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Post Sandy, Day 4: Hester Street in Lower Manhattan

Community organizers distributed supplies and canvassed buildings for two days before FEMA showed up to offer aid.

By Ken Chen

Hurricane Sandy has given Chinatown a Xanax. The first thing we noticed after coming over the Manhattan Bridge is how bucolic everything seemed. Driving down East Broadway, we found neither the Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic ghost town we’d expected, nor the vibrant, tumultuous, caffeinated pre-Sandy Chinatown of grandmas hawking faux-Louis Vuitton handbags and restaurant deliverymen revving up their electric motorbikes. This was the Thursday after Sandy hit on Monday night. People calmly strolled down the street. It was one of those whatever New York days in fall, when it’s sunny and chilly at the same time. Life was going on, a wobbly new equilibrium. We turned the corner and one of us yelped out, drolly, “Commerce is occurring!” A storeowner, we noticed, had attracted a small crowd of shoppers. We drove closer and saw that it was—that most traditional hoarder of nonperishable goods—a dry foods vendor, selling dehydrated squid, scallops, and mushrooms. We started to feel bad for not bringing more cash.

What we did bring was several gallons of bottled water. We unloaded them at a Hurricane Sandy relief event held by CAAAV, a longtime Chinatown community organizing group, outside their low-ceilinged headquarters at 46 Hester Street, which was currently lit only by a portable light hanging on a hook. This was CAAAV’s second day distributing water, fliers, food, and electricity to Chinatown residents. As locals lined up, a Chinese volunteer yelled out, “Wang chien zhou” or “Walk in a straight line.” His Latino, English-language counterpart yelled out, “Take it easy.” The residents queued up for an eclectic smorgasbord of donated bagels and doughnuts, leopard-spotted bananas, white rice spackled into white foam cups, sandwiches and packaged snacks, as well as sanitary napkins and loaner flashlights and cell phones. A middle-aged Chinese woman stood by the CAAAV office trying on different pairs of donated shoes on the sidewalk. Most people were bundled up, but a guy in a short-sleeved shirt asked me and others in Chinese to touch his arm: It was toned and hot. When I asked him his secret, he replied that he practiced Shaolin qi-gong—specifically, yi-jin jing, the tendon altering sutra. He knew the master, in case I wanted to start practicing it. In other words, the event had the chummy chaos characteristic of solidarity-building cataclysms and successful yard sales. CAAAV also distributed electricity via free batteries and a cell phone charging station that charged more than 200 phones, thanks to a gas-powered generator. Helena Wong, the executive director of CAAAV, told me, “It feels like a never-ending cycle. We pray that more donations come in. We run out of gas for this generator at the end of the day.”

However pastoral Chinatown seemed on the street, there was a different story indoors and above ground, particularly for the residents who live in the nearby low-income housing projects without power, running water, heat or cell phone coverage. Most of them are people of color. Many are elderly. Some are disabled. I ran into Esther Wang, director of CAAAV’s Chinatown Tenants Project, who like many of the organization’s staff was wearing a fluorescent orange vest labeled “JUSTICE,” as well as an eyebrow piercing. When I asked her why CAAAV had set up the relief efforts, she said, “There was a hole not being met by any city, state, or federal agency in this neighborhood. People needed batteries, cell phones, water, and flash lights, and weren’t able to get that.”

Although many Chinatown residents queued up in line (itself a miracle in Chinatown), Esther said, “The worst-off people are housebound: elderly folks who are bedridden. Luckily, some of them have home health care attendants with them, but what about the people whose home healthcare attendants weren’t able to come?” CAAAV claims to have sent more than 100 volunteers, many of whom are non-Chinese newcomers to the organization, to help more than 700 residents. At this point, an auxiliary policeman—one of about four or five loitering on Hester Street—asked me to step off the sidewalk, so I decided to acquaint myself with CAAAV’s volunteer army.

I met Enrico Wey, a Chinatown resident who abandoned his powerless apartment on Mott Street to take refuge at his friend’s place in Greenpoint. When I asked him what he did for a living, he paused sheepishly. “I’m a puppeteer. A professional puppeteer. You know, for Warhorse on Broadway?” This morning, he walked back over the Williamsburg Bridge to donate batteries and supplies. CAAAV sent him to a low-income NYCHA housing unit at 180-182 South Street, where the residents said that the city had told them that, as non-evacuees, they didn’t require assistance. I asked Wey the name of the housing unit. He blanked and said, “Some white guy’s name.” I later found it was the Alfred Smith Houses. Wey said that the residents, mostly Chinese, black, and Latino seniors, had broken open fire hydrants to bring fresh water back to their apartments. “They have to go all the way up the stairs holding a bucket,” he said. “These people live in the teens. The staircases are pitch black.” This echoed a message that Helena had sent via Facebook later that day: “One tenant has walked up over 40 flights of stairs three times in the last two days to visit his family member. Another resident told us they were cold last night and tonight is even colder.”

As I was talking to Enrico, two volunteers walked up to report to Brian Palmer, a droll Brooklyn-based photographer who pitched in because of his “minimal Mandarin ability” and ended up the ad hoc volunteer coordinator after CAAAV noticed his self-professed “ability to lift heavy objects.” The volunteers were named Stephanie Banzet and Eddie Qian. Both in their early twenties, they didn’t know each other before today, but had each heard about the event through Occupy Sandy, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement. They’d visited five buildings on Cherry Street, one block in from the FDR Drive and the East River. “We only have good news,” Eddie said.

Brian said, “That’s good. I like good news.”

Eddie reported that they’d dropped off supplies at 265 Cherry, which had no water above the fourteenth floor, as well as at Two Bridges, where online reports had said that approximately 50 seniors are without power. There was a working generator at 275 Cherry and running water at 54 Cherry, but none at 82 Cherry. Eddie told me that some of the residents had evacuated, except for the seniors, some of whom had family members taking care of them. He said, “People are looking out for each other.” Stephanie added with a slight French accent. “They’re not greedy. They’re not fighting.”

Despite claims by New York officials that the National Guard, NYC Service, and the Salvation Army are going door-to-door, Esther said, “It’s been a total information blackout. Our volunteers would ask people, ‘Has anyone knocked on your door? Have you seen a flier with basic info?’ They all said, ‘No, aside from what you all are doing.’” And although Chinatown borders the recently flooded Lower East Side, Helen told me that CAAAV was the only Chinatown group actually dispatching volunteers into the housing complexes to distribute necessities and fliers in English, Chinese, and Spanish. To make matters worse, on Wednesday, a crew of ten police officers from the Seventh Precinct forced CAAAV to shut down their relief efforts, claiming that they were afraid of public safety hazards and rioting. (When asked for a quote, the police refused to comment.) A matronly Chinese woman in black walked by, her arms stuffed with perishable food. One of the volunteers muttered, “That’s her fourth time coming back!”

Esther introduced me to Wan Ming Khee, a construction worker who lived on Hester Street. When I addressed him in English, Wan stooped and spoke hesitantly. We switched to Mandarin. His posture straightened up. He brimmed with an earthy, impish energy. He’d volunteered to monitor the queue and Esther told him in Mandarin that he was good at it. “You’re really xiong.”

A guy in a green quilted jacket walked up and asked Esther for a smoke. “Sorry, I bummed this one,” she said. Wan pulled out a small white pack of Zhongnanhai cigarettes, the bestselling cigarette brand in China, and gave one to the man, who thanked him and walked away. Wan says he doesn’t have electricity, heat, or hot water, but his landlord said he’d get a portable generator. He hadn’t worked all week. “No power, no one goes to work,” he said. The plumbing supply store was shut down, so he couldn’t do any construction work. His landlord ran a car service. They also shut down. His friend who ran a hair salon, they shut down, too.

Esther said, “These are small businesses and low-income immigrants living from paycheck-to-paycheck. Not being able to open your business for a week is devastating. They might not be able to pay their rent. Their landlord might evict them.” Esther was worried this kind of a systematic breakdown in the local Chinatown economy could lead to a fundamental change in the make-up of the neighborhood—just like after 9/11, when many Chinatown residents moved away after being put out of business for just one week.

In the two weeks after September 11, 2001, the neighborhood was cordoned off, with a major thoroughfare blockaded at Park Row in southern Chinatown—a blockade that remains today. As a result, almost three-fourths of Chinatown workers (24,500 out of 33,658) lost their jobs, according to an Asian American Federation Report, with the garment factories losing the entirety of their business volume. Sandy had left behind a weeklong blackout, Esther was telling me, but its economic effects could reshape the neighborhood for a generation. She didn’t want the post-Sandy relief monies to go to the same places they did after 9/11: towards development projects, like luxury hotels. A Chinese student walked up to her and asked in Mandarin where the bathroom was.

Throughout Chinatown, people opened up fire hydrants to wash clothes and clean fruit and vegetables

The line was beginning to break down. I saw that Brian was arguing with a mustached Chinese man in a black corduroy jacket—in Mandarin. Wan perched on an elevated ramp and began asking people to clean up, directing them around Hester Street like a gleeful conductor. As I walked away, I saw a family of five gather around a fire hydrant. The elder of the family broke into the hydrant and the two girls in the family began to fill up the first of several plastic buckets. An unmarked police car pulled up and then just kept going. And as we drove back towards Brooklyn, we passed a water and food distribution site in Confucius Plaza to the south. That afternoon, Mayor Bloomberg and State Senator Daniel Squadron opened up five locations in the Lower East Side and Chinatown, and the Salvation Army and the New York Department of Environmental Protection would open additional sites on Friday, the next day. We took the exit onto the Manhattan Bridge, one of us saying how nice the traffic was.