Tag Archives: Hurricane Sandy

Two Storms, Two Gardens and a Thesis Topic

9 Apr

Update!  They posted the piece along with my original abstract on the journal website.  You can read it here, if you want.  Or you can just read it on this site.  Although my site doesn’t have an accompanying photograph or an abstract.

Later this month I am participating in a conference at my school during which I will be presenting some ideas on a topic that is sort of connected to what I am writing my thesis about.  Anyway, seeing as how I am a touch behind in the thesis writing process (surprise, surprise!) applying for admittance into this conference was perhaps not my best ever idea but there you have it.  As part of my participation, I had to write a 5-7 page paper on my topic, which I turned in yesterday, along with a short bio and a little teaser about what I plan on talking about to get people excited, or warn them, or something.  So I did all that and then I got an email from the staff of the school’s academic journal, which is apparently partnering with the conference organizer, asking me for a short piece about what had gotten me interested in the topic I decided to write on in the first place so they could publish it alongside the abstract I sent in as my conference application a few weeks ago.  If they like it, anyway.  So, I wrote that and then I decided well, if they decide not to publish it, then I would feel as though it was a semi-wasted effort so in an attempt to prevent that from happening, I am going to post it here!  So, here it is.  The story of why I got interested in my conference topic via the story of how I got interested in my thesis topic.  Enjoy.

The day after Hurricane Sandy left large swaths of New York and New Jersey damaged, burnt and under water, I took a walk down to the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn to survey the damage.  I was shocked by what I saw – three foot high water marks on the public housing buildings, puddles the size of small ponds, piles of drenched belongings stacked on the sidewalks, cars that had floated from their parking spaces and had landed, water-logged, in the middle of normally heavy-trafficked streets.  I thought about the long road ahead for the people of Red Hook and other seriously impacted neighborhoods.  Quickly, my mind raced backwards to August of 2005 and the destruction wrought on the city of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.  I thought back to the images and stories that spewed out of that storm-ravaged city during the weeks, months, even years following the storm.  I started thinking about what it takes to repair.  Or, more specifically, who it takes.  I thought about the aid money flowing into New York from all corners of the globe.  I thought about how long that money would continue to come our way, what areas would receive most of it, what areas would soon be forgotten.  I thought about the Lower Ninth Ward.

During my walk through Red Hook on Tuesday, October 30th I started questioning my own thoughts about the abilities and, perhaps more importantly, the priorities of the United States government.  I am a staunch believer in the importance of a big government.  In the modern, capitalist society that we have created, I think the role of the government is largely to protect the people from the injustice of the unfettered market.  For years, I have been avoiding the reality that rather than being a beacon of hope for the millions of people forgotten by capitalism, the government has become a protector of the system at all costs.  The government has become a partner in further disempowering those most devoid of power to begin with.  I finally realized that if areas like the Lower Ninth Ward and Red Hook wait for the government to clean up a mess that is largely, through the persistence of its racist and classist policies and rhetoric, its own doing, they will be waiting forever.  Indeed, the Lower Ninth Ward, almost 8 years later, still has not gotten even close to the kind of sustained help as the French Quarter despite the fact that it sustained significantly more damage.

Once the waters and the aid money recede we are left only with ourselves and our desire to rebuild.  I began looking into similar movements in the Lower Ninth Ward and Red Hook that incorporated my own interest:  agriculture.  What I found were two separate organizations – The Backyard Gardener’s Network in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans and Added Value in Red Hook, Brooklyn – both working to better their own neighborhoods in the aftermath of the storm through community gardening and youth empowerment in agriculture respectively.  This idea of using community gardening and urban agriculture as a means through which a neighborhood can build bonds, power, and resilience in the face of future disaster became my thesis.  Through my reading and interviews, I began to delve into the idea that the same structural racism that undergirded the poor response by the United States government, particularly in the case of Katrina and the Lower Nine, actually exists in our current conversation regarding urban agriculture.  This idea of certain people’s lives being hidden from the public eye is not something unique to disaster deterrence and response, but is something that works its way into a lot of what we do and what we talk about.  It exists in the interstices of lived and documented reality.  Urban agriculture is not something that is new but is instead something that has been happening in urban centers for generations and yet that experience has largely been omitted in our current narrative.  My idea was to use this conference as a way to delve a little deeper into a topic that is of great interest to me but which is only tangentially connected to what my thesis is principally concerned with analyzing.

The day I beat an ambulance by foot

1 Nov

On Tuesday evening, the day after Hurricane Sandy hit, I went for a run.  The subways were still out and I was dying to see Lower Manhattan without lights.  I hoofed the 3 miles over to the Brooklyn waterfront, seeing downed trees and scattered debris on every side street.  I reached as close to the water as the Parks Department would allow, stood on a big block, and just looked.  What a strange sight it was. The city that never sleeps, dark.

The following day I decided to take a different route.  I was interested to see what kind of damage had been done to Prospect Park, a place I have run through countless times in all kinds of weather.  My boyfriend pointed out that running through the park, what with all the severed branches and uprooted trees, was probably not the safest thing.  What if the wind blew and a branch fell?  What if a tree, already dangerously leaning, lost its last bit of support from the soil and toppled over?  I decided to run alongside it, glancing in every now and again to see how different it looked.  So, I set out.  I ran towards Atlantic Avenue, made a turn on Flatbush and started running uphill towards the park, dodging walkers and trick-or-treaters along the way.  The traffic was insane.  I had seen photographs of highways turned parking lots all over the East Coast.  I had, myself, taken a photograph near my house with cars lined up for miles in the middle of the day.  Who knows how long the rush hour drivers on Flatbush had been trying to get where ever they were going but I’m sure it was hours.  Then I heard it:  a siren.  I looked over my shoulder and saw an ambulance for New York Methodist hospital trying to make its way through the mess.  I kept running, expecting the ambulance to overtake me any second.  I figured people would pull their cars to the side, allowing space for the ambulance to get through.  Only, people didn’t.  I stopped and looked, the ambulance wasn’t really getting anywhere.  People were just sitting, stubbornly, not willing to give up their hard-earned space on the road, ignorant to the existence not only of the ambulance, but of the person requiring immediate medical care.  There was nothing for me to do, I kept running.  I got a few blocks further and realized that, again, the ambulance had not overtaken me.  A man driving a Senior Care ambulance turned on his lights, got out of his vehicle, and directed the Methodist ambulance through a busy intersection.  The ambulance, finally, passed me.  I started running again and quickly overtook it.  This happened several more times.  Me stopping at a light, the ambulance passing me, me getting the okay to go again, running up the hill, and easily passing the ambulance by foot.  It was heart breaking.  I could only imagine the frustration of the EMTs trying to get to their destination, and the anguish being felt by the family of whoever it was that needed such urgent care.  I couldn’t believe that, after what this city has been through, people were so concerned with getting where they were going that they were able and yet completely unwilling to allow the ambulance to pass.  It was crazy. I stood on a corner next to another woman, in shock.  We looked at one another and just shook our heads, she couldn’t believe it either.  I thought about whether there was anything I could do, tried to imagine myself directing traffic.  Every scenario I thought up ended in disaster, an even bigger traffic jam and me squashed in the middle of the road being cursed by angry drivers.  I continued on.   As I finished my run up Flatbush and saw the ambulance pass, only to get stuck in the mess that is Grand Army Plaza, I quietly voiced the hope that it could get where it was going on time and that none of my loved ones need urgent care over the next few days…they might not be able to get it.