We all thought we had our work cut out for us when we woke up the morning after Superstorm Sandy (those of us who had slept at all) and held our collective breath at the sights of disaster most of us had only seen on television. Cars were piled up on top of each other, homes were destroyed, our boardwalk was dumped at our feet. This was going to be a long road to recovery.
But, unbeknownst to us then, a lion’s share of our time was also going to have to be dedicated to recovery meetings, conferences and town halls. These would become almost a daily chore. A few weeks after the storm, after the power was finally back on and I was able to get my family back home, I started to attend meetings. It took even longer for residents like me to be able to really focus on the longer-term discussions about all the recovery work that lay ahead — so many of us had lost more than just power. (This was also an important difference between residents still reeling from Sandy and outside relief workers who could hit the ground running). I initially felt optimistic that these gatherings would be empowering and productive for the community. But the more meetings I attended, the more I thought: Who the hell are all of these people I have never seen?
It would be a lie to say the Rockaway community is a tight-knit one. In fact, calling it “the Rockaways” probably better captures how diverse, tribalistic and fractured it really is. But there is a certain identity that accompanies being from Rockaway, whether you come from Rockaway Park, Rockaway Beach, Arverne or Far Rockaway. All of us — working-class whites, low-income blacks and Latinos, immigrants — who have lived here long enough understand what it means to live in this corner of Queens. It is isolated, and not just geographically — politically and economically, too. Most of us would not expect an outsider to have a solid grasp of what this community needs. But where is the line that distinguishes an “outsider” from a legitimate community member?
The storm brought an influx of volunteers, nonprofit helpers and government officials to the peninsula. In the immediate days after the storm, I met a 9/11 first responder who was wearing an oxygen tank due to the harmful effects of that recovery effort. This former firefighter not only was handing out supplies but had also organized a caravan of 12 cars full of neighbors from his town in Connecticut, who were now feeding us. Obviously, he and his neighbors were not from Rockaway, but they were welcomed with open arms.
Four months later, I found myself in a tense community meeting where outside volunteers and activists were being grilled about their roles within our community. The open arms from just a few months prior were now a little less welcoming.
I had moved to Rockaway Park in 2007 from mainland Queens looking to raise my kids in a safe, affordable community by the water. I had lived most of my life in the city and wanted to live away from the hustle and bustle. A few years in, I found myself fairly active in the community. I worked as a personal trainer with clients in the neighborhood, I biked up and down the boardwalk with my kids on a daily basis, I wrote letters to the editor to the local paper. I had even helped to stop a school closure. My community credentials were not so easily challenged, I suppose. But after the storm there was a sense, and I shared in it, that some people that had come to the Rockaways for relief work might also hang around — perhaps with their sights set on all the governmental and non-governmental money that was going to begin pouring in soon — and overstay their welcome.
I knew personally of a few volunteers who had rented a room in the neighborhood and scored paid rebuilding jobs that were supposed to have been prioritized for locals — one excellent reason to be suspicious and hostile toward outsiders, and especially so in neighborhoods with high unemployment. Some of these jobs and resources were being handled by foundations that seemed less than trusting about putting these tools into the hands of local groups and residents. One, the Robin Hood Foundation, caught my attention when local groups began complaining that they were being turned down for relief work grants in favor of outside groups — some from as far away as San Diego, Calif. While residents were also critical of the efforts of FEMA and the Red Cross, concerns about Robin Hood were notable since it controlled the millions of dollars in public donations raised through the celebrity-studded "12-12-12" benefit concert in New York.
These sorts of developments — and the subsequent discussions they engendered — added to suspicions that residents might be given the short end of the recovery stick, which is more than understandable given how often this community has been dealt that hand. But caught up in this growing insider-outsider dynamic were activists and volunteers who were perhaps simply trying to help a community whose natural disaster had been preceded by an economic one, as well. I was conflicted. I valued help and solidarity from outside volunteers and activists — including some who came with a wealth of experience from other recovery efforts, such as those following Hurricane Katrina — but I also felt the community should be in the driver's seat.
Still, the question of who were legitimate “community members” preoccupied me. New York City as a whole is grappling with the question of gentrification, so it is possible that this particular political dynamic — consciously or subconsciously — was underlying it all. On the other hand, I had a specific concern that local power brokers and schemers who had failed the Rockaways for decades with their shoddy leadership (at best) and corruption (at worst), simply wanted to block any influence from the outside lest it interfere with their own.
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that there are no clear lines or hard rules that would make a recovery effort both efficient and ethical. Who were “true” community members? What amount of time living here made you a bona fide resident? Which residents should have more influence than others — someone who just recently rented a room, a resident of seven years like myself, or a third-generation resident? Which “outsiders” were to be trusted, if any?
One year later, I think that perhaps what would have worked — and in some ways, did work — best for the Rockaways was a coalition of local and outside groups committed to opposing the status quo of disaster profiteering and pushing for an unprecedented amount of local access to funds and decision-making power. In many ways, that is what most of us wanted anyway.
But I would like to imagine we would do it better the next time around.
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