When Superstorm Sandy hit Brooklyn, the hardest hit communities were those in and around the waterfront, including Sunset Park and Red Hook, where the floodwaters not only damaged houses and businesses, but also exposed vulnerabilities in the existing street and building infrastructure, and in the lines of communication between neighbors and much-needed resources.
This freshly urgent need for a unifying and galvanizing force around environmental and public safety concerns is why UPROSE, also known as the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park, has now launched a Climate Justice Community Resiliency Center (CJCRC).
On Wednesday, November 13, UPROSE welcomed residents, students, community leaders and health professionals to their 22nd Street offices for an introduction to the CJCRC, its purpose, and how people can join in to create a healthier and stronger place to live.
“This is important because this is not the last storm of its kind. Climate change is real,” said Jonathan Ferrer, 17, a youth justice organizer who has won national awards for his work in environmental justice. “Adaptation and resilience are needed in our community, so we want to expand our knowledge [about the issues to more people].
“We’re a front line community and we will always be hit,” Ferrer added. “With Hurricane Sandy, the water came up to Third Avenue and we should expect and be prepared for even stronger [storms]. We should not be worrying about how many buildings can go up. Instead, buildings need to be stormproofed.”
The CJCRC’s main goals are to educate residents, team up with businesses and churches and community groups, build environmental resiliency and make the waterfront more adaptable.
The first of the center’s initiatives towards these goals is vulnerability mapping: sending volunteers street by street and block by block to document “street vulnerability.” Vulnerabilities can include rooftop antennas, poorly installed air conditioning units, extra space between a house and the curb, the number of sewers and the street width.
The point of all this, said environmental justice organizer Murad Awawdeh, is to understand which areas might need a social safety net and better infrastructure. “For example, building rain barrels is a small, doable project that can be done at home and in the community,” he said. “It can be a model for community resilience from the ground up.
A second initiative is a partnership with the city Department of Transportation (DOT) to build an “upline connector”—a pathway between the waterfront and residents where streets are redesigned, whether with green infrastructure or another design tool, to “better handle storm and floodwater while also promoting economic redevelopment on the waterfront,” said UPROSE’s infrastructure coordinator Ryan Chavez.
“We know these streets better than the DOT, so this is a great opportunity for residents and businessowners to work together for a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood and waterfront access,” he stressed.
The third initiative is to conduct air testing along the residential side of the waterfront in order to see how this data can support the upline connector. This project is possible through an environmental justice impact grant from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“Resilience is not just about infrastructure, but about our relationship with each other,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE. “Climate change will require social services, educators, and employers to all work together under a climate lens.
“We helped to expand the medians on Fourth Avenue, holding Youth Summits, and more,” Yeampierre noted. “Transformation happens on the ground. Resilience is local. Now, we hope for a space where youth and everyone can come, learn, and discuss a community-driven approach. This is that space.”