Report from Red Hook, Brooklyn

October 31, 2012 | Revolution Newspaper |


A group of us went out to Red Hook to find out what is happening to the people in the wake of the “perfect storm.” There are two fairly distinct parts of Red Hook—a housing project that is the largest in Brooklyn and where around 5,000 people live, and an area that used to be an old Italian immigrant neighborhood and now has small shops and homes and a new wave of artists and others. This is a fairly isolated area, with no subway lines nearby and the water on one side and the expressway on the other.

To put it in a few words: the situation for the people in Red Hook, especially in the project, has been terrible since the storm—many living without electricity, hot water, and heat (as the temperatures dipped because of the cold front that was part of the “perfect storm”).

The housing project is in “Zone A,” which the city authorities had declared before Hurricane Sandy hit as areas where the residents were under a mandatory evacuation order. The residents are overwhelmingly African American, with some Latinos. Many, if not most, of the people did not obey the evacuation order. Some people said they never heard about the evacuation order, others said that they were never informed about where to go or how to get there, and many said that they were afraid of their apartments getting broken into.

People talked about riding out the storm, watching from their windows as the streets turned to rivers and inundating the cars that had not been moved. But the worst was what happened after the height of the storm surge on Monday night. One woman, who works as a bus driver, said she and her seven kids had evacuated and spent two days at a hotel, all she could afford—only to come back to the harrowing situation in her building, and all the food in the fridge spoiled. The lack of electricity and hot water is not just an inconvenience but life-threatening for people who are elderly or ill. Some of the buildings in the project are high-rises with 14 or more stories—so just think about what a lack of a functioning elevator means for people living there. Our team was chilled to the bone just walking around the area for a couple of hours—what is it like for people having to live in the continuing dark and increasing cold?

Help from the authorities has been non-existent or very slow in coming, with people given little information about what is happening. And like elsewhere, the refusal of people to evacuate is being used as an excuse to blame them for the situation they are in. A young Black woman, whose friend lives in the Red Hook project, said she called 311 to ask what was going on with the lack of help. She was told, basically, “You refused mandatory evacuation, and you shouldn’t even be there.” Then…click.

The word and sentiment we kept hearing from people we met were that they felt “abandoned.” People are trying to pull together to help each other the best they can (while there are also the workings of the system that pull people apart, like some people who work but have a hard time feeding their families complaining about those getting food stamps). A middle-aged Black woman who recently went through a serious surgery, said she could not imagine how she could have survived if a friend of hers had not come over to help out—and such scenes were no doubt repeated all over the project. Another woman mentioned the “kids with guns”—not to talk bad about them, but to say that they were pitching in, trying to raise money for a barbecue for the kids who were missing out on Halloween.

There are also people with the Occupy movement and others, who have been working in the neighborhood to coordinate volunteers and donations coming in from other areas, and encouraging people to demand their rights.

But the people, in Red Hook and all over the whole region affected by the hurricane, are facing huge problems and the machinery of a whole system that has certain agendas and priorities that have nothing to do with the real interests of the people. The situation puts a spotlight on the insane workings of the system—and the need for a radically different, and much better, system. When we raised this to people, and told them that there is a movement for revolution working toward this goal, there was a lot of interest. You could really see how “jolts” like the “perfect storm” that just hit northeast U.S. can shake up the “normal” routine of people’s lives and open up possibilities for people to consider alternatives to this system.

Speaking of “normal”—there’s a lot of talk in the media about when things would “get back to normal” in the wake of Sandy. But for people in places like the Red Hook housing project, “normal” means the horrors of police terror, racism, and poverty. We heard many stories people victimized by the NYPD “stop-and-frisk”—a young man arrested for just cutting across a closed park to save a few minutes on the way home, a middle-aged Black woman (the same woman mentioned above), who was walking to the store just days after her surgery when she was harassed by cops who demanded she show her ID, etc., etc. Other people talked about having their gas or electricity shut off for weeks or even months, even before the storm, or residents getting kicked out into the street just for missing one rent payment.

There wasn’t the same kind of raw anger when we talked to people in the other area of Red Hook. But actually, the flood damage was much more serious here, with the waters ruining shops and first-floor apartments. Many small store owners were facing tens of thousands of dollars in damage, which meant going out of business for some. One barber we talked said the floodwaters had severely damaged his shop—and also ruined his home, which is in another hard-hit area of Brooklyn. 

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