common / SandyEdition

A Creative Collaboration Of Help

By Klaus Biesenbach

On the Halloween weekend before Sandy, on Friday night I visited the Rockaway Artist Alliance in Fort Tilden, which turned out to be an amazing spectacle, mostly for kids. That Saturday, October 27th, I visited a nursery in Long Island and bought a Crimson King Maple, a very tall River Birch and a truckload of them in my small garden that I had recently acquired on Beach 86th Street. There was a hurricane warning and I know my neighbors across the street were starting to secure their house with plywood. I tried to get my trees into the ground and didn’t pay much attention to what my other neighbors were doing.

That evening was an amazing Halloween Surf Event at the Rockaway Beach Surf Club and Sunday morning I couldn’t believe the costumes in which the surfers were riding the waves. But I had to get going with my garden; I had to get my birches into the ground.

But the storm kept approaching and we were warned about evacuating. I went to my apartment in the City.

On Monday Superstorm Sandy struck and the electricity went out. On Tuesday morning I found myself on the 18th floor of my Lower East Side apartment with no electricity, no elevator and no water and no windows in the staircases leading to the ground.

I caught a taxi and went uptown to MoMA, where life was more like usual as the electricity was still on there. I couldn’t wait to get to the Rockaways and see what had happened there.

A taxi with a full tank of gas brought me to Rockaway through the Five Towns and I urged the driver not to leave to the city without me.

My whole garden was swept away. My basement filled with water. But my house was already a ruin before the storm.

I had not lost much I thought - except for my garden. But I saw neighbors up and down the streets, standing in the water and not many of them could just escape to Manhattan.

Back in Manhattan I drafted an open letter to many of the creative folks in New York City, as an appeal for mutual citizen support, donations and volunteers. Only a couple of days later we had our first rescue bus parked in front of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) with lots of goods, that we felt were needed in the Rockaways, like water, diapers, medication, nourishing food units, warm clothes, boots and Clorox and more. So with the buses we drove out to the Rockaways, not knowing whether we would have a base station there.

Arriving in the Rockaways we were so welcomed, both by the Surf Club on Beach 87th Street and the community around Rockaway Taco on Beach 96th Street. These immediately became our bases, where only a week later we could start erecting large tents with generators and heaters.

On the first weekend, that Saturday, I remember two young women coming back after taking food and supply orders to apartments and houses, asking what people urgently needed. They had climbed up to, what they felt must have been the 20th floor in one of the coop high rises, where they found an older lady that had not yet left the apartment since the storm.

When they knocked on the door the woman replied “There is nothing to loot and nothing to steal here.” to which they answered, “Do you need anything?” Startled, the woman asked, “Who are you?” They told her, “We are the volunteers from MoMA.” “Oh I’ve been there,” said the woman and opened the door.

When they returned two hours later, she had the first delivery of water and food, flashlights, lighters and candles since the storm hit.

That was great news and another highlight that day was when I first heard the term “helpster” for somebody whom you would have normally called “hipster”. Every weekend until December we would have busloads of volunteers. We would meet in the mornings at MoMA, drive out to the Rockaways and help provide food, clothing, shelter, clean out basements, remove drywall and shovel sand out of gardens and playgrounds. But we also managed a couple of entertainment stints like an impromptu Thanksgiving concert, which one of our volunteers, Patti Smith, gave in the tent on Beach 96th Street. Throughout these weeks I was still depressed, that my main reason for spending so much time in the Rockaways: my garden, had been uprooted. But no pun intended, I felt I was growing roots and got so attached to this very special peninsula, that I myself grew much a stronger connection to this magical, electric piece of land between the Atlantic and Jamaica Bay. In the spring we could finally erect the VW Dome 2, a Buckminster- Fuller Dome, right on Shore Front Parkway, between Beach 94th and 95th Street, a place for the community to meet. Within months the community had healed quite a bit.

From July on, the life and beauty seemed to have returned, at least in part, to the Rockaways. It is an amazing place.

Klaus Biesenbach is the Director at MoMA PS1 and Curator At Large at MoMA.

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