Environmental disasters wreak havoc indiscriminately, but their impact is often most keenly suffered by already vulnerable populations. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City on October 29, 2012, little of Brooklyn’s waterfront Red Hook neighborhood was left unscathed.
“Red Hook Houses is an area that will require a lot of rehabilitation,” said Juan Osorio, Director of Research at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA). This rehabilitation requires “updating the infrastructure, retrofitting and rehabilitating buildings,” Osorio said of the largest New York City public housing complex in Brooklyn. “And connecting those investments with local jobs is critical.”
In Red Hook, the poverty rate is 33 percent, compared to the city-wide average of 19 percent. The majority of the neighborhood’s 1,400 residents live in Red Hook Houses, according to the city’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency report. The residents faced flooding, and weeks without electricity, heat, and in some cases, running water. Since the superstorm surged one year ago, young people are bringing their talents and ideas to the table for Red Hook’s recovery and future preparedness, with an eye on serving its most at-risk residents.
”We really want to make sure that low-income communities and communities of color are made stronger, so that they are better able to withstand the dramatic changes that are going to affect them in the future,” said Ronald Shiffman, Pratt Institute professor and founder of the Brooklyn school’s Center for Community Development. In response to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, Pratt launched a new interdisciplinary program in the summer of 2013, Recovery, Adaptation, Mitigation and Planning (RAMP). Continuing through the fall and spring semesters on both the graduate and undergraduate level, the program includes studio classes like Community Planning, Green Infrastructure, and Architecture: Repositioning in Place – Strategies for a Resilient Red Hook.
“How do you adapt to the changing environment?” Shiffman asked. “What are the kinds of new products you need in the neighborhood? How do you go about looking at new job opportunities? How do you build the capacity of young people, particularly?” These are all questions posed to students in the RAMP program. With three decades of community work and relationships in Red Hook, the hard-hit neighborhood was a natural place for Pratt to start, Shiffman explained.
“This is not purely an academic exercise,” he said. “We’re working on policy issues, programmatic issues, as well as local capacity building that will have a lasting effect, so that the community can adapt to both climate change and issues around recovery.”
With a grant from the New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM), fellow Pratt professor Deborah Gans tasked her undergraduate architecture students with creating post-emergency, interim housing solutions for Red Hook residents using an OEM prefabricated housing prototype. The goal was to arrange the units at sites within the neighborhood, which students visited at the start of the program, to keep the economic and social viability of the community intact after an event like Sandy.
“Sheltering in place, or sheltering people in relation of their daily lives, has a lot of benefits,” Gans explained, “but how do you do that after an event?” Students also worked on manipulating the existing Red Hook Houses landscape to better mitigate future climate disasters.
Gans’ 21-year-old student, Jasper Hayes, worked with a partner and proposed a project that included elevating the OEM housing units off the ground using steel stilts. This would keep residential units safe from flooding and free up the ground floor to be landscaped with a system of controlled water collection and drainage.
The RAMP program was a chance to put his education to practical use, and for a worthy cause, the fourth-year undergraduate architecture student explained. “I had an opportunity to propose a solution to an existing problem,” he said.
For Hayes, meeting with members of the Red Hook Houses community was essential to the process. “It was eye-opening to hear the stories of people who lost their homes, and were forced to live in really adverse conditions for a period of time,” he said. The residents themselves helped inform Hayes’ understanding of the needs of the community.
”There has to be a dialogue between whoever is coming up with the solutions and the actual occupants,” Hayes explained, “because, if you don’t have that connection, you don’t know if you’re serving their best interests.”
The sentiment was echoed from within the Red Hook community. “I think the proposals were a start to necessary conversations,” said Frances Medina, who was raised in the Red Hook Houses.
At 24, Medina is now the Executive Coordinator for the Red Hook Initiative (RHI), and part of a community of Red Hook’s young people engaged in neighborhood-based activism on behalf of its low-income residents. With 60 of its 90-person staff high school-aged, the non-profit organization provides youth-empowerment programs, including tutoring and paid internships, targeted at residents of the neighboring public housing projects. The vast majority of those residents are African-American and Latino, Medina explained, and 75 percent of the youth aged 19-24 are unemployed.
A disaster in their own neighborhood helped some of RHI’s young beneficiaries realize their potential community impact, Medina explained. “I think that after Hurricane Sandy, you’re able to see it more, because the conversations are happening,” she said. “You know, ‘How can we be effective leaders?’ Because, they were the ones that were at the forefront at a lot of the relief efforts immediately after the storm. They were the ones taking meals up to seniors. They were the ones coming every single day to RHI and helping us organize the supplies.”
Still young enough to be a member herself, Medina started coming to RHI to use the computers to write school papers at 16 or 17, and the center became a second home to her, she said. She returned after college to help the organization with its social media efforts. So, when Sandy hit, she leveraged RHI’s Twitter and Facebook accounts to coordinate relief efforts using the hash tag, “SandyVolunteers.”
“It kind of started a domino effect, where people were retweeting and starting to use that hash tag,” she said. “So overnight, the Twitter following grew from 250 to 3,000, and the Facebook from 200 to 2,000.” She used the online document-sharing platform Google Docs to circulate sign-up sheets to thousands of volunteers and hundreds of food donors.
“It was incredible. We were able to connect with individuals all over the country, who were sending us packages,” Medina said. “A lot of what was being funneled into the neighborhood was from people looking at our social networks and seeing what we were doing.”
Continuing to use technology to foster crucial connections, RHI’s youth-led Digital Stewards are working with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and local businesses on Red Hook WiFi, free wireless Internet service for Red Hook Houses. RHI and NYCHA have also teamed up to train Red Hook Houses residents in each building in the complex to be first responders in preparation for future events.
In addition to conducting research studies on the uses of social networks for small nonprofits, and maybe graduate school at some point down the line, Medina’s future plans? “Working my butt off for my second home!”