Reimagining American Community

he water that had seeped into the walls of her uncle’s house was frozen.  “It’s an icebox,” she said, “literally.  I bought my dog a sweater.  She’s running around, it’s so cold… I was worried she would wake up dead.”

Hurricane Sandy

A. has been cold for a long time also.  Her bones hurt, she says; her Nonni, her grandmother, has been wheezing.  She’s in my neighborhood Starbucks now, in Forest Hills, a dark-haired girl in her mid-twenties, getting some work done on her laptop.  Her neighborhood– Howard Beach, a place I’d never actually even heard of before I met her, despite the fact that it is only a couple of miles away– has had no power or internet for more than a week at this point; ever since Hurricane Sandy.  I’m sitting next to her doing my own work, eavesdropping on her cell phone conversations.  She’s talking with her fiancee, debating thank-you notes for some event; she’s trying to figure out what she needs to pick up from the grocery store before she goes home.

Home, for the moment, I learn after I stop eavesdropping and introduce myself, is her uncle’s house.  Her whole family lives in Howard Beach, practically, with some outliers in nearby towns that have been spared.  Her uncle is the only one who has a kerosene heater, so they’ve all moved in with him for the moment.  “Twenty-six of us,” she tells me, with a kind of bemused, amused horror.  The non-Howard Beach family members had been bringing the extended household food, driving it in; everyone’s car had been drowned, and so they’d been essentially totally dependent for groceries on these family Berlin Airlifts.

Community’s a funny word.  It can be one of the most abstract, disembodied of nouns: a community of interest can form around an economic concept, can exist exclusively in pixels on a screen; a community can be described into being by journalists looking for a protagonist for a story.  This past fall, in my city, Sandy caused this abstract word to snap abruptly into physical reality.  Sandy stories are now a feature of New Yorkers’ dinner conversation, and they will be for years.  My own story involved being slightly stir crazy in a walkable neighborhood in Central Queens for a couple of days until subway service was restored.  A’s story– she doesn’t want me to use her name– is different.

It’s November 7, a Wednesday, the day after election day, ten days after Sandy hit.  This is one of the few times that she’s been out of the neighborhood since the storm: it was only yesterday that she managed to get a ride to the airport, and pay for a rental car.  It came with a tank full of gas, which was a crucial plus.  She’s out for a couple of hours, today, relishing her web access: there’s some cell phone service in her neighborhood, as of two days ago, but no wifi.  She’s gotten some work done, had a conference call with her office.  Now she’s sitting, getting warm, being normal, as the nor’easter moves in that– as we sit over our laptops– has already begun to blanket the cars along Austin Street with snow. “I’m scared of this snow,” she says, looking out at it.

There’s an undercurrent of fear through her whole story: “My grandmother has nightmares every night,” she says.  “My little cousin keeps asking me if this is the end of the world.  Six year old boy, should be in school…” But his school is closed and even if it weren’t, there’d be no regular and reliable way to get there.

The Red Cross is in her neighborhood, having set up a little distribution point near the central gas station in town. The station has no gas, of course; few places do; we haven’t yet fully realized that we are in a gas shortage that will, the next day, lead Governor Andrew Cuomo to impose rationing, but the pinch is beginning to be felt.  The Red Cross’s presence, however, is not a panacea.

“We’ve been fine for food,” she reassures me, “because we’re such a big family, but other people have needed the Red Cross, and they don’t go to you, you have to go to them, and how are you going to do that if you have no gas and you have kids?  There are people still sitting outside who haven’t had a hot meal in God knows how long, and if they don’t have family bringing stuff to them, they’re not getting anything.  I am never donating to the Red Cross again.”

She’s shocked at how long it seems to be taking for relief efforts from other organizations to start.  “We’re New York City!” she says.  “When Katrina happened, people were there right away… I feel like we were more pulled-together during 9/11.”  And, to be fair, relief efforts in the Rockaways– the lowest-lying and hardest-hit parts of the borough, where houses were literally flattened– are moving forward more quickly.  The damage in Howard Beach is less spectacular, less horrifying: I’d heard, at that point, about the Rockaways, but not about Howard Beach.  And she knows that the Rockaways had it worse.

“My family and I went to Rockaway,” she says, in the days just after the storm.  It’s the local habit to refer to the area in the singular, despite the fact that it’s officially plural.  “The Red Cross wouldn’t go there, because they said it was too dangerous– you know, it’s not the best neighborhood.”  Since then, of course, the Red Cross has set up in the Rockaways as well, along with a dozen other relief organizations.  Later on that afternoon, after I’ve started posting about this on Facebook, my uncle contacts me: he works for a nonprofit that’s in the process of setting up a “feeding station” on Staten Island and another in Queens: the organization operates efficiently, having refined this emergency response process in the most desperate areas of the Third World.  He and his colleagues have spent a night at my house– my great-grandparents’ house, technically; the house where he spent a good portion of his childhood.  He’s been spending most of his time in the City’s command center for disaster response, and Facebooks me that he has a possible line on a batch of New Jersey firefighters who somehow have gotten themselves access to a tanker truck full of gas, and are wondering what to do with it: where it would be the most help.  Could Howard Beach use it?

“Yes,” I post on his page after a quick consult with A:

There’s a gas station… on Cross Bay Blvd around 159th that would be a good place to start from. I don’t know whether providing door to door delivery of gas is feasible or necessary, but some way of letting people know that gas is available would have to happen, because communication is very spotty.

It would make a huge difference to the community: if they had gas for their cars, people would be able to go get supplies…

The following day, just after I’ve found out that the New Jersey firemen have decided to take their tanker truck of gas to the Rockaways, not Howard Beach, A direct messages me that their power has been restored.  “We are thrilled to have light,” she writes.  “People were screaming of joy in the street!!!  At least now we can put the oven on for heat– until the boiler is repaired.”   I am more relieved about this than I was when I heard that all of lower Manhattan had had its own power restored: no one was going to forget about Soho or Union Square.  A’s neighborhood in Queens: that’s a different matter.

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About the Author
Born and raised on Manhattan, a small island in the Atlantic, Susannah Black received a degree from Amherst College and another one from Boston University. She has written for The Distributist Review, Front Porch Republic, Amherst Magazine, The L Magazine, and (in her young and foolish libertarian days) National Review. Having moved back to the New York area, she is now taking her stand in Central Queens, helping to run a sort of boarding facility/rental commune/household for her relatives and friends out of her great-grandparents’ big old house. She is also obsessed with tall ships and in the summers can be found helping to sail a schooner in New York Harbor. She blogs at