I Would Like a Place I Could Call My Own

Not actually a song title, but a line from a New Order song called “Regret.” Which hopefully is not apposite.

When we got back home to the Upper West Side on Friday night, it was like nothing had happened. We went to dinner, and the bistro offered a “Limited Post-Sandy Wine List.” As in, they didn’t have quite the usual selection of French wines because of the hurricane, for some reason. (Distributor ran out of gas?) We walked around on Saturday, and it was like nothing had happened. After a week of anxiously watching the news and social media from California where we were delayed four days getting home, we got back, and it was like nothing had happened where we live.

What. The. Eff.

Sunday, I couldn’t take it anymore. Even though subway service was only partly back and it took me two and a half hours on public transport to get there, I went to Red Hook to volunteer, because Jesus, how could I not.

I’ve done a lot of volunteer stuff, but it’s almost always been related to the industry in which I work, nonprofits and philanthropy. I did a summer at ConnPIRG in college, where I was the world’s worst canvasser. In a week of knocking on doors, I got one donation – of stamps. I tried hard and clearly cared, so they took pity on me and let me work in the office the rest of the summer. I mean, what else did I have to do.

So yesterday was really one of my first experiences going door-to-door in a looong time.

When I was in grad school, I was involved in a study of associational strategies in Latin America in the post-labor politics era, which eventually turned into this book. I was involved the first couple of years (out of 10) and helped out with getting the surveys done in Chile. The gist was that in most of the 20th century, working-class folks in Latin America had two main venues for getting problems taken care of: labor unions and leftist parties, which were closely allied. There was an associational structure that ran through labor-based parties that helped people in times of need. (Like after a disaster – you see where this is going.) With neoliberal economic reform (Reaganomics in Latin America, crudely) in the 80s, and for other reasons, that associational structure was swept away. People thought NGOs would fill the gap, would create a new “interest regime.” This project tried to figure out whether that actually happened.

The idea that sticks with me in the wake of Sandy is “self-provisioning.” In the field research, we were trying to understand how working-class people solved problems in contemporary Latin American cities (we looked at Buenos Aires, Santiago, Lima, and Caracas). If they didn’t have labor-based parties to help them get connections to networks and get things done, were they using NGOs, or were they organizing things themselves (“self-provisioning”)?

Occupy Wall Street is self-provisioning. Or rather, Occupy-organized Sandy relief is self-provisioning, built on a structure of particular kinds of NGOs. In the research project, we distinguished between grassroots, community-based groups and professional NGOs. There was a world of difference, at least in Chile. It pretty much applies in the US as well, which I see from working with professional NGOs in my day job. What Occupy Sandy has done, from what I understand and observed in Red Hook, is to layer an Occupy infrastructure, particularly an online platform for attracting young professionals and hipsters, with grassroots, community-based groups. I signed up through a recovers.org site dedicated to Red Hook, which was labeled as having been put up in part by folks from Occupy Wall Street. Through that, I connected with Red Hook Recovery, which was operating out of Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation. Later in the day, I went over to Red Hook Initiative. The two groups were coordinating and seemed to be dividing up labor between them pretty well.

There were so. goddamn many. white people lined up to volunteer. Well, that’s not entirely true, there was racial/ethnic diversity in the group, but I don’t know how much economic diversity there was. It was a ton of people from outside the neighborhood coming in to help, because like me, they couldn’t not. And I mean literally lined up to volunteer; by the time I switched over to Red Hook Initiative, there was a line around the block at Red Hook Recovery of people waiting for volunteer assignments.

Over at Red Hook Initiative, everything was well-organized, but in an accessible, friendly, kind of chill way. Getting it done, but without any airs. (Type A-minus?) They’re in what looked to me like a former firehouse or garage – I picture a big roll-up door that was now closed. It’s on a corner, and there are two entrances, one to receive meals and get your volunteer assignments, and another to drop off donations and for residents to pick them up. I learned about RHI during my canvassing rounds in the morning with Red Hook Recovery, where we went door to door and asked people what their needs were. (One building had no electricity or hot water, and no one had come by the whole time.) Our team walked by it and it was thronged with people picking up donations. This seemed to be where a different kind of action was.

I asked about volunteering there, and had been told to come back at 4pm, that we would begin delivering meals. I got there around 3:45, and a group of people started gathering. By around 4:20 we were on our way. They said they needed around 50 to 60 volunteers, and they made that easily. We were briefed about what we needed to do, we broke ourselves up into teams, and each got a canvassing sheet. We were delivering dinner to homebound seniors, most of them in public housing. The sheet listed their name, address, how many meals they needed, and had space for us to note the answers to some questions we were to ask, like whether they needed their next dinner delivered (some didn’t), whether they needed medical attention (thankfully no one did), and whether they needed supplies (several did). A charming Irish dude briefed us on the task and how to do it, and off we went.

I’d only ever been to Red Hook a number of years back when the Red Hook Ball Fields food-truck spot was in its early-ish incarnation. They used to just be able to set up in stands around a soccer field, but eventually the city made them set up in more formal trucks/carts for sanitation reasons. We haven’t been back.

This is Red Hook, in the southwestern part of Brooklyn, not far from schmancy Park Slope and basically schmancy Carroll Gardens. It’s an industrial, waterfront/port area, and incongruously, the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal is there.

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As you can see, it’s right on the water, so it got hit HARD by Sandy. On some blocks of single family houses, half a dozen of them had the waterlogged contents of their basements out on the sidewalk. Families and their friends were going through their possessions methodically, salvaging what could be salvaged and organizing the rest for disposal. We passed by one open basement door, and looking down, the water looked to still be at waist level.

Red Hook is home to the Red Hook Houses, what someone on site claimed are the largest public-housing projects in NYC. Looks like they may be the largest at least in Brooklyn – 30 buildings with around 8,000 residents, the majority of Red Hook’s population. More than half of the buildings were without power on Sunday evening. Thank heaven for the Flashlight app on the iPhone; I sure needed it as our team trooped up and down the stairs. Most deliveries were on low floors, but the first one was on the 12th floor. Good thing I took up jogging again recently! I won’t soon forget the trek up and down the darkened stairway – nor the man who held a door for us, or another heading downstairs who stepped out of the way as we were headed upstairs.

It actually reminded me of working on the survey in Santiago all those years ago. We did two surveys, one of individuals, for which we hired a local firm, and one of associations, for which we organized a team of undergrads to administer them. My colleague and I did the test surveys ourselves. We chose specific neighborhoods in the city, got to know them a little bit, and went out to grassroots organizations to do interviews. Some of them were in current or former “shantytowns”, places where people had self-provisioned and…wait for it…occupied land and just started living there. They pirated electricity and water at first, and some eventually got it installed officially. The feel of the streets around Red Hook Initiative and at the place itself reminded me a bit of the feel of some of the more well-established community groups in the more lower-middle-class (as opposed to working class, though notions of class are different in Latin America) neighborhoods in which we did the surveys. (Lest it be weird that I compare Brooklyn to a “third world” county, when I was in Chile again this spring, I heard on the news that next year Chile’s median income will officially reach that of a “developed country”. The news was reported as no big deal.)

So, we got our meals delivered (to those who were home) in a couple of hours, and went back to RHI to report in. We kept running across other teams on the way in. Lots of activity at RHI as folks who were ambulatory had come in for their evening meal. When we handed in our filled-out canvas sheet, we were sent to talk to a data person before leaving. (This warmed the evaluator cockles of my heart.) We deciphered the hieroglyphics for the nice lady at the computer, and were done. I walked back through Red Hook Houses, which by that point I had crisscrossed possibly a dozen times over the course of the day, and caught the bus to the subway station. A decent number of buildings had lights, and I heard the whirr of generators in a couple of places. One stretch of buildings a member of our team had noticed had white discoloration on the brick walls about a foot or so above ground level. We realized it was probably from salt water, where the level of the floodwater had gotten. And there was always one door where the water could get in to the basement. I thought about a woman we’d visited who had the place like a sauna, because she had been boiling water for a long time to heat the apartment, which smelled strongly of gas. She had said she was about to turn the gas off. I sure hope so. I zipped my coat up against the chill and hopped on the bus.

What I like about this form of self-provisioning is that it built on existing infrastructure. In the middle part of the day, I wandered around kind of aimlessly, looking for something to do between canvassing and food delivery shifts. I had come all that way, I was going to stick it out. In a park between the two organizations, there was a staging area for a FEMA delivery truck. Volunteers (I kept missing the chance to do this part) most likely drawn there through social media by Occupy-connected groups, coordinated by people from the Mayor’s office in orange caps, offloaded water and blankets and staffed tables to distribute them to residents, who lined up under the direction of NYPD and dudes in combat fatigues (National Guard? Army Reserve?) who went with the two camo humvees parked nearby. I also saw one guy in a Red Cross T-shirt. I did some research on disaster relief for a client a few years ago, and this sounds like what it should look like. Coordination, different groups knowing their roles and playing them and getting stuff out to people quickly. I kept missing the chance to help out because the trucks had been offloaded, the lines had moved through, and people had gotten their water and blankets.

Occupy was only a small part of the story at that park, from what I saw, but they clearly helped to get a lot of people out to Red Hook Recovery and Red Hook Initiative to help out. And those folks did stuff that FEMA wasn’t going to do, and that the Red Cross didn’t need to do (they focus on sheltering, generally, anyway).

So NGOs in Latin America may be a different sort of interest regime, emerged in the wake of labor-based parties. Occupy Sandy seems to be a different sort of…kindness regime? Do-gooding regime? Community engagement regime? Whatever the label, I saw it working – not on its own, but tapping a clear audience and turning it out in large numbers to an area that needed the help. I was honored to have done my part.

Now go vote. Electoral politics still matter, whatever the merits of self-provisioning.

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