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These communities on the east side of the Rockaways — mostly poor Latino and black residents — have always been the chefs’ target audience. After Sandy hit, Rivera and Moses cooked them countless hot meals and distributed truckloads of donated water, flashlights, batteries, underwear and toiletries. The hurricane aside, more than 36 percent of the Rockaways’ 115,000 residents qualify for some form of public assistance.
Taurus Harris, who volunteered with Culinary Kids after the storm, lauded their commitment to Far Rockaway, a neighborhood “deprived of a lot of resources that seem to get to most of the city.”
“We’re kind of like a forgotten place,” Harris said.
The isolation of the Rockaways has led many longtime residents to view newcomers with suspicion, especially in the context of high-end real estate projects targeting yuppies and the creative class. This skepticism was tempered for a time by the unifying trauma and labor required immediately after Superstorm Sandy, but weeks and months afterward, the chasms of race, class and geography seemed to have deepened. Who was receiving adequate help? Which areas were being rebuilt? And which organizations were being funded to do the work?
“Competition before Sandy was already kind of stiff for nonprofits getting funding, and (storm relief) was just another opportunity to get the money,” said Helena Wong, executive director of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, a Manhattan group that helped lead Sandy recovery efforts.
“Elected (officials) are working with organizations they know, and there are new organizations popping up around ‘resilience’ and ‘design.’ There’s definitely some disaster capitalism going on. People know there is money out there for Sandy relief work, and the funders are trying to find out how to get the money out the door,” Wong said.
When Culinary Kids was told it would lose some of the 58th Street land, it felt encroached upon by Shore Soup, which the chefs saw as new to the Rockaways and unfamiliar with farming or the area’s low-income residents. In the wake of Sandy, it seemed to Rivera and Moses, land and relief money were going to “hipsters from Brooklyn” who had shallow roots in the Rockaways but close connections to the political establishment.
For its part, Shore Soup felt unfairly maligned and pushed around, when all it had hoped to do was raise vegetables and continue serving the community. Hillman-Harrigan and her team had worked every day since last October’s storm, with a vision to unite the long-divided neighborhoods of the Rockaway peninsula.
In mid-October, the Parks department acknowledged that mistakes had been made but stated that all groups would now be accommodated. Culinary Kids would keep its land on 58th Street and Shore Soup would occupy another nearby plot — though Feder, the Parks representative, did not know precisely where.
The resolution of this conflict has yet to reconcile Shore Soup and Culinary Kids, whose interactions to date have consisted of rumor. In fact, the organizations endorse a similar view of grassroots activism, frustration with nonprofit fundraising and antipathy for “disaster capitalism.”
The situation might have been different had the groups met and collaborated in Sandy’s immediate wake.
“After the storm,” Hillman-Harrigan recalled, “things were very chaotic — no Internet, very bad phone service; we weren’t getting mail. When the modern means of communication break down, we all revert to word of mouth and check up on each other.”