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‘We Want to Show What’s at Stake’: Rockaway Residents Demand Climate Action

Alex Ellefson Sep 13, 2014

When protestors fill the streets of Manhattan on September 21 to demand that world leaders address global warming, a contingent of Rockaway residents will be there too. These inhabitants of the narrow 11-mile-long spit of land on the edge of Queens, which was one of the areas most devastated by Superstorm Sandy, plan to wear colorful papier-mâché life preservers that read: “Preserve our Communities.”

Many experts agree that global warming exacerbated the damage caused by Sandy. And while the storm water surged through low-lying areas of the city, causing devastation regardless of race or class, the relief effort immediately after the storm showcased how residents in poor, marginalized communities are the most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. In the Rockaways, residents of the peninsula’s poorer eastern end lived without heat or electricity for months amid their ruined homes while much of the rest of the city sprang back to life within weeks. City and federal relief agencies were conspicuously missing in action.

‘Real Neighborhoods Where People Live’

On a mild summer evening in mid-August, a little over a month before the climate march, Rockaway residents gathered in a local church to decide how they would share their story with the world. Rockaway Wildfire, one of the groups born out of the grassroots volunteer efforts that stepped in to rebuild after Sandy, organized the meeting.

“The idea is that we want to represent our community,” said Kalin Callaghan, a third-generation resident of the Rockaways and Rockaway Wildfire’s lead organizer. She pulled out three brightly painted papier-mâché art pieces to show how the objects carried in the demonstration would be constructed. “We want to create images of our homes and the places here that matter to us. We want to show this is what’s actually at stake when it comes to climate change. It’s not just numbers on paper. It’s real neighborhoods where people live.”

Attendees split into groups and were asked to write about their homes, their community and what they were most afraid to lose.

Local resident Zakhia Grant said she loved strolling along the boardwalk and watching the passing ships out on the Atlantic Ocean. She told the other people in her group that she was afraid of losing her ability to interact with nature.

“I know the risks that are associated with living in coastal communities,” said Grant, who is an adjunct professor at Berkeley College and teaches classes in environmental sustainability and natural disasters. “We need to protect what we have here. And what other people are coming from miles away to appreciate. Unfortunately, it took a disaster for people to appreciate nature more.”

“It’s like an island that nobody wants,“ John Cosirramos said of his community in Far Rockaway. He spent more than eight months waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide funds to rebuild his home, sometimes living in his car. “My house was flooded. There was mildew growing. There was sewage water in the house. I lost everything.”

Occupy in the Rockaways

To fill the void left by agencies like FEMA and the Red Cross, small faith-based organizations, community groups and civilian volunteers stepped up to lend a hand. One of these groups was Occupy Sandy, which harnessed the interpersonal networks created during the Occupy Wall Street movement to deliver urgently needed supplies to those in need. They handed out food, sent volunteer groups to help homeowners rebuild their damaged houses and brought in doctors to provide medical care — a much needed service in an area where the lone hospital was already overwhelmed.

Taking a break: Members of Rockaway Wildfire enjoy a light-hearted moment during an end-of-summer party the group threw on Sept. 5. Photo: Devika Bilimoria

While other relief groups eventually left, Occupy Sandy stayed in the poorer eastern end of the Rockaways. Some of the volunteers, who had been working alongside community leaders and local residents, began focusing on long-term organizing efforts to strengthen the community and address the underlying issues, such as poverty and job scarcity, that predated the storm. Together, this mix of locals and Occupy Sandy volunteers teamed up with the Wildfire Project, an organization that trains and supports grassroots groups across the United States, and formed Rockaway Wildfire, a community-based organization dedicated to broader recovery strategies in the area. On this remote peninsula far from the centers of power in New York, strengthening grassroots democracy and civic participation would become a key part of climate resiliency.

“There were a lot of needs in the Rockaways before Sandy,” said Tamara Shapiro, a former Occupy Sandy volunteer and Rockaway Wildfire organizer. “The needs right after the storm were for immediate relief. People needed food. They needed medical attention. But residents of the Rockaways also recognized that this is going to be a long-term recovery and we have to look at long-term organizing in addition to the immediate relief needs.”

Not all of Rockaway’s residents have equal needs. On a peninsula stratified by class and race, the western tip of the Rockaways is mostly white and solidly middle- to upper- middle-class. But go further east, to places like Edgemere and Far Rockaway, and you enter some of New York’s poorest neighborhoods, where more than half of the public housing in Queens is located. The condition of the Rockaways’ east end is no accident. It’s the result of the city’s urban renewal projects during the middle of the last century that uprooted poor New Yorkers from all over the city and dumped them in public housing projects at the edge of Queens.

“At one time, the city wanted to push poor people out to the perimeters of the city, as far away from Manhattan as they could,” said Callaghan. “But there’s hardly any job opportunities here. There’s also very inadequate health care, transportation is very difficult and for a long time the schools were sort of sub-standard and overcrowded.”

Luxury Housing by the Sea

The era when New York City funneled its poor people into housing projects in coastal communities like Far Rockaway, Coney Island, Red Hook and the Lower East Side is long over. Nowadays, real estate developers covet shoreline properties as sites for building luxury housing, climate change or not.

One such piece of land is Arverne East, an 80-acre beachfront property that stretches over 20 blocks and has been vacant for decades. The land is owned by the city, which in 2006 designated a group led by L+M Development Partners, the Bluestone Organization and Triangle Equities to develop the site. The group’s plan to build a 1,199-unit housing development quickly stalled at the onset of the 2008 economic crash, but has been revived again since Superstorm Sandy.

To address longstanding issues in the community, Rockaway Wildfire has directed its first large-scale campaign toward winning a fair and comprehensive Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) from the developer before the project goes up for final approval from the city.

“There’s a lot of people here who have been struggling for a very long time,” said Callaghan. “So if we’re going to give up public land for a developer to get rich, we want to ensure that the existing community benefits from that.”

Kalin Callaghan: Rockaway Wildfire's lead organizer. Photo: Devika Bilimoria
To prepare for the struggle over the future of Arverne East, Rockaway Wildfire members met with community organizers from the Northwest Bronx who fought a lengthy battle with the Bloomberg administration over the future of the long-abandoned Kingsbridge Armory.

With support they marshaled from local politicians, religious leaders and celebrities, a community-labor coalition in the Bronx thwarted Bloomberg’s attempt to turn the armory into a low-wage shopping mall. They subsequently negotiated a CBA with developers who plan to build the world’s largest indoor ice-skating center. In the final deal, the site’s developers agreed to contribute $8 million toward a 52,000-square-foot community space and promised to pay the ice-skating center’s 260 workers at least $10 an hour. The developer also promised to set aside $1 million annually for 99 years in order to pay for free ice time for local youth.

Community Demands

Inspired by the outcome in the Bronx, Rockaway Wildfire canvassed the community, knocking on doors and holding information sessions to learn what residents would like to get out of a potential community benefits agreement. It also partnered with other local organizations, elected officials and outside advocacy groups, eventually forming a coalition, United Peninsula Working to Attain Responsible Development (UPWARD), to negotiate for an agreement with the developers that includes a job training center, recreational space, storefronts for locally-owned businesses and a disaster relief hub.

Rockaway Wildfire members attended a meeting with organizers of an international design competition sponsored by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD), the American Institute of Architects and Arverne East Developers, which offered a $30,000 cash prize to the architecture firm that submitted the best proposal for the new development. Representatives from the UPWARD coalition told the architecture teams participating in the competition what they would like to see included in the design for Arverne East.

In June, the Arverne East developers unveiled their proposal at a meeting attended by more than 200 people from the community. The new plan includes many elements from the design that won the design competition while also incorporating many of UPWARD’s requests, such as a vocational school, nature preserve and business-owned (rather than leased) commercial storefronts.

Although HPD, which still owns the land, requires that 43 percent of the residential units in Arverne East be reserved for affordable housing, the developers did not address the issue at the meeting.

City Councilman Donovan Richards, who represents the area, insisted after the June meeting that affordable housing must be addressed but said the developers did “an amazing job” and complemented them for listening to input from the community.

“We’re pretty happy with the plan,” said Callaghan, who also attended. “But we understand that things change. So until we sit down and have a signed legal contract between the developers and the community, we’re not satisfied.”

Worker Cooperatives

If the proposal moves forward, Callaghan said she would like to see some of the commercial spaces go to the worker-owned cooperatives that Rockaway Wildfire’s partner organization has been developing. Worker Owned Rockaway Cooperatives (WORCs) has been helping local residents, most of whom are Spanish-speaking immigrants, form their own co-op businesses over the last year and a half. Already, WORCs has successfully launched a construction company and a bakery and is nurturing three more: a taxi service, a juice bar and a landscaping company.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Luis Casco, a Far Rockaway resident who is one of four people working to launch the taxi service. “All the profits you make go back into the company and the workers.”

Casco, who works as a security guard in Lower Manhattan, previously drove a cab in the Rockaways before his boss’s gambling habit wrecked the business. He expects the taxi service to launch by the beginning of 2015 and would like to see it grow to a fleet of ten cars.

“Working for someone isn’t good,” he said. “With a co-op, you would have more of a family than a regular business. The people you work with will have your back.”

By encouraging worker-owned co-ops, Rockaway Wildfire hopes to build businesses that benefit local residents and keep wealth within the community. Before Sandy hit, the small number of businesses in Rockaway were able to meet only 30 percent of local demand for goods and services, according to a study by the American Planning Association, forcing residents to spend their money in stores outside their neighborhood.

WORCs also seeks to promote environmentally sustainable business practices, an important issue in an area that recently experienced a climate disaster.

“Cooperatives are a way of building something where the people have ownership over the way they’re producing,” said Shapiro, who helps facilitate WORCs activities. “And that relates to climate because the way business is happening right now, the big corporate way of doing things, is one of the major reasons that climate change is getting so much worse.”

‘We Got a Story To Tell’

At the August storytelling workshop, many of the residents shared their experiences from Superstorm Sandy, but they also agreed that the storm carried an unexpected blessing because it brought neighbors together and strengthened the community.

Now, they said, it was time to share their story with the world. Rockaway Wildfire will join more than 1,000 other organizations at the People’s Climate March, representing a broad range of interests, including unions, environmental activists and religious groups. One Rockaway resident, Darren Carter, who works as a clinician at a drug rehab facility, told the other attendees gathered at the church that he hoped the momentum leading up to the march would bring people together to address climate change.

Carter later told The Indypendent: “We are just one of many groups of survivors of climate disaster. People in Rockaway, people in Staten Island, Coney Island, whoever was affected in New York City, should be galvanized together. All I know is that if your story is that for weeks there was no lights on the street, for weeks and months you had no water. If your story was like that, we need to come together because we got a story to tell.”

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