Friday marked the beginning of the People’s Recovery, a three day summit in Brooklyn, dedicated to the continuation of grassroots relief efforts in areas hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy last October.
“It’s a crisis. It’s an absolute humanitarian crisis,” says summit organizer Justin Wedes. “There are people who are still seriously suffering, there are people who are still without power, without heat, people whose homes have been obliterated. And there are people who are still displaced and living in hotels in midtown Manhattan when they should be in their homes in the Rockaways or Staten Island.”
The purpose of the event, says Wedes, is very straightforward: “to bring together many of the organizations and non-organizations that have been doing the recovery work, to have a summit and talk about what has worked so far in the recovery and what hasn’t and begin to chart a path for a more equitable and sustainable city in the wake of the hurricane.”
The summit, which is free and open to the public, aims to coordinate efforts to help those people, through workshops and discussions on a variety of topics pertaining to relief and mutual aid, along with guest speakers, free meals and nightly entertainment. Agenda items include housing seminars, mold remediation training and talks pertaining to the summit’s main themes of wellness, economics, education, organization and environment, lead by appointed experts.
“Everybody invited to facilitate is a grassroots organizer, an activist in one way or another,” says organizer and Occupy Sandy representative Damien Crisp. Many of the facilitators have credentials beyond activism alone—they include university professors, life coaches and writers, such as John Arena, who was also involved with relief efforts during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
The workshops are conducted in a horizontal fashion, much like those within the Occupy movements, Crisp explains—meaning that audience members have as much say as the guest speakers.
Held at the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Clinton Hill, the People’s Summit is a distinctly no frills event. The speakers, performers and organizers are volunteers, all signs and banners—handwritten in marker. The main expenses proved to be food and transportation and were covered by sponsors, such as Greenpeace and Occupy Sandy.
In the well-lit basement of the church, guests mingle, drink coffee, enjoy a free meal, or peruse the table of donated books, also free to take home.
Upstairs, in the church’s spacious sanctuary—which boasts stone walls, cathedral ceilings, stained glass windows, two dozen pews and a majestic alter—stand several circles of modest folding chairs, around which the talks and workshops are held. Attendees keep their coats on in the chilly space, but seem unfazed by the cold as they discuss ideas for rebuilding along with broader concepts like education and fracking.
Among those in attendance are activists, people independently involved in cleanup efforts and community members from all over the city, some of whom came out to simply listen and learn.
Christina Leprise, 28, a resident of Redhook, was personally affected by the storm and understands how it feels to be on the receiving end of grassroots aid. When her apartment flooded, Leprise lost everything she owned, aside from her collection of books. “People would be coming around offering food and supplies. We got flashlights and blankets way before the Red Cross showed up. I think I only saw one Red Cross truck in Red Hook,” she recalls.
Leprise adds that Occupy Sandy volunteers not only provided material relief, but emotional support as well. “It’s really renewed my faith and interest in what Occupy is about,” she says.
Upon returning to her apartment after a month of displacement Leprise says she still sees grassroots representatives walking around from street to street to monitor the neighborhood’s recovery process. Leprise has also managed to put a spin on her misfortune. “It’s helped me learn to live without things I don’t really need,” she says, “so that’s a positive thing and I’m glad I got out alive.”
Others, like Miles Rosenfeld have been on the giving end of recovery efforts since day one. He initially took it upon himself to start bringing vans full of bottled water to the Rockaways and later joined Occupy Sandy. Rosenfeld has since spent nearly every day of the past three months in devastated communities like Broadchannel, Breezy Point and Sheepshead Bay, helping elderly, disabled, or low income residents that have been overlooked by other agencies.
Rosenfeld, whose primary duties include gutting houses and demolition, says that mold has become his team’s biggest enemy. “Mold just keeps growing and growing. Luckily we’re in cold times, so it’s not growing as fast, but it’s going to be a big problem when we get to summer.”
Crisp has his own concerns about the long-term aftermath of Hurricane Sandy—real estate redevelopment. Instead of working to rebuild communities along the water, the city is declaring them uninhabitable and selling the land to real estate developers, for whom beachfront property is a lucrative investment, ideal for building high-end condos. “The real estate arm in New York City is already all over the Rockaways,” Crisp says. “I don’t think we can stop all the redevelopment, but the question is how much can we stop.”
Though many of organizers and attendees of People’s Recovery, like Crisp and Rosenfeld, are involved with Occupy Sandy, other grassroots groups are represented at the summit as well. “This is a big tent event,” Wedes says. “Everyone’s welcome.”
In fact, the summit does not discriminate against government agencies either. “There are elected officials, there are agencies, governmental and nongovernmental, that have been working hard to help people,” says Wedes. “Some of them just haven’t been able to reach all the people in need. I think that we work best when we work together and when people put their bureaucratic baggage to the side and just help others.”
Wedes does, however, hope that grassroots efforts go above and beyond those of other agencies when it comes to long-term disaster relief, because he believes Sandy exposed lots of inequities in New York City. “Many of the communities hit hardest by the hurricane were also suffering before the hurricane,” he says, explaining that while corporate relief groups want to return those communities back to normal, normal wasn’t actually working for many people to begin with. “Our goal is to build back better,” Wedes states.
Throughout the summit, it’s impossible to ignore the recurring theme of resilience— even the location has a recovery story.
The Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, or 520 Clinton Ave, as it’s affectionately referred to by members of Occupy Sandy, became the movement’s central hub after the hurricane. “We had out first kitchen here, this is where most of our goods came into,” Crisp says, adding that the Fathers at St. Luke and St. Matthew are also avid supporters of the Occupy movements and were happy to house relief efforts.
Then, just before Christmas, when summit planning was already under way, the front doors of the church were set on fire—in what Crisp maintains can only be an act of arson—and Occupy Sandy was forced to move.
Parts of the church are still under reconstruction and won’t be open until May, but this weekend marks the first Sandy relief event to take place at 520 Clinton Ave since the fire. “This People’s Recovery summit,” he says. “It’s also to re-empower this church. To reaffirm that this church is a place of resistance, of relief work and a home for occupiers.”