From Flooded Neighborhoods to Sustainable Urbanism: A New York Diary

[Ed. Note: This article was published as a photo-essay. To obtain the original file complete with over two dozen photos, contact]

Shortly after Superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast of the United States, activists started organizing relief efforts. Occupy Sandy, an outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, started organizing relief hubs bringing food, water, and relief supplies to those impacted. Connecting with community groups and churches, this relief network filled a gaping need left by the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who were missing in action. One of the groups involved in relief effort was the environmental advocacy group Times Up!,1 which coordinated relief rides, bringing supplies from relief hubs to those in need. The rides offered immediate assistance, yet they also served as a reminder that the world would need to pursue alternatives to fossil fuels which seemed to have caused the devastation. More and more were turning to tools such as non-polluting transportation, urban gardening, and mutual-aid-based organizing efforts, which connected those in need and led the way toward more sustainable models of urban living. Responding to the specter of rising sea levels, environmental activists reminded the world to think in terms of something more fundamental than building sea-walls. With tools like bio-remediation and non-polluting transportation, we already have many of the resources needed to create healthier communities which can be sustained in the long term. The following is a brief diary of the days after the storm when communities responded to the immediate disaster of Sandy, while laying out a means toward a better and more sustainable city.

After the storm hit the East Coast, many of us marveled at the ways – both good and bad – that the city responded to it. Before Sandy, we already knew just how ridiculously top down, cold, and hyper-controlling the city tends to be; witness a recent edict by the city against feeding the homeless. This indifference faced a brick wall with Hurricane Sandy, as city, state, and federal responses lagged behind those of grassroots mutual aid groups, such as Occupy Wall Street’s project Occupy Sandy.From the earliest days of OWS, the movement highlighted the power of mutual aid networks, in which people shared ideas and resources, friendships and material aid. The idea was that revolution meant we needed each other. By the time we got kicked out of Zuccotti Park (November 2011), Occupy had already been spreading citywide. The process grew over the next twelve months as the New York-based movement dovetailed with local and global struggles and the city had its own Katrina Moment. The result was a tempest of creative direct action. “We believe in the power of the people and we believe in creating a sustainable future without destructive fossil fuels!” explained Monica Hunken, one of the organizers.

The weekend after the storm, I read Shakespeare’s The Tempest with my father. “It was his last play,” noted Dad as we pored through his well-read undergraduate edition. The play’s storm forced the bard’s characters reflect on who they were.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
            As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
            Are melted into air, into thin air:
            And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
            The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
            The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
            Yea, all which it inherit, shall desolve,

And, like this unsubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on. And our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

With lives and fortunes “melting into air” just as Marx and Marshall Berman described, seemingly paraphrasing Shakespeare, regular folks citywide responded to our tempest, helping us reimagine what a city could look like, the way it could function, the way people could care, its people could transport themselves, and share what they have. This interconnected “we” really is “such stuff as dreams are made of…” It really is the space where we imagine being full caring people.

With lives and fortunes “melting into air” just as Marx and Marshall Berman paraphrased the bard, regular folks responded to our tempest, helping us re-imagine what a city could look like, the way it could function, the way people could care, the way they could transport themselves, and could share what they have. This interconnected “we” is such stuff as dreams are made of. It is a place where we imagine and practice what we can really be.

In the days after the storm, squatters cooked food thrown away by the market, giving it away for free. Certainly non-monumental, the gesture would portend a different way of living and making choices about resources. Occupy started organizing relief efforts and Time’s Up started organizing rides to deliver supplies to hard hit areas.

By mid-November, the group organized Fossil Fuel Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, November 10th, 11th and 12thDisaster Relief bike rides to deliver food, blankets, bike-powered charging stations, and mobile bike repair units to neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Sandy, The group using their fleet of bike-trailers and cargo-bikes to make such deliveries from Occupy Sandy. They used their own bicycle-powered phone-charging station and mobile bicycle repair units in hard-to-reach areas, where they set-up distribution centers with free bike-powered charging stations and free bicycle repair – sustainable solutions to the devastation caused by climate change.

“The idea is to offer relief to people who are cold and hungry today and to address the root cause of this disaster at the same time, so that fewer people will go through this in the future,” noted Time’s Up volunteer coordinator Keegan Stephan. “All this devastation is the direct result of burning fossil fuels. We should not ignore this while trying to help those who have been devastated. That is why Time’s Up is offering sustainable alternatives to energy-production and transportation as well as delivering food and blankets.”With lives and fortunes “melting into air” just as Marx and Marshall Berman described, seemingly paraphrasing Shakespeare, regular folks citywide responded to our tempest, helping us reimagine what a city could look like, the way it could function, the way people could care, its people could transport themselves, and share what they have. This interconnected “we” really is “such stuff as dreams are made of…” It really is the space where we imagine being full caring people.

All month long, Time’s Up brought food and supplies out to Rockaway with a hub set up in the empty lot across the street from Veggie Island Beach 96 and Rockaway Boulevard.

Monica Hunken explained: “We provide: bike repair, bike-powered cell phone charging, bike delivery of food/supplies to homes, messaging, dance music, and clean-up crews. All free!” For Hunken, actions such as this were part of building a new society. “Please come on by! All welcome!” After the Saturday ride, Jackie Junttonen wrote: “Thank you, Time’s Up!, for organizing a steadfast and well executed show of support to NYC. Today was the first of the Fossil Fuel Disaster Relief Rides. Over 20 cyclists with bike trailers and panniers converged from the 5 boroughs to deliver Occupy Sandy donations to families without electricity, heat and other basic services. We rode en masse from Williamsburg to the Rockaways, offered help with cleanup, distributed food, blankets and necessities, charged many cell phones with pedal power energy, and offered free bike mechanic services. GO TIME’S UP!!”

The group focused on taking riders back to the Rockaways instead of Staten Island. “There are many reasons for this,” noted Keegan; “bicycles are more useful in the Rockaways than on Staten Island. The Rockaways are gridlocked. It takes cars 2 hours to make deliveries, whereas bikes can make deliveries in less than 15 minutes. On Staten Island, cars are making deliveries faster than bikes.”

I joined the Monday ride, words from The Tempest warming my insides. I felt like I was floating, I was so grateful there was one more ride in which I could take part.

My friend Sarah was there to send us off. She talked about the need for bioremediation. We have tools to clean up and remove pollutants from communities around the city, she explained. Already the landfill in Staten Island is spreading around the island. It’s really dangerous out there. Levees and sea walls won’t do it, she continued. We will need to rebuild the marshlands around New York. Wonderful things happen when communities face these challenges. We rebuild cities from the ashes and floodwaters. Kids squat buildings in New Orleans. Here in New York, we are already reimagining what our city could look like.

Much of this was on my mind as we rode our bikes to the Hurricane Sandy Emergency Relief Station. Arriving at 520 Clinton Ave, I was greeted by my friend LA Kauffman. She had brought her kids after doing relief work all day long. Kauffman, an old friend from the Lower East Side Collective, was one of the organizers who helped me see the radical potential of a community garden. Today these spaces are more important than ever. They provide food security and oxygen, while helping us reduce asthma and crime. Yet, many were damaged during the storm.

In front of the Church of St Luke and St. Matthew, a sign declared “Mutual Aid, Not Charity.” There, countless activists talked about the idea that recovery had to involve a different kind of model than charity, which seems to put a bandaid on the problem, while leaving capitalism still in place. Mutual aid involves creating a different set of engagements, which involve connections and networks of support rather than power imbalances or dependencies. Here everyone helps each other. Revolution means we need each other.

The Occupy Sandy station inside the church was pulsing with volunteers pointing people to drop-off areas for new supplies, coordinating supplies for those going out to the Rockaways, and orienting new volunteers. Long-time activists and neighborhood people were there to help, along with kids home for Veterans Day. FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] was nowhere

It was a glorious day for our ride down Flatbush to Ft. Tilden and the Rockaways. We passed cars parked in bike lanes, waiting for gas while the cyclists zoomed by.

Riding up to Rockaway Taco on 96th, it felt like New York City was a disaster area – so many fire engines, police cars, and houses with no electricity. The damage from the storm is only intensifying in areas such as Coney Island, Staten Island and the Rockaways. “Two weeks after Hurricane Sandy,” the Center for Constitutional Rights noted, “many people remain without electricity and heat, depending almost entirely on grassroots relief efforts organized through groups like Occupy Sandy Relief NYC…. The time is now to be part of the people’s recovery and counter any corporate-dominated response that would further exacerbate the social inequalities laid bare by this crisis.”

“After touring only a few of the devastated areas in NYC – the Rockaways, Sheepshead Bay – it is clear that New York is not ready for the devastating effects of extreme weather,” argued Josh Fox, director of the documentary film Gasland;

Seeing Riis Park turned into a massive landfill of rubble, the ruins of houses from Breezy Point, it is almost too much to bear. To think that this type of destruction goes all the way up the East Coast is beyond what any film could encompass. We have to get serious about reducing emissions, folks, or else we will continue to watch our coastal areas damaged beyond recognition. Hats off to the remarkable work that Occupy Sandy is doing to provide mutual aid. Hundreds of thousands of meals provided, tens of thousands of volunteers, medical clinics, relief supply distribution…amazing to see what non-hierarchical leadership can provide. Power to the people y’all. Stop climate change. Prevent the next Hurricane Exxon.

Riding past Rockaway Taco, people cheered for the cyclists delivering supplies. That afternoon cyclists canvassed the area delivering supplies to people’s homes. Keegan and Adam helped charge, “a dvd player, radio, and many cell phones including this one, all with one energy bike!” In the meantime, Monica and others with Occupy the Pipeline canvassed the area, drawing attention to the potential crisis of a proposed gas pipeline through the Rockaways. “Can you imagine what kind of spill we would have had if that pipeline had been here before Sandy?”

After hugs and thank you’s, I had to turn around as soon as we arrived so I could make it back to CUNY in time to teach my 2:30 class. It was a joy to fight back with a little care. Thank you, Occupy Sandy and Time’s Up!, for reminding us that there are other ways to live and build a city; there is love among the ruins. Please save Rockaway Beach before it caves away into the sea.

After the ride, Keegan wrote everyone in Time’s Up!:

Last weekend was magical. Over three days, I worked with over 50 of you, biking heavy loads of goods 18+ miles each way, back and forth from the Rockaways, which were devastated by Hurricane Sandy. We used our legs, bikes, and trailers to transport much-needed goods from Brooklyn to Queens, then to home-ridden families and individuals in the Rockaways. We used our muscles, hands, and knowhow, to help with clean-up, demolition, and construction. And we used our passion about the environment to spread knowledge and action about sustainable transportation and energy with free bike repair lessons, bike-charging energy stations, and tutorials. I was humbled by how eager and energetic all of you were to step up and provide mutual aid to communities we rarely interact with. What’s more, looking at each of you, and noticing the caliber of individuals in this group – from founders of other amazing non-profits, to energy experts, to tireless volunteers – I felt reassured that I’m doing good work. I struggle with this, as I’m sure all of you do – wondering if what I’m doing actually matters. But when I notice all of you incredible individuals working alongside me, all my doubts disappear. Thank you, all. Now, let’s keep up the good work this weekend!

Energy bikes, mutual aid, and autonomous power

More relief rides were scheduled for the next few weekends. Time’s Up built ten energy bikes which they brought to Veggie Island, where the group stationed themselves the last weekend. “Not only will we provide relief from this disaster, but we will work to prevent more disasters in the future,” noted Keegan.

Gandhi implored his followers to spin their own fabric in defiance of British colonial rule. In doing so, he suggested they could create their own power. Energy emanated from spinning their own cotton to create their own clothing. “The spinning wheel represents to me the hope of the masses,” stated Gandhi. The same thing happens with people-powered energy – Time’s Up cycling events and energy bikes, recharging people’s phones, while sharing our lives with others. Through these rides, we divest ourselves from dependence on fossil fuels, while sharing what we have. The joyous rides, pulling trailers of supplies from 520 Clinton to Veggie Island, are our form of mutual aid.

The following weekend, more mutual aid signs were up at 520 Clinton. Mutual aid is a different set expectations; it asks us all to share, to be fully human. It helps highlight who we are and can be. And most of all, it is direct action in which we build our own power.

“I just really enjoy it,” explained one of the riders. “You can’t say I am not getting something out of this.” With these expanding mutual aid networks in mind, Alexandre Carvalho, of the Occupy Revolutionary Games Working Group, sent a post on “The #MutualAid network and the aftermath of #OccupySandy” to the September 17th listserve:

i really see the advent of #OccupySandy as the beautiful religare to occupy’s spirit of Zuccotti Park. a relational atmosphere that was missing from the scene in a while and is the cornerstone of what we do – a deep respect and solidarity with human beings in suffering, first and foremost.

meaningful movements have Lost Paradises, certain lost times, which serve as ethical compass for political dispositions. the park is our Paradise Lost. that eerie smooth human atmosphere that is at the core of what makes us human.

the parks and streets and communities of the world are our roving Paradises – this time, Paradises that can be found and built together.

Aristotle once wrote that #poiesis is to “learn by making”. the new #Mutual Aid network of OWS should stay even after the destruction of the hurricane is over and done: there will always be natural disasters, and human-caused disasters to struggle side-by-side against, such as poverty, oppression, violence, environmental degradation, labor exploitation, injustice.

these silent daily disasters also need a hurricane of mutual aid. a grassroots #MutualAid arm, delivering direct [mutual aid] action from the people, by the people, to the people. seems to be the rebirth of OWS, from a political and ethical standpoint: always inviting and invited, respectful of differences, listening first and talking last, non-controlling or mass maneuvering, and above all making love the highest play.

if we are to have dogmas – and maybe we all need to believe in something… maybe the only one really worthwhile all along was love.

Making his argument, Alexandre looked to the absurdist spirit of the Dada movement to suggest:

MADA this,

MADA that

NADA this

DADA that!

Mutual Aid as Direct Action is a meme that wants to fly.

Much of this spirit powered our ride down Bergin across Brooklyn on Flatbush to the Rockaways. “It was a wonderful ride,” noted my friend JC as we crossed the bridge to Jacob Riis, where piles of rubbish fill what was once a putt-putt golf course. “That’s so telling of our culture,” mused JC. A pedicab driver, he had taken part in our puppy pedal parade earlier in the spring. The rambunctious ride was enjoyed by kids, animal lovers and cyclists. “Love seemed to emanate from that ride,” he mused.

The relief rides are part of building a new model of sustainable urbanism based on mutual aid, care, community gardening, non-polluting transportation, and solar and people-powered energy. The solutions to global warming are here in front of our eyes.

Adapting to Change

Over the next few months, Time’s Up held countless relief rides among others in which we talked about adapting to the new reality of life in the city. One of the most fascinating parts of my life in New York involves traversing the steps and stories of friends throughout the city. Sometimes these stories take me through the community gardens or ways to re-imagine what the city could be if sea levels rise and climate chaos continues. This conversation was the topic of December’s “Adapting to Change” ride. We met in Tompkins Square Park in the Center Circle.

Sandy’s storm-waters surged into Manhattan, heralding a new 21st-century reality. We’ll ride along the new coastline, and explore both the aftermath and solutions generated in the East Village that mitigate or adapt to the realities of climate change. The ride includes discussion of practical responses that increase livability, as well as long-term planning options for a more resilient NYC. All are welcome on this 2-hour ride by Green Map System,2 co-sponsored by Time’s Up

Meeting in the middle of the park, Wendy Brawer from Green Map System was there to greet me. She pulled out a 17th-century map of New York City, showing that much of the Lower East Side of Manhattan was marshland. She gave out small Green Maps showing how Sandy’s high water mark followed similar contours.

We toured through much of the city, looking at various green projects and buildings, imagining what a more sustainable model of a city would be like, if we had more community gardens, such as the one we created at 181 Stanton Street this summer. A group of activists collaborated with neighbors, who dreamed about what a vacant lot could look like if it was liberated from a fence surrounding it. We cut down the fence, started cleaning up, brought in friends, collected signatures in support of the garden, built our allies, and gained support from the community board. When Sandy hit, this garden was one of the few spaces in an asphalt jungle where water could be absorbed. Standing in front of the lot, supporters talked about the need to get people into the gardens, increase the time that they are open, and promote convivial social ties so that social networks are in place to support these spaces before they face inevitable attacks by forces which hope to privatize, bulldoze and develop them. Through the ride, we started planning gardening events for the space that very moment.

          A group of us rode to the East River, where we talked about the water rising ten feet higher than usual during the storm. Rather than a seawall, hopefully we can create marshes to slow the rising. It’s all part of reimagining the city. The city is always shifting and changing with historic and social forces reshaping the ways it is organized, policed, and enjoyed. Now when I look at fenced off space, I hope to open it for people to meet, talk, share, and create a livable city.

The other day, Caroline asked me what I thought I would be doing with activism for the next decade. I said I would be looking at how to help New York become a city which really supports sustainable urbanism, honoring the benefits of non-polluting transportation, alternative energy sources, community gardens, and mutual aid.



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