Sad Far Rockaway – A Trip to Former Beach Culture

Far Rockaway birds flying over beach

A few weeks ago I was out in the Far Rockaways on a blissful and hot April afternoon. It was a Sunday, perhaps not the best day of the week to take public transit (as it’s much slower and trains have longer waiting times than during week days). I hadn’t been out ever since I stopped by last summer, for the lovely beach and some fish tacos (read more on this adventure here). I had spent some peaceful days in June, July and August hanging out at the shore – simply being happy not having to go through the crowds at both Coney Island and Brighton Beach.

But as so many other places close to the water, the Rockaways were hit hard when Sandy came and went. And now, seven months after the devastating hurricane, they are still nowhere close to what they used to be.

When I wandered out on this particular Sunday afternoon, I was under the impression that at least the beaches had been rebuilt and that I was able to walk around, taking in life before the summer season. I hadn’t expected the train not to be working, the people still rebuilding their houses and the Far Rockaway taco shack cleaning up the shards in front of their doorstep.

Improvised MTA station
Improvised MTA station

The first obstacle I was to encounter was when taking the A-train towards Queens: It harshly stopped at Howard Beach/ JFK (which is usually not the last stop). I already wondered what to do next until I saw the signs directing me towards a shuttle bus to Far Rockaway. When stepping out of the train station, there was an improvised MTA station for those who needed help to get around and buy tickets. A small bus transported us from the JFK stop towards our destination – over land, past hideous Queens malls and KFC joints, until finally we were in the middle of the Rockaways: Mott Avenue. Never having seen the town center before, I was left to wander around. Past some run-down houses and dubious food joints, dollar stores and delis, all concerningly low in foot traffic. The rockaways are not known to be high class but I’m sure Sandy didn’t help in destroying a perfectly poor area.

Shuttle Bus to Queens
Shuttle Bus to Queens

After being blabbed at by random hoodlums and feeling a bit doubtful about my adventure, I walked off to the H-Train, which, I can confirm, truly exists. The H-Train is now what the A-train used to be back then: It extends over the “island” from Mott Avenue to Beach 90th Street and takes less than 20 minutes to ride from one end to another. It’s the only means public transport that has been rebuilt only weeks after the hurricane but, so far, its progress has most likely stayed the same. Of course buses are also active but I didn’t have the patience to look up their current schedule. At B 80th Street I hopped off and walked towards the promenade.

The H-Train!
The H-Train!

An empty KeyFoods glared at me, with boards nailed to the doors and windows, probably never to be in service again. I had to think about how tough it must have been for businesses to sustain themselves throughout the winter. In April, a few shops here and there were open, even a nail salon and bar were back to business. However, after turning the corner at 95th Street, Giovanni’s Ice Cream and my beloved Far Rockaway Taco were tightly closed. A few guys were balancing on the joint’s roof and doing construction work. I believe this is a good sign that come June they could be open again. After taking in all of this damage around me, I was ready to get away and see a clean beach.

Unfinished Promenade at Far Rockaway
Unfinished Promenade at Far Rockaway

But arriving at the promenade, or rather what was left of it, was more than depressing. Wooden stumps semi-finished in the sand. A homeless pillow left alone on the beach. Construction debris close to the sand. Only the sea, the sea had stayed the same. I felt like just taking that pillow and taking a nap, to escape this crude nightmare. The same nightmare the residents must have experienced for the past 8 months. I really have no clue as to how and when Far Rockaway Beach will be up and running but so far it did not feel like anytime soon. The demotivation and exhaustion reeked from every turned up stone I saw on my way back. A broken doll extended her arms towards me. I wonder who lost it and how it ended up in the sewage.

Doll in sewage
Doll in sewage

A trip to the Rockaways – a shock in every bit. Whatever has been damaged will take months to come to repair. Has a summer gone to waste?

Current damage at Far Rockaway
Current damage at Far Rockaway

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”

Dealing with Sandy’s Aftermath: A Week of Chaos

A dark Lower Manhattan in Sandy’s Aftermath

This week is slowly coming to a close. However, the wounds caused by the hurricane that hit New York, New Jersey, and other states are still wide open. The full extent of the storm was well hidden to us at the time of the last two posts.

Wednesday morning I was supposed to report back to work. Such as thousands of other people all throughout the 5 boroughs. Since the trains were not functioning, our job asked us to take our own cars or cabs they would reimburse us for. Flagging down a taxi proved to be harder for everyone else, except for me. I had one down in only 5 minutes. Seeing the traffic all around the Barclay’s Center made me feel a bit queasy. And trying to get out of Brooklyn was simply hell. Driving over the Manhattan Bridge was almost a piece of cake compared to the bumper-to-bumper scenario in downtown Brooklyn and before.

We drove through a somewhat less lively but nonetheless depressing Chinatown. Unkempt people, no matter what ethnicity, waiting in a long line for the bus to Uptown. Students trying to get a ride out of this city. Then the ghost town of the West Village and the rest of Chelsea. A family with two small girls, evidently not having taken a shower in days, with desperate looks in their eyes and even sadder expressions while waiving their hands for a cab. An angry woman shaking her fist at us because I was the only passenger in an otherwise empty cab.

After one hour I was finally in Midtown – way sooner than most of my coworkers. The horror stories from them piled up one by one: People from Queens were stuck in traffic for up to 2 1/2 hours before they made it to work. Other Brooklynites paid 75 bucks for a 2-hour cab ride which would have cost them 20 bucks max under normal circumstances.

That one morning by itself was the beginning of an endless frustration reaching throughout the entire week. The Empire State Building had its power up, alright, thanks to its own generators and what-nots. However, ConEd had turned off the heating. We sat bundled up in our winter coats, trying to get some work done and being hit over the head when pictures from Staten Island, Breezy Point, and New Jersey reached us through the online news. A heartbreaking story of a coworker who had lost his house and car all in one night. Another who was scraping sewage water remnants from her basement walls. And yet another stuck without electricity in Staten Island.

Traffic in Brooklyn on Thursday

It turned out that a total of four people lived in Brooklyn, and since we were pretty much all on the same route (Park Slope and Sunset Park), a coworker with a car volunteered to drive us to and from work until the day the subway was running again. While driving down the FDR, we passed the East Village, or rather, the depressing sight of ultimate darkness of what had once resembled a carousel ride.

On Thursday, subways resumed partial service to Uptown Manhattan and from Queens to the City (stopping at Times Square). Brooklyn was still cut off from Manhattan. The MTA started engaging shuttle buses from the Barclay’s Center to Manhattan. The lines were a total chaos: People waited as long as 3 1/2 hours to get onto their “ride.” As we drove past one of those horrendous lines, we saw people lined up around more than 6 blocks. Traffic was still dense in the morning. Police officers were checking if the minimum of three passengers per car was met. Whoever had less persons was asked to pick up waiting hitchhikers on the side of the bridges or to turn around and not enter Manhattan.

We decided to evade “rush hour” traffic and drive home at 3 o clock already. A wise decision. Subways started resuming service throughout Brooklyn, but still not into Manhattan. The buses were still a complete chaos. Much more pedestrians than usual could be found on the bridge throughout this entire week. Horror stories from the working subway lines in Queens were discussed at work: People were fighting over seats and shoving others from the benches. Passengers were smashed against the train windows but at least they had gotten on.

The updated MTA map that was valid until Saturday

More stories from residents of Lower Manhattan made the round: Supposedly their Uptown brothers and sisters denied them access when they went into hotels and asked if they could at least charge their phones. The discrepancy between this city sometimes still baffles me: Only one block over and it could have been you without power for 5 long days, 40th Street!

On Friday, the ESB started having problems with electricity in certain rooms. Our Internet gave up. We basically were simply incapable of doing our work because of these technical issues. Electronic heaters were bought and put into our offices so that we could take our winter coats off. It was pretty much a wasted day.

Horror news of a snow storm hitting us next week made the round. All of Lower Manhattan was still darkened out then. I started asking friends if they knew someone who was still stuck there and that they should get out before the second storm hits. Work asked a few people to come in on Saturday, only if the power and Internet was working again, of course. When I told my friends, everyone was shocked. In a state of chaos, we need a weekend without having to go through the excruciating pains get to Manhattan. Everyone needs these two days off to recover from the bad news, the frustration, and the shock that surrounded everyone who had to return to work and go through disastrous traffic or deal with half of New York still being out of power.

Traffic jams everywhere

Another crisis was slowly creeping up on us: The gas shortage! When we drove home once again on the last workday of this week, we found a line of up to ten blocks long leading from the Brooklyn Bridge all the way to Atlantic Avenue. People must have been waiting for hours already! The news reported a man pulling a knife at someone cutting the line at a gas station in Queens. We had enough of this chaotic week and just wanted to be left alone with our own worries, not having to bother with getting to and fro the City.

It also happened to be my friend’s birthday yesterday, so I ended up walking those 1 1/2 hours from the Slope to Williamsburg. Since the cabs were now charging outrageous fees due to the gas shortages, I tried a bus first, but two crowded ones drove by without even halting. After 30 minutes I had enough. As it was still early in the evening, I made it to the isolated part of Brooklyn safe and sound. A short stint past the famous Marcy Avenue Projects, but it was still early at night. At the same time, power was restored in almost all of Lower Manhattan. From over half a million households, now only 5,000 are left powerless. What a true wonder ConEd performed last night! The happy Facebook posts on my friends’ walls were endless and heartbreaking at the same time.

And then this morning finally some more good news: The 4 and 5 were the first subway lines to go all the way from Brooklyn through Manhattan to the Bronx! Hourly updates poured in: The Q to be restored by the afternoon, the 2 and 3 by tomorrow. The D up and running on Sunday. Now the only trains that are missing are mostly in Williamsburg: The G and L lines will most likely take until sometime next week to function properly again. The L is underground and all the tunnels have been flooded. Seeing pictures on the Gothamist really makes me appreciate that at least a few subway lines are up in the running this weekend. I will not yet take advantage of them but hope to get to work on Monday that I have more options than a car or a cab.

New York finally announced that they won’t hold their marathon this coming Sunday. One of the sanest pieces of news I have heard do so far in this matter. It had caused a lot of disgruntlement and even hatred when it came to this topic. How could a marathon be carried out when Staten Island, Manhattan and other parts were still struggling to digest what had happened to their destroyed homes? Luckily, hypocrisy did not prevail, even though Bloomberg’s initial argument was that the marathon would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars revenue… So everyone who flew out to run can help as a volunteer if he or she really wants to support this city!

What is the situation right now? The gas shortage and frustration connected to it still persists and most likely will for a long time. While Manhattan is almost restored to its old self, the often forgotten and in this case even neglected borough of Staten Island is struggling to keep up with restoration. New Jersey, Long Island and Westchester are mostly still powerless and have no heated water. Whenever this will be back to normal – who knows!

Currently I am simply thankful for living in one of the lucky areas and having had the option of a ride to and from the city. The initial state of frustration is giving way to depression and sadness at all the damage caused in this city. We survived but the wounds are still fresh and nowhere closed to being healed.