Thursday, November 1, 2012

"Where Will All These People Go?"

Posted By on Thu, Nov 1, 2012 at 1:40 PM

Rockaway Beach, Queens
  • Rockaway Beach, Queens

"They were all facing the same direction. They were all on their cots, all of them were old, all of them were alone. Where are they going to go? They don't have homes waiting for them. They don't have family coming to get them. Where will all these people go?"

These questions were posed to me by David Shaw, an artist and Brooklyn resident, who went to volunteer Wednesday night at the Park Slope Armory, which has been transformed from a YMCA into a make-shift evacuation/refugee center. Yes. A refugee center. Refugees. This is what we are dealing with post-Sandy, and it is important to use the proper words in a time like this. The New York Times is publishing pieces about "glamping"—or "glamourous camping" for those of you who have never heard this incredibly insensitive and idiotic portmanteau before—which seek to shed light on the more frivolous and fun side of being without power. But the "glampers" profiled by the Times are not refugees. They are not in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. They are incredibly wealthy families who live in TriBeCa and have been without power for a few days. Their power will come back. Their homes will be waiting for them. There is nothing inherently wrong with making light of what is certainly a difficult situation, but, when you juxtapose "glamping" with what is going on in much of New Jersey, on Long Island, on Staten Island, and in parts of Queens and Brooklyn, the cognitive dissonance is staggering.

This is a difficult time in New York City, and it is a time when the disparities of haves and have-nots has never been more apparent. However, the line isn't as clear as the starkness of the nighttime Manhattan skyline would make you believe, with all of downtown in the dark. Obviously it has been a huge struggle for those without power, and, no, not everyone downtown is wealthy or "glamping" (I will never not hate that word.) But this is nothing compared to the thousands of New Yorkers who have lost everything. Whose houses have been destroyed. Whose loved ones have died. Whose lives were washed away in a single night.

The destroyed Rockaway Beach boardwalk
  • The destroyed Rockaway Beach boardwalk

At the Park Slope Armory, volunteers have come out in impressive numbers. They must know how lucky they are to live in an area that remained relatively unscathed. What they find in the Armory is heart-breaking. As David Shaw told me, the huge space is full of make-shift cots, populated by people from the Rockaways, who had to be evacuated. Most of the people are old and many of them are in poor health. Some are in wheel chairs, some use oxygen tanks, some get around with walkers, and some stay seated on their cots. All face the same direction, they stare ahead at the wall, up at the vaulted ceiling. Some of the women who are there socialize with each other. Many of the elderly men sit there, stoic. There aren't many visitors, but that's to be expected, I'd imagine, as cell phone service is spotty and the extended families of these men and women are quite possibly dealing with their own problems and power outages.

But where will these people go? Their homes are gone. The Rockaways are full of New Yorkers who have real roots here. Are they supposed to be relocated, like people were after-Katrina? Have we as a country moved forward from Katrina and learned how to deal with a refugee crisis within our borders? What's the narrative arc here? Is there any possibility of a happy ending?

Narrative arc. Yeah. I mention that because it's what we all want, isn't it? We all want to hear about the resilience of New York, we all want that singular NYC community spirit to be on display as we recover and work toward the future. And, don't get me wrong, I believe in all of that. I believe that this city is resilient and I believe that it will recover. But I also believe that there are people—and maybe some of them are the infirm ones who are housed in the Park Slope Armory right now—who might not be able to recover. Who will disappear from the narrative. Who will be forgotten as we focus on the lights being restored to downtown Manhattan. Who are not as important as the safety of a baby walrus. Is there room for all of these story lines? I think so, yes. But I also think that we are moving incredibly rapidly past the stories of the people who are suddenly homeless and hopeless.

Rockaway Beach, Queens
  • Rockaway Beach, Queens

Those of us who escaped this hurricane unscathed are lucky. Descriptions of areas like Breezy Point and the Rockaways and parts of Staten Island are frequently full of the term "war zone," which is something that I don't think should ever be used thoughtlessly—this isn't Syria, after all—but is apt in the way that just as war creates senseless casualties, so too did this hurricane. The trauma of seeing your house destroyed, your life reduced to splinters and cinders, is something that I still can't comprehend. But I think it's important to try. It is essential that those of us who were lucky enough to get passed over do not forget to help those who were hit full on. We can not allow ourselves to let this story end once subway service is restored or once our favorite restaurants are back in action. This story is not about those of us who were lucky. This story is about the people who need to rebuild. And it is inhumane to write the ending for them when their stories are far from over.

It is a normal response to shy away from the misfortune of others. We think it's contagious. New York is a city where, just in order to survive, you are encouraged to be ruthless. But this is not a time for that. This is not a time for what volunteers at the Park Slope Armory—which, again, is usually a YMCA—are saying happens all the time. Apparently, Park Slopers with gym memberships are arriving in droves, not to volunteer, but to see if there's a way they can "cancel their memberships while the gym is occupied."

We are better than this. We have to be better than this. In order to really recover, and to repair what maybe needed to be fixed even before the storm, we have to be better than the people who can look across a room of refugees and ask about pro-rating their gym memberships.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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