Sylvia’s Soul Food Meets Sandy
The call went out on Facebook. The owners of the legendary Sylvia’s Queen of Soul Food restaurant in Harlem were looking for someone to donate a bus so volunteers could deliver food and clothing to people in Far Rockaway, Queens. A few hours later the call was answered by Muriel Samama, the owner of Harlem Spirituals Gospel and Jazz Tours. Muriel has offered bus tours of Harlem for 25 years and one of her package deals includes a gospel brunch at Sylvia’s restaurant. Muriel is originally from Tunisia and lived in Paris until she moved to New York City. We talked on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant as chefs loaded the luggage compartments with trays of fried chicken, “sassy” rice, collard greens and boxes of apples and bananas. She thought that the city was doing “an amazing job in Manhattan” but added, “We can’t forget the people in Staten Island and Queens.”
I noted that everyone was speaking French. Muriel said with pride and a wide smile, “This is the French delegation.” That would explain the gentle kisses on each cheek.
Then it was time to get on the bus but not before everyone was offered take out cups of coffee and tea for the ride by Trenness Woods-Black, the granddaughter of Sylvia and the organizer of the trip.
We headed out of Harlem and hit the highway to Queens. Trenness took the microphone and asked for everyone’s attention. She thanked us for coming and talked about how she had to find a bus to deliver food and clothing to help out “fellow New Yorkers.” Trenness said a prayer that ended with “They are not alone in this.”
I was in the back of the bus surrounded by Francophones who had brought their four children along. Sebastian,a 12-year-old said, “Since the beginning of the week I’ve seen the devastation on the news and my mom talked to me about it and I’m pleased to come and help.”
Adele, who lives in Paris, also 12-years-old told me, “I saw the hurricane on TV and all the damage and I wanted to do something.”
Francois Rontey, Adele’s mother explained that the entire family had come to New York for the marathon. Her husband was an avid runner. Francois said it was “absolutely right” to cancel the marathon and that, “We need to use the energy for the marathon to help people.”
Far Rockaway in the borough of Queens is far, far away from the epicenter of power in lower Manhattan where the rich and powerful live, work and play. It is a poor peninsula community with a median income of $27,820. Initial relief efforts were focused exclusively below 39th street in Manhattan to restore power to businesses and to the stock exchange on Wall Street. In the city that never sleeps, in the city that coined the phrase, “In a New York Minute,” the poor and working class neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island could wait.
As our bus got closer to Far Rockaway, the devastation began to unfold. Uprooted trees littered the streets and garbage bags sat stacked on the sidewalks. There had been no rubbish pickup for a week. In the commercial district, stores with thick metal roll-down security gates created an eerie and barren streetscape. The few corner stores that were open had no power and cautiously let patrons enter to purchase whatever was left on the shelves. On street corners we saw groups huddled around portable generator stations patiently waiting for phones and computers to charge. These circular formations of energy grid refugees became a defining feature of Hurricane Sandy. The ability to communicate via text and e-mail is now a basic human need, along with food and water. Gas stations had their own energy refugees. Crooked lines of people holding red plastic containers formed at every Amoco and Mobil station. Gas too, has become a basic human need.
Our bus drove down Beach Channel Drive and Seagirt Boulevard through depressed ghost neighborhoods of evacuated, dilapidated homes that had been battered by Frankenstorm Sandy into even more dilapidation. Police officers stood alone on street corners.
Our bus driver Josie found Conch Park, the location where we would serve the food and distribute clothing. The National Guard and NYPD Community Affairs officers were directing the operations. A long queue of people snaked through a playground and into a parking lot where food trucks offered a variety of New York’s finest walk away food: Eddie’s Pizza, Phil’s Steaks, Milk Truck and Cupcake Crew. The sidewalk was piled high with clothing and cases of bottled water. People took freely from both.
For fifteen minutes, Trenness and Muriel tried to negotiate with officials to let us unload but were told our donations weren’t needed and that we should go to another location. We were disappointed. Francois shook her head and said with a thick French accent, “This is the 21st Century?”
We drove through more lonely and empty main roads full of huge puddles. Human detritus covered the sidewalks. Flooding had forced families to abandon waterlogged couches, mattresses, pillows and warped furniture. Everything that used to be inside the house was now outside.
Josie finally found the second location and we pulled into a huge strip mall parking lot across from the boarded up Far Rockaway-Mott Avenue MTA train station. The A train is the major artery connecting Far Rockaway to Manhattan and service was suspended which increased the sense of being cut off from the mainland.
There were hundreds of people milling around and waiting in line. The strip mall was anchored by a Thriftway Drugs, Shopco and Food Dynasty. People were waiting in line for food and canned goods. Mounds of free clothes were being picked through and a charging station was encircled with cell phone charging citizens.
We exited the bus and Trenness and Crizette, another granddaughter of Sylvia’s, directed volunteers to set up the tables and prepare the food. Other volunteers dumped plastic garbage bags of clothing onto the asphalt and encouraged people to take what they needed. Blankets were in high demand. The temperatures were rapidly dropping and with no heat, more blankets for warmth were desperately needed.
Almost every person seeking assistance was African American.
Sheldon Parker was sorting through clothes with his young nephew and said, “This is a disaster. This is crazy. There are forty projects here. No electricity and no hot water. People are doing as best they can. For the first few days they cut off the water and feces piled up in the toilet bowl. During the day it’s okay, but at night it’s every man for himself. There were a lot of burglaries.” When asked if the city’s response was adequate, Parker replied, “They did the best they could to prepare for the storm but afterwards they were unprepared for the damage that came.” He offered a suggestion to city officials, “They should have had cell phone companies come out with phones to help people stay in touch with their loved ones. My sister was trying to reach me for three days.”
Valerie, a woman who would only give her first name, waited in line to get some soul food. I asked how it was going and she said her voice full of frustration, “They’re forgetting about Far Rockaway. Bloomberg is not reporting on the real crisis. There are no lights, food, or power for a week. In the newspaper they’re not talking about Far Rockaway. They need to come here to see what’s going on. It’s a crisis and nobody is out here that needs to be.”
I asked numerous residents if FEMA and the Red Cross were organizing relief efforts and they all said no, until today. Only the National Guard had come and handed out individual pouches of MREs (Meals ready to eat) but that was it.
Residents said churches of all denominations had sprung into action and coordinated a response to the devastation. All over Far Rockaway, houses of worship became central hubs to meet people’s basic needs. This is the role that churches have always played in the African American community.
Encoya, a young woman with a newborn was fed up, “We have no light or heat and it’s cold at night.” When asked how people are coping she replied, “We sleep, we try not to think about it so we sleep all day, when you’re awake you think about it. I have a 7-month-old baby, we’re afraid to walk at night. There is no light. We can’t go to the Laundromat. You can’t wash.”
No one I asked knew when power would be restored but rumors were swirling that it might not be until Thanksgiving. Being kept literally in the dark about when the electricity would be back on was one of the most infuriating aspects of Superstorm Sandy.
Far Rockaway had been plunged into quiet medieval darkness. One train ride away, Times Square was awash in a kaleidoscope of bright, neon light.
Two women with Occupy Wall Street were distributing food in the parking lot. Adrian explained, “Occupy Sandy Relief has been pulling resources together to help all over the city. I’m also a Red Cross volunteer. The Red Cross didn’t open any shelters in New York City and I don’t know why. Many volunteers like me were not deployed. I get very frustrated when people ask where is the Red Cross.” Adrian pointed across the parking lot and said, “That Red Cross truck is from out of state.” And sure enough it was. Don, an older white man who was reluctant to talk me because he said he could get in trouble, had driven to Queens from Rochester, Minnesota – twelve hundred miles away. He wanted to feed as many people as possible and from his truck he’d distributed hundreds of sandwiches, bags of chips, fruit and juice. He admitted though, “It’s been pretty chaotic. There are a lot of people in distress.”
The sentiment that the powers that be didn’t care about the people in Far Rockaway and that they were forgotten was expressed over and over again. Sharlene said, “It’s rough out here. That’s all I can tell you. They don’t care about us. They think about the other boroughs. Everybody else has lights. We don’t have nothing. We’re the forgotten city over here.”
But the people who live in Far Rockaways were not forgotten. Ernest Flowers, a candidate for the New York City Council said, “It’s been the most heartrending, most sobering experience but at the same time the amount of people coming out to volunteer and help neighbors has just been tremendous.”
I needed to use the bathroom but there were no portable toilets so I went into Food Dynasty, the grocery store at the far end of the parking lot. Loud generators powered lights and cash registers at the checkout area but the rest of the store was dark. The shelves in every freezer case in every aisle were empty. Huge boxes of apples and oranges were available in the produce section but the deli was closed. As I waited to use the bathroom, I spoke to Louis, a young Latino grocery worker. The power had been out for days and he said, “We just rented generators to open for the public so people can eat. People are starving and we’re the only supermarket open to help the community.”
A hurricane is a great revelator. It reveals how class and race shape who gets help first and how much. A hurricane reveals the dynamics of power in way that nothing else does. And a hurricane reveals how poor and working class people who suffer the most when nature catapults out of balance join together to help one another.
As we boarded the bus to head back to Harlem, I asked Crizette about her experience. She said, “It was real touching when I saw the lady that got my grandmother Sylvia’s blanket. We have a blanket of hers that we donated and the lady was in tears she was so thankful for it.” Choking back tears, Crizette added, “That’s a good feeling.”
Helen Redmond is an independent journalist and writes about the war on drugs and health care. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org