Cleaning Up Sandy’s Mess: Volunteering in Red Hook

It’s been a while since I updated this blog. Many things have happened in between… Voting for a new president. A snowstorm hitting New York… It’s been some time but Sandy is not yet forgotten. Some people are still without electricity in parts of the City, New Jersey, and New York State. Such as Brooklyn. Trains have partially picked up service but Williamsburg is still pretty much cut off from the rest of the world. Literally! No gas, no trains, and the only way to get a hold of someone is either by phone or foot.

Despite all the misery, or rather, because of it all, many people felt like helping out others who were not in need. So did I, as on Sunday I got to volunteer for the very first time in my life! I would have never imagined it to be right after a hurricane hit this city. But the weekend was long and the more I did nothing, the more I felt I finally wanted to do something about this miserable feeling of helplessness. Luckily, my roommate told me about volunteer opportunities that were close by and easily accessible for us since we were in Brooklyn. “People in Red Hook still don’t have electricity,” she explained on Friday. “It’s insane how much is going on there; the church definitely needs some help this weekend!”

So early in the afternoon my friend and I took a train and a bus over to the formerly flooded part. While we were passed on at the community center, we walked down to the Red Hook Initiative. “Sure, we can always use a helping hand!” a guy exclaimed as soon as we got there. A line of homeless-looking people had gathered around hot food supplies that were handed out to the less fortunate. However, my friend had brought with her own gallon of water and canned food, so we wanted to get rid of her donations first.
“Yes, non-prepared foods will have to be donated elsewhere… Just go down three blocks and there should be a church on your left,” the guy told us while turning to a helpless resident asking for blankets.

Donating food with a friend at a church in Red Hook

“This volunteer stuff is not really super-organized,” is all we thought and then we went down to the church. A mass of people was trying to get rid of all the stuff they brought. “Blankets and flashlights across the street please, water to your left and canned food to your right,” a woman cried out. My friend and I were a tiny bit confused and started to become annoyed with how complicated donating had become. “Here, I’ll take that from you. Of course not for me, for the church,” a guy said and carried our donations up the church steps after noticing how helpless we looked. Done deal!

We then went back to the Initiative and joined a group of approximately 40 people, all eager to help out. We were asked to form groups of 6 people and then the assignment was explained to us: We were to enter the projects and take on two buildings per group. Since every floor had about 5 apartments and every building had 6 floors, we were good to go for the next two hours or so. Our task was to knock on people’s doors, ask them if they needed medical assistance, and jot down what they had to say in case it seemed like an emergency situation. Which really none of us would have known how to react had it come down to a true emergency situation, to tell you the truth.

Volunteering in Red Hook

We trotted off to so-called buildings 19 and 20. Our group all of a sudden had 9 people instead of 6, but no one really cared anymore. The people hanging outside of the projects eyed us suspiciously but let us pass without further comments. I was pretty happy it was broad daylight and I was somewhat protected by 8 more white people by my side.

A group of teenagers had huddled underneath the stairways, since an outlet had been put there to charge phones and other electronic devices. Three of us took on the fifth floor. Out of all those five apartments, one person answered and assured us that she was fine. Then an elderly lady came wheezing up the stairs as we were about to go to floor 2. She had a hard time climbing up the steps so we asked her if everything was okay. She said she needed an asthma pump soon since she had lost hers. For some reason, she kept running up and down the stairs, though, and we saw her again outside as we left the building. A few of the other emergencies were lack of insulin for diabetics and then of course some more asthma cases.

As we entered the second building, a strong smell of feces struck our noses. We had decided to take on one building with four people only just to not give the people a heart attack when having too many volunteers banging on their doors. Nothing too special here. In the third house we actually ran into another group of volunteers who had mistaken this complex for their project. But whatever, no one really had a plan by now anyways. I rang the bell of an old Polish couple – they were probably around 70 years old. They didn’t speak English but their apartment smelt strongly like gas. Such as so many other apartments we had seen.

Volunteering in the Projects

Over 80 percent of the apartments in the projects had no electricity and it seemed that only arbitrary ones had power for whatever reason. So in order to keep warm, especially the elderly had decided to just turn their oven up a notch and run the risk of inhaling poison in exchange for any kind of heat. After one and a half hours we were done. We then saw another group of volunteers, possibly with a different organization, going from building to building and handing out foods and other supplies. We felt that this was not really the sense of having us bothered the people first, since both the food and the medical examination could have all been done at once.

When we got back and reported to the Initiative with our notes in our hands, we didn’t feel like we had accomplished much. And the odd vibes we got when entering the area made us feel bad for the people who had to endure living there without power, especially during night time. There might be many harmless people in the projects but all it takes is one bad person to turn your night into a true night mare, were our thoughts as we parted.

It felt good to get out there and do something and many other people had the same ideas on that particular weekend. However, it could have been a bit more organized by the organizations, as to not randomly bother people for 10 different things in one single day. My friend in Williamsburg loaded trucks with care packages to be sent to destroyed areas. Another friend actually drove down to the Rockaways. How she managed to get gas in a fuel-impoverished city is a mystery to me. The picture below shows a washed-away boardwalk on what used to be my favorite beach this summer. It’s incredible things like these that make me understand how strong this storm really was…

A truly sad sight at Far Rockaway…. The wooden stems are what is left of the “boardwalk”

Exploring Brooklyn: Red Hook

I can picture the look on your face! “Red Hook,” you might be thinking, “What on Earth is there to see in Red Hook?”
What, has this never been on your top priority list of things to do in New York? No?!

I hope not. The only reason fellow New Yorkers know of Red Hook is because of the one and only Ikea in this area. It can be reached via ferry from the Manhattan side and through a bus shuttle from Brooklyn (Queens and the Bronx are out of luck on this one!).

A coworker recommended I go check out Red Hook. Unknowing of the area, I decided to do this on a warm early fall day – just the right time to go take my camera for a walk and shoot some pictures of the neighborhood. The trip over there was already part of the adventure: I got in on 5th Avenue and 10th Street, after searching for the mysterious bus number B77, which seems to not be running from the Slope to Red Hook anymore. Then I asked a little boy next to me for directions to the “bars and restaurants” in that area and he looked completely overwhelmed. After I had turned away and silently cursed myself for asking a little boy of ten years, he tapped me on the shoulder and cheerfully claimed that there was indeed a bar right next to “his” apartment! What a goofball!
A young man’s fantasy certainly did not make me want to get off the bus, as the route goes directly through the “ghetto”part, which is an area filled with brown stones and prone to bad history. Poor boy, I hope he doesn’t have to be cautious of fights or prove himself every day he wants to get back into his place!

A stop later I finally got off, determined to check out that “culinary mile” in Red Hook my coworker had mentioned. But before getting lost for the second time I carefully asked some passerbys who looked at each other confusedly and then pointed me in the direction of Van Brunt Street. When approaching it, I ran past many cute houses originating from another century. The area is obviously geared towards family life, I would assume. Another drawback for especially younger people is that Red Hook is hardly reachable by subway, so you have to rely on an unsteady bus schedule or own a car (which most young people in New York do not have!).
Van Brunt Street is cute to look at even though there is not much to see. I think I came across one fisherman’s bar and one other restaurant. A cute wine shop had opened up along that area and hosted a cute selection of domestic and foreign bottles.

Since I was determined to prove that I hadn’t made the trip out for nothing, I just walked down Van Brunt all the way through to the end, past the huge grocery store Fairway, past some seedy looking smokers staring at their feet, and even past the notorious IKEA, until I came to a lovely harbor area. There was nothing to do here, not a store or a bar could be found, or anything else to walk into, but I had a nice view onto the East River and I also saw old-school New York subway cars in tram wagon style. As I drew closer, something rustled in the inside and all of a sudden a drunk homeless man staggered out of it. Yicks! Scared to death I ran off, down Van Brunt Street again, until I found the first bus stop.

Trying not to be discouraged by the past hour I had unsuccessfully searched Red Hook for a culinary highlight and still confused at where Red Hook’s flair lies I gave it another shot and asked a group of young people if they knew of any good restaurants in this area. They told me to take the bus with them until Columbia Street and then get off there.

So, Columbia Street is supposed to be another recommendation and indeed they do have a temptingly-good-looking Middle-Eastern, an Italian, and an Asian restaurant, but I am unsure if this belongs to Cobble Hills already or can still be categorized under “Red Hook.”

To come back to my previous first sentence: I came to Red Hook, I saw Red Hook, and I am still not impressed. Guess the general opinion is right: There is not too much going on over there. But don’t hesitate to hop off the bus earlier and explore Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, the neighboring areas! They are very awesome!

For a few more shots on Red Hook, go to A PICTURE EVERY DAY.