that we went to in Far Rockaway, and that I can’t speak for other areas hit by the storm (though I have a feeling that some of my suggestions would probably help those in Staten Island, New Jersey and elsewhere).
First up, no more clothes. (*** SEE Mary Kate’s COMMENT UPDATED BELOW. The Salvation Army has stepped in to help organize donations). Several of the dropoff places we went to had stopped taking donations. There are a few reasons for this. One, there are other high need items (which I will get to) and, two, the way that we and others have been preparing the clothes for dropoff is not particularly helpful to those people who are so desparately in need.
We visited a National Guard spot on 116th Street in the Rockaways after being turned away from Breezy Point. The National Guard (at least where we were) is only manning food and water donations. Everything else is essentially being dumped out back on the ground. Local residents are sifting through garbage bags and grabbing the few diapers and wipes that are there. There is no organization. (So, please no more clothes for now until we figure out a better system).
When we first arrived at 116th Street, we spoke to a cop and a resident who encouraged us to set up our own makeshift spot on 65th Street. Ify, the local resident who was at 116th Street with her husband and several large bags of supplies to bring back home, told us that she would lead the way, so we crammed her and some of her stuff into the Inwood Caravan (we left the husband behind) and headed down to 65th Street. As we got closer, Ify started bellowing out of the car, “These people have a truckful of shit for us!”
We arrived on 65th Street and it was a ghost town. She rallied some neighbors including several older residents who had already been at work “organizing the community,” including a council man of some sort. Don’t quote me on council man but he had some kind of leadership role. He also lived on the block.
There was no fire station. There were puddles and a scarcity of dry places to unload. And there was no National Guard. We started organizing. “You can put the water on my steps!” “Baby stuff over here!” etc…. And then the people started coming.
Council man had them line up at first and wait until we finished organizing and unloading but that only lasted so long. How could we tell these desperate people to wait any longer?
All of the food went. As did all of the toiletries, diapers, etc. Basically everything went except half a truck of clothes. We learned that things get a little dicey in parts of the Rockaways after dark and we were working against the clock.
Ultimately, Mr. Council Man told us to put all of the clothes back into the truck and try to take it somewhere else. This was tricky. We piled back into the Inwood Caravan, taking Ify with us. She helped direct us to places that were makeshift spots organized by civilians. They didn’t want any more clothes. Many of them were hipsters who had biked in to volunteer and had no way of dealing with the already overwhelming number of garbage bags of clothes. Let’s hope it doesn’t rain anytime soon.
We eventually went back to the 116th Street National Guard station and thankfully were able to leave them there after we realized that Salvation Army trucks were rolling in and collecting in response to the overabundance of clothes. Phew.
Here is what people need in Far Rockaway. (Remember, there are no traffic lights, power, water, etc., for miles.)
1. Diapers!!! After we ran out (and several people asked for them), Jaimie and I hightailed it back up to 116th Street and I grabbed the few boxes that were there, threw them in his car and brought them back. They need all sizes. I can’t tell you how many people asked for the newborn size which broke my heart. People asked for all sizes though.
2. Wipes. For the same reason as above, but they need more wipes because I am sure they are serving double duty. To wipe babies’ bottoms, but to also clean adults.
3. Batteries! All kinds. We had very few and they needed them. Including a man who used a device to speak through his throat and was worried that the battery which operated his device was going to die soon. I didn’t have a nine volt to give him. They also need batteries for flashlights and radios, and I’m guessing some elderly folks would need hearing aid and other specialty batteries.
4. Flashlights! Many asked for those and we had very few.
6. All kinds of toiletries.
7. Toys, coloring books, crayons, and fun stuff for kids. We ran out of toys quickly and towards the end, a five year old little boy asked me if we had any toys (for him) or diapers (for his younger sibling) and I had to say no. Talk about a knife in the heart!
8. Juice boxes, healthy snacks, baby food…..
Here is the deal. We need to organize another Inwood Caravan. But, we need to organize the items more effectively next time. Buying in bulk is great and cost effective for us, but not so much for those in need.