Coney Island, Brooklyn

October 31, 2012 | Revolution Newspaper |


Felled trees lined the roads leading to Coney Island, more dramatic as we got closer.  Coney Island is a mixed neighborhood but mainly deeply impoverished – city housing projects line streets a block from the boardwalk hovering over old bungalows converted into multi family homes.  Much of it is Black and Latino mixed in with a large number of Russian immigrants, “and even Chinese people,” said one public housing resident describing the neighborhood.

After reading the call in Revolution newspaper to get on the ground reporting, a couple of us read about an area in Coney Island where there had been some looting and according to one report, the streets were filled with people, and police.  This was an area seriously affected but little heard from so we piled into a car and headed out.  We drove around a bit before getting out of the car to get the lay of the land – a high tech NYPD command post with almost 100 police in the parking lot of the Rent-A-Center (one of these extortionist type rental place that preys on people's poverty, renting furniture and TV's with outrageously high interest rates), then as we rode down the main shopping street at least a couple cops on every corner standing and staring at the passerby's.  The streets were full of people bundled up in the cold, mud covered feet, waiting on the bus or making the mile long trek to the supermarket.   

The first thing that was clear as we got out of the car – people wanted to talk.  While some people were cautious at first about talking to the news media, when they started looking at the cover of Revolution newspaper and got a sense of where we were coming from, they opened up even more – speaking bitterness, anger and frustration at how they're being treated, and even desperation about what they're going without... the conditions they're being forced to deal with. One person from our crew described one of the young guys they spoke with as someone “with a quiet rage.” 

At the same time, there was humor despite the hardship... people teasing each other, and us.  And even joy and pride in the ways some people found to come together and help each other.

It immediately became clear that people are facing a life-threatening situation. There is no running water, no power and no heat in increasingly cold days and nights.  Medicines were destroyed in the flood when water came in.  And if you have no extra money after your supplies have run out, nobody is coming to help.  A couple people said they wanted to stop and talk but they were too hungry and thirsty and wanted to get the store to see what they had left.  This was about a mile walk from where we were, if not more.  A tall Black man in his late 20s paused to talk to a friend who was talking to us to say he was being forced to sell his new phone to get food and water for his hungry kids.  The main demands are food, water, medicine, heat and transportation. 

We spent a while in front of one of the housing projects – hearing from a large group of people, mainly women.  Gloria, a Black woman in her 40s had a lot of spirit and fire.  She kept insisting that we write down that Mayor Bloomberg was a dick, and wanted to know if she could go to his house to take a fucking bath.  The laughter at this was loud and bitter.   People talked about newborn babies in the cold up in the building, and about people on respirators and even kidney machines in their apartments with no electricity. 

There were different reports about how much warning people got to leave, and a general consensus that they didn't want to go to a shelter.  People here have enough experience with social services to know how alienating and dehumanizing putting yourself in the hands of this system can be.  One woman said she didn't want to come home with bed bugs, a man talked about being afraid his daughters would be messed with.  Those who did hear the warning heard this: “we're telling you to leave now but if you stay, there will be no help for you whatsoever.”  (Mind you, this warning came in English in a building with a multitude of languages, including a number of homebound elderly people.)  An older man in a group on the street said the warnings were very minimal, and compared how when a politician comes around there are loudspeakers but nothing like that to warn people about this storm.

A sharp contrast: One woman, Veronica, described her fear at having two asthma attacks on Monday night in the pitch black with no paramedics, no cell phone service and no one to reach out to for help.  She made it through ok, but what if someone was even sicker she asked... no city or housing officials came through to check on anyone.  They were completely stranded.  But as soon as the stores and property began to be damaged, the police came running.  “What type of system is this?” asked Veronica. 

Almost no one we spoke with welcomed the police presence who instilled a quiet fear in most of the residents.  A young Black man in his 20s who talked with us for a while said, “if they weren't protecting all those stores, they'd be stopping and frisking every one of us.”  Another said “the police are getting their quotas up, beating and shoving people.”

Robert, a clear spoken man who'd spent 14 years in prison said that last night they put big klieg lights and police on every corner.  He said they've been treating the residents aggressively and hard and create a terrible negative feeling on the streets.  He talked about how these same police regularly set youth up in drug buys.  One undercover will give a young guy $30, tell him to do him a favor and go over to some other guy with this money and bring back some product.  And that there will be something in it for him.  Robert said they put this money in these kids' hands and they're broke, “how they gonna turn that down?”  But then, they go ahead with it and get busted by the other undercover.  “That's entrapment straight up, but they do it all the time.”  He said that for himself, he's been out for a while but can't find work, and he's discriminated against every where he turns. 

A lot of people talked about what had happened the day before.  A young guy told us that “We were already living hard, and in one day things got a lot harder.”  He said that “everybody was out here—it had to be a real problem and desperate situation that the older people were doing it too.”  People were getting things they needed—Pampers, tissues, medicine from the pharmacy, water, food.  “This is how we’re living now.”  An older man described how some shopkeepers were trying to help the people, giving away anything perishable, food and other things people needed.  Some stores were barricading the doors—“and they got their comeuppance.”

And later that night, the cops rode through the neighborhood with bullhorns saying that it was a Class A misdemeanor to be outside after 10 pm. 

We walk by an old repair shop. A group of three middle-aged Black men are outside, standing beside two water-logged portable generators they were repairing. I ask about the storm and the response from the city. They repeat what we've heard over and over. There's been no help from the authorities. People need water, food, other supplies. But nothing. One guy says that people are doing what they can to help each other. Another says that some stick together and some don't, but we are looking out for each other--getting people water, someone making breakfast for someone.

One looks at me and says forcefully, "This may be a high-crime neighborhood, but it's still a community." I ask about the generators that he is cleaning up. "We're going use them to help people." How so? "Whatever we can do. To charge cell-phones. For lighting. To help people with oxygen tanks." It's that bad? Yes. And then he adds, "people counted on me and these generators for BBQ's and birthdays. Now they can count on me in an emergency. This is the way we are."

Another says to me, come across the street, let me take you in the building and show you what people are going through. It's 13 stories or so. There's a thick layer of mud on the entrance level. He says, "If the city came here with clean up equipment, there'd be lots of people here to help out." Then he takes us further in and shows us the stairway that people have to climb. The stairwell is dark, the concrete steps are wet. He says, "Listen, you'll hear people coming down." And I do. People are lighting their way down the steps with cell-phones, with tiny flashlights, and some have no light. It's very dangerous, especially for older people.

Outside the building we found people had managed to get one of the fire hydrants turned on.  While the water was not drinkable, they were filling up five gallon buckets of water and bringing them up the stairs to people.  This was the only water available.

In finding out more about the scene in the neighborhood, a couple people told us to head over to a store just a couple blocks away where the store owner had been giving out food.  This took us closer to the ocean and we saw the sand spilling over the steps that led to the boardwalk... the local high school's flooded floors being pumped, and everywhere and on everything, a grey sandy mud.

Neighbors pitch in to clean up neighborhood store in Coney Island, Brooklyn, after Hurricane Sandy. PHOTO: Special to Revolution

The scene in front of the store we were told about was genuinely festive.  There were several dozen people coming in and out cleaning up debris.  One guy said he lived in the neighborhood and wanted to help out, he was running out to get more tools.  Another, named Mano, said he's lived in the neighborhood for forty years and wanted to help his favorite grocer.  He said everyone in the neighborhood did and said proudly there were people here helping from at least three different buildings in the projects.  A Palestinian man owns the store with his brother.  His father opened it in the mid 80s.  He said he tries to help people out in the neighborhood as much as he can, but today, they're helping him out.  They did give out food all morning, and were going to give more out later that day.  And he told us how when people were stocking up on Sunday, he lowered his prices to help people out, or let them pay what they could.

I asked why he was doing this and he said his father taught him from an early age, “money goes and comes, but character and respect... those are for life.”  He added that, “whether you're cheap or generous, those things are not born, they are taught.”  As we were talking, everyone that came up gave him a hug around the shoulders or pat on the back and said to me, “this is a kind man,” “this man is like my brother,” “we grew up together.”  One man said smiling, covered in mud from helping, “this is my favorite store in the whole world, not just the neighborhood, but the whole world.” 

We talked about how inspiring this was and what it shows about many people's desire in this kind of situation to come together, and what difference it would make if there were a system that fostered this instead of forcibly keeping apart.  He agreed that this system sets people against each other, and in response to what I said briefly about the potential for revolution, answered with a tired grin on his face, “I hope so.”

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