Still Here: Recovering After Sandy

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 24, No 2 (Summer 2013)

Melanie Franklin Cohn

I’m sitting with sixteen artists around a table filled with Russian food. As we introduce ourselves, a poet says, “I’d like to share my work with you all later.”

“Now, now! Go ahead!” the others respond.

The poet nods, stares down at her plate, taking a few seconds to compose herself, and begins:

I don’t wanna see you hangin’ round my place
if I do I’ll hit you square in ya ugly face
wit’ straight white vinegar and tea tree oil
’cuz just a trace-a you and my blood begins to boil
Black mold.
Black mold.
Slidin’ on my back around the base-a my crib
wit’ protective goggles and a plastic bib
a mask rubber gloves and a bottle-a bleach
there ain’t a corner you can hide in that I won’t reach
Black mold.
Black mold. 1

She finishes, and we cheer, laugh, applaud, then go on sharing our meal. The artists talk about long waits for insurance adjusters, the sticker shock when replacing art supplies and equipment, and the surprise of reaching for something familiar, like a favorite pair of shoes, before realizing they no longer exist, lost in the tidal surge of Hurricane Sandy. After a while, they share ideas for the future, for projects in their communities or their own practice. They talk about recovery.

Hurricane Sandy hit on October 29, 2012. It impinged upon five areas of New York City — Staten Island, Lower Manhattan, southern Brooklyn, southern Queens, and the Brooklyn/Queens waterfront. Staten Island’s shore communities all took on damage, with especially devastating impact along the East Shore.

New Dorp, Ocean Breeze, Midland Beach, and Cedar Grove took upward of eleven feet of sea surge, affecting thousands of people. According to the city, although Staten Island had only 13 percent of the city’s inundated buildings, it had 52 percent of yellow- and red-tagged (damaged) buildings, and 40 percent of the city’s recommended demolitions.

In the immediate days following the storm, it was difficult to process the full scale of what had happened, let alone know how to respond. I was fortunate in that Staten Island Arts’ offices (in zone A) and my home were unaffected. But many of our grantees and community artists were badly hit. I had returned, less than two weeks before, from the GIA conference in Miami, where I had participated in a session with Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs. About two days after Sandy, Michael called to check in and offer help. We spoke about his experience after Hurricane Andrew, and how his office had set up an assessment system. By November 2, though we were still unable to return to our offices, my staff and I had set up our own assessment, and begun reaching out to all the artists and arts organizations we had been in contact with over the last few years, as well as going to the most-affected communities to reach artists we might not have known about. We asked if they had losses and/or damage, and we collected the information in a simple Google spreadsheet we could all access from our phones and computers. We quickly came up with a list of over ninety artists and organizations that were facing some kind of loss, with about thirty of those facing major losses of home and/or work space.

We assisted these artists by connecting them with available resources that addressed their specific individual needs. And when information on emergency grants started to come in — from the Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol for the Visual Arts Foundations through the New York Foundation for the Arts, CERF+, MusiCares, Pollock-Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and others — we got in touch with the artists. We met with those most affected and helped them apply, as they were still in shock, not fully grasping their losses and still grappling with immediate and basic recovery needs, most still not having electricity or Internet connections.

By late November, we began to get phone calls from those artists as they received the emergency funds, often before they had received funds from any other source. They were so thankful, so full of emotion, that I couldn’t help tearing up with them. I still have messages on my phone that I can’t erase but can’t bear to listen to again.

It’s hard to talk about the mix of emotions, both the sorrow and the joy that come out of a disaster like the East Shore of Staten Island saw after Sandy. The sadness and dark humor are there, from the destruction, the financial burdens, the uncertainty of what to do, the waiting and waiting for answers. But the joy is right alongside, the joy of making new friends as we work together to solve problems, taking action as a community for the common good, and creating art that helps weave a torn neighborhood back together.

When I was in Miami for the GIA conference, I went to “Arts and Climate Change,” organized by Edwin Torres, associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation. I had no idea, of course, how in just a few days his session was going to take on a deeper meaning in my own life. Something Edwin brought up at that workshop has stayed with me as I work with the artists affected by Sandy: resilience is found in societies and in individuals when they are able to visualize and look forward to a new future — different but connected to the past that has been lost.

And now we are living it: whether it is a metal artist who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in materials and equipment now forging ahead by rebuilding as a community makerspace, to the artist whose home was flooded and belongings washed out into the marshes, who now walks through those marshes, retrieving the entire community’s belongings and installing them in an empty lot that also serves as a “lost & found.” Artists are connecting and engaging with neighbors to envision a transformative future that respects and embraces the past.


NOTE

  1. Excerpt from “Black Mold” by Margaret Chase, copyright 2013. Reproduced with permission from the artist.

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