When Superstorm Sandy churned up fourteen-foot walls of water that slammed New York’s coastal communities in October 2012, they also washed away any false notions we had that we care sufficiently for poor people.
One year later, Bill de Blasio was the candidate to beat to lead the city. He pulled to the head of a clutch of Democratic candidates in August 2013 thanks to a populist platform that acknowledged the need for economic and racial equity. Asserting that de Blasio would be the mayor of all New Yorkers, his son, Dante, delivered the technical knock-out in the primary race when he appeared in an ad with his big afro and his run-down of de Blasio positions: tax the rich to fund early childhood education and after-school programs, build affordable housing and stamp out the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk humiliation of black and Latino New Yorkers. By the August 13 mayoral debate, just a few days after the ad, de Blasio had vaulted from his number-two position trailing Christine Quinn to a six-point lead. In a city that is about 67 percent people of color—25.5 percent black and 29 percent Latino—we shouldn’t be surprised.
Now Dante’s dad is the city’s 109th mayor, and the question is no longer what he will do if elected but how he will deliver in the face of rising sea levels and rising inequality, in a city that is still trying to rebuild after Sandy while facing ongoing budget constraints. A look at an innovative project in Red Hook, the low-lying, low-income Brooklyn neighborhood known for its Ikea and Fairway Supermarket, should give the newly minted mayor some hints for how he can support smart, community-inspired projects to make meaningful change.
Red Hook, Brooklyn, is a spit of land jutting out over the New York Harbor and looking across to the gleaming high rises of the financial district in Manhattan. Its views are amazing, its poverty stark. More than 5,000 of its 11,000 residents live in the Red Hook Houses, one of the city’s largest public housing developments and a place where the median household income of $17,000 is well below the city average of $57,000.
Red Hook is cut off from the rest of the borough by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and has no subway access, forcing residents to rely on the bus, their feet or, for those lucky enough to afford it, a car. In good times, this means inconvenience and self-reliance; during Sandy it meant a fourteen-foot storm surge and a whole neighborhood inundated and isolated. Some public housing residents were without power for almost a month thanks to out-of-date boilers and electrical panels. Low-income homeowners and small businesses are still waiting for federal dollars to help them renovate. Four small businesses have already closed and many others teeter on the brink of bankruptcy.
Red Hook isn’t the only community flooded by record storm surges, but what happened there represents a troubling trend. Roughly 2.5 million people live in the New York City/Greater Jersey Area Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) Flood Zone. They are often poor. About 66 percent of the most vulnerable populations live within a half mile from the FEMA Flood Zone, while 29 percent of the most vulnerable populations live in the Flood Zones. Many are people of color.