Reimagining American Community

SandyIn the wake of the hurricane, and in the midst of all the chaos that ten days without electricity had caused, the thing that A seems to care about most is whether her neighborhood’s story is being told. She has a feeling that it’s not, despite the astonishing things that she’d witnessed on the day of the storm itself.  “People were swimming back to their homes,” she says; “have they been showing that?”

This is what she keeps coming back to: “I don’t know what it’s like out there,” she says, “because I don’t have TV.  My communication is Twitter and Facebook, at this point…” On her phone, that is: apps, not full-scale websites, are what are keeping her in the loop somewhat.  “During Katrina,” she says, “I was watching the whole thing…”  Not now.  Now, she’s living it, without the benefit of the nationally-broadcast narrative.  I had to tell her that her hunch was right, that Howard Beach was not on everyone’s lips the way that Staten Island was, or the Rockaways.

She’s both appalled and unsurprised.  Her bosses, once she got in touch with work, had said that they hadn’t realized things were that bad in her area.  “Everyone in my neighborhood has tried to call Fox News and everything,” she says.  Culturally Howard Beach is basically the anti-Soho: very Italian, lots of firemen and policemen and other first responders: a Fox News watching neighborhood within the MSNBC watching city.  “You know what they told them?  ‘If you have no TV, how do you know we’re not covering it?’”

It’s beginning to tell on her, this silence that she thinks she hears.  “We don’t know whether it’s a conspiracy, you know, we have these friend conversations– because Bloomberg didn’t tell us to evacuate; we’re Zone B, technically.”  Maybe the Howard Beach situation is being hushed up, in other words, because Bloomberg doesn’t want to be embarrassed about not having ordered the evacuation of the area: only of Zone A, which included the Rockaways along with area around Wall Street, and parts of Brooklyn.

Her news, these days, is coming primarily through her neighbors’ voices.  She tells me stories: about the neighbor who’s pregnant, with two kids, who lost everything; about the houses in the fancy part of town: “These mansions– you could tell they were hit by a wave, they were crushed and cracked in half, these mansions were cracked in half.”  They have no one living in them now: their inhabitants had apparently figured out alternate housing since the storm, which many others in the town have not.

Even within the town itself, there are strange discrepancies: not just the phenomenon of the exodus of the wealthy as compared with the embedding of the middle class, but the fact that two blocks of old Howard Beach has power for some reason; never lost it, she says.  That’s despite the fact that in general the other side of town, the new side, wasn’t as badly damaged.  The different levels of devastation make a difference in neighbors’ ability to help each other: “The new side,” she says, “even though it was so affected, people are clicking together better because there was less damage.”

And they are clicking together: families have been the helpers of first resort, but neighbors have been helping each other too: “Our neighbors who don’t have anything,” she says, “we help them with food.  And people who have friends from outside, their friends are bringing them food.  But if you don’t have family or friends who have food, I don’t know how those people are getting food…” She’s sure that there are people who are even more stranded than she is, farther from the FEMA and Red Cross posts in the center of town. The Red Cross’ food distribution center shuts down at 5; FEMA’s been going door to door, but to assess damage, not to hand out food.

She describes how, as supplies run short, different stores had responded in different ways.  “There were some businesses that were giving out food,” she says.  “There were others that were charging double.”

Did she vote yesterday? I ask, unable to picture how the answer could possibly be yes. “Oh, I voted,” she says, with a bitterness in her voice that I don’t hear otherwise.  “‘Cause I had the rental car yesterday.  They made sure we could vote.  They made sure Rockaway could vote– set up temporary polls– did you see?”

I had heard about long lines and confusion.  I’d actually expected to experience some: there’d been a news item Tuesday morning highlighting my own polling place as one of the ones that was crowded with out-of-district voters.  By the time I got to it, on Tuesday evening, though, it had no lines, and a peaceful orderly little bake sale was being run by a couple of moms with a brace of kids each. I hadn’t, though, known about the solutions that poll workers had slapped together in the Rockaways: voting in tents, voting in the dark, voting in the cold as generators stood idle because there was no gas to run them on.

She is not, to say the least, pleased with the Mayor at this point.  “I used to love Bloomberg,” she says.  “He’s been really great for the city.  But this… you know, he’s a business guy, and this isn’t business…Can you imagine if he’d been mayor during 9/11? He was so concerned about Manhattan– which I get, it’s the financial capital of the world…” She trails off.

She isn’t, however, mad at FEMA.  “They’re doing what they can,” she says: they’re the only outside organization other than the Red Cross, it sounds like, that has done much of anything.  “It’s the f—ing city.  All we need is electricity– why aren’t crews out there right now? Con Ed– where is Con Ed?  They say they’re worried that if they turn the power back on peoples’ houses will catch on fire.  So they came by, but they were shutting off people’s meters, removing them, so that people are forced to get a letter from an electrician certifying that it’s safe.  We had no cell service till two days ago– how are they supposed to call?  Who has gas to get there?  Con Ed should have gone door to door to inspect.  Maybe they don’t have enough manpower, they’re worried about liability issues– who the hell knows?  That’s what we think is going on.  But we don’t know– there’s no communication, it’s all word of mouth.”

She’s also angry at Middle Village.  That’s the closest town to Howard Beach, and she says they haven’t showed up at all. But “for me, I feel grateful.  My family, compared to the rest of Howard Beach, we’re lucky…” Her own house, at least– her parents’ house, that is; the one she’s not staying in because they’re all at her uncle’s– has damage on the first floor, “but at least I have a second floor.”

Disasters, claims Rebecca Solnit, are born political. In an article in which she ties Sandy into the oil-fueled narrative linking the iconic disasters of the past dozen years– 9/11, Katrina, the financial collapse, the Gulf oil spill– she lays out her hope, her expectation, that Sandy will put climate change back on the national agenda after the deafening silence on the topic in the most recent political season.  She hopes too that Sandy has “made the case,” as she puts it, “for reasonably large government.”  But she turns, eventually, to the theme of her recent book A Paradise Built in Hell.

“In many disasters,” she writes, “government and big bureaucratic relief organizations take time to get it together or they allocate aid in less than ideal ways. The most crucial early work is often done by those on the ground, by the neighbors, by civil society–and word, as last week ended, was that the government wasn’t always doing it adequately.”

Before FEMA gets boots on the ground, in other words, Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” have already been deployed.  It’s these that are the true first responders, and when they do respond, she claims, they do with a kind of joy.  There’s a cheerful manning up that happens to communities when, like Londoners during the Blitz, they must come together or fall apart entirely.  This instinct, she says, belies the notion that civilization is a thin crust on which we are precariously balancing: ready, absent a strong Leviathan-like central government, to plunge into the abyss.

The subtitle of Solnit’s book speaks of the extraordinary communities that form in disaster– and they do form, those communities; they did, during Sandy.  But it’s not automatic; it’s not tidy; it’s not a simple story.  It is, however, a story that has to be told.  And telling these complicated stories is one of the things that this new community– Solidarity Hall– is going to do.

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