After Superstorm Sandy’s Rain, Cooperatives Sprang Up Like Mushrooms

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy back in 2012, a grassroots relief effort growing partly out of Occupy Wall Street did its best to help the hardest-hit area of the Rockaways, a neighborhood located in the Queens borough of New York City. Networks grew up offering business assistance and loans, and gradually the “worker-owned Rockaway cooperatives” (WORCs) were born. Offering residents in this remote part of Queens, New York, a way to meet their immediate needs while kind of staving off what author Naomi Klein has described as disaster capitalism.

After all these years, how are those efforts faring? Is there, in fact, an alternative path for developers after disasters? And if so, what do the Rockaways have to teach? Do lessons also emerge from places like Florida after Hurricane Michael, or Puerto Rico after Maria? To talk about all this, we are joined by Lorena Giron, a Rockaways resident and co-owner of the La Miez Bakery. We are also joined by Brendan Martin, founder and director of the Working World, a nonprofit that provided free business development training and ongoing technical assistance to many of the Rockaways co-ops.

Laura Flanders: Brendan, help us describe the Rockaways. What are we talking about when we’re talking about the Rockaways, New York?

Brendan Martin: The Rockaways is in one of the corners of New York City, in what is the metropolitan area. There are summer homes out there, there are some vacation homes, but for the majority of people who live out there, it had a lot of endemic poverty, long before the storm happened. The storm helped to uncover some of that, and expose just how unprepared the infrastructure is in the poorer parts of our city when something bad happens. So again, you will see some beautiful homes out there right by the water and some nice places to go visit. But a lot of people have to work to serve those homes and vacationers. And they live in some of the poorer tracks in our city. It’s also below sea level. And so, when you have a storm like Sandy, it just walked right through that community like a house of cards.

How was it for you, Lorena? Where were you and what happened to you?

Lorena Giron: The day of the storm, we were in Far Rockaway, which is where I live. It was total destruction. There was practically no electricity. We didn’t have water. There was no gas, no transportation. So those were very difficult days for the whole community, not only from Far Rockaway, but for all of the Rockaways. We were all in the same situation where there was no food or water. Many people left, but many also stayed in their homes. So, there were a lot of problems.

And at what point did people come to help? When did you get a sense that people were coming to help?

Giron: The minister organized us, so we as individuals could help the community because there was no transportation. We got in contact with a group, Occupy Sandy — they were the first to arrive. They brought food. Our church was the place where they organized their relief effort. Then we began together with them to provide food for the community.

So it started with food?

Giron: Yes. Food, water, clothes as well. These were basic needs for the people, especially food and water.

But gradually, it became not just about immediate needs and relief, but also about how this community could come back together. Brendan, can you talk about your part of that?

Martin: So, I work for an organization called the Working World, and we do investments and technical assistance to people who want to start their own businesses and run them as cooperatives. We’ll work in some of the hardest parts of the world. We started in Argentina after the crisis there. We work in the countryside and cities of Nicaragua. And we’ve worked all over the United States. And when Sandy happened, the people from Occupy Sandy, as Lorena mentioned, they were the first to respond. They also reached out to us because … we know that, as Lorena called it, these were just the first needs to get people food, water and clothing. What do they do next? They need to get jobs and their own economic means or else they’re probably going to be shipped out of there. They’re going to lose their homes. There were a lot of lessons learned from what happened in New Orleans, how many people [who left] temporarily were made to leave permanently in the end. The rebuilding was clearly going to happen. Would the people who are residents be part of that rebuilding? So, that’s why they reached out to us to say, “What if you can help build, make some businesses that will be owned by the local folks so they can afford the new rents that’ll occur, et cetera.”

Martin: I mean, it’s changed there. And I could talk about in what ways, not all positive. But the devastation, you don’t see it the same way anymore. Although you do see it on the news, and in all the new places there are storms, something very similar. Going back, I’m still blown away by the amount of energy [that] came together voluntarily. There were two churches that came together with people from two different congregations who formed together to do classes. They stayed up all night to do a class on business development. There were people from across New York who volunteered to go out there and teach those classes. Food was provided. It was really well organized without any outside help. There were some donations left over from Sandy, and that was it. What I’m struck by is how much that wasn’t a seed, that then would get taken over by the developers. They’d say, “Look at all this energy. We can build businesses.” How much that was ignored actually. So, the rebuilding you’ve seen has occurred, but it’s all outside ownership. It’s all people who don’t live there owning condos, whose target purchaser or renter is people who don’t live there. I’m also struck by just how at odds, what this incredible vibrant group of community volunteers were doing. How at odds that was with what the mainstream development direction wanted to go.So at that time, I remember we went and did a little report on you going out there and the work that was happening in the Far Rockaways. The devastation there was clearly huge. Is that different? Has that changed?

How did your bakery survive, Lorena?

Giron: Well, my bakery was established after Hurricane Sandy, when we realized there was a need, since there were a lot of people that did not have jobs. Then the group of Occupy Sandy, and some of the members of the church thought about how they could create jobs in the community. Then the idea came up of getting in contact with The Working World to help us to form cooperatives. And that is how La Miez Bakery was born. We created a group of six people to start a bakery. But after a while, some people moved to other states, and so the bakery didn’t continue. But with the experience that I gained from the bakery cooperative, La Miez, I’m now working for The Working World, giving loans and trying to help the new groups that are forming, being incubated as cooperatives. But also, if there are any businesses that would like to transition to cooperatives, we are also working on that.

So, you’re still a big believer in the cooperative model? Can you talk about why?

Giron: I think that it was something new for the community. In my case, I had never heard of what it meant to work in a cooperative. But I think that it’s very important because not only are jobs being created, but the economic resources are staying inside the community. They aren’t going to another place. And something that I also like is working in our community. We are teaching people that yes, we can do it. Like in the case of my community, it’s a community of immigrants and we are teaching them that we can work together in groups to improve the economy of our family and also of the community.

But as you just said, it’s not so easy to keep the group together and to keep the business together necessarily, it’s hard.

Giron: Yes, it’s hard. But we are learning and during those years we have learned that yes, it can be done. Yes, we can work in cooperatives. Yes, we can work as a group, we can advance a community, and improve the economy for the family.

All right. But the challenges are big. Brendan, you were touching on that before. What have been the challenges to having this model be more successful? And is disaster capitalism out there winning?

Martin: I’m just going to pull out a couple of pieces of Lorena’s personal story to touch on that. And then look at it in the bigger context. So, what was interesting for them initially and these six people, they did run a bakery for a number of years, and used that for their living. But a lot of people, as we feared, found that it was too hard to actually survive in the Rockaways and moved to other states. But with the successful experience of working in that bakery, we said, “Hey, you [Lorena] can now help do what we’re doing.” And she’s helped incubate a couple other cooperatives out there. She just recently helped convert a business that had been run for 20, 30 some years out in the Rockaways. Now the workers own it and she’s been the lead to help convert that. The construction co-op that started in the same cohort that she was in is still running and she’s their main support now. So that’s been really interesting. But we’re still seeing the challenges that a small business has in an environment where rents are rising like they are. The rents rise because the taxpayer dollars that supported redevelopment are actually going to help developers create more expensive places to live.

Because they’re getting tax breaks, et cetera?

Martin: A lot is the tax breaks. They have a lot of support that only large developers could end up qualifying for, turns out. And that’s actually changing the community. Plenty of people are priced out. So even if they had a little business that was doing well, the oceans around them swallowed them up. So, what we saw was there’s a way to rebuild that’s about taking the current residents and developing their skills like we did with Lorena. Giving some capital to start a business and building for what’s there. Or you can come in from the outside. And they’re not just like two ships that pass in the night, [but] two different strategies that don’t really inform each other. You get a sense that there are forces out there that want one of those strategies, the outside capital, to come in, own places, have the values rise dramatically, and profit from that. And the current residents are often in the way. So, we think, why was there no support brought to this work, to the businesses that were developed, to someone like Lorena? So everyone said, “We need that. We need to have more skilled people in the Rockaways.” And why did they not get support out of all these millions … billions of dollars that were spent to redevelop the Rockaways? There are forces that aren’t looking to develop the current residents. They’re looking to develop the real estate and move the residents out…. disaster capitalism, it’s not just a mistake that people didn’t take up our form of redevelopment, it’s actually in the way. It’s a bit of a pitched battle.

And what about people themselves? I mean isn’t there a point probably for some people where they just say, you know what, I’ll take a mall. This is too hard. I want to be able to get through it.

Giron: The problem, especially in Far Rockaway, not as much in other places where people have more money, but in the area of Far Rockaway, the problem is that the state has invested a lot of money because it’s designated for new houses, new buildings. But the money is not getting to where the people that have the greatest needs are. And I think the government could invest more in the common people that have very low income, who have no access to buying a house, for example. But there are many other things. I think something that has impacted us from the cooperatives is that with the little money from donations and different organizations, we’ve been able to advance and achieve a lot of things. Yet, if we had more help, if the community received more help from the government, I think big things could be done and more jobs could be created for the community, which is what it most needs.

Worker-owners of the Roca Mia Construction co-op in the Rockaways neighborhood of Queens, New York City, stand in front of one of their construction projects.
Worker-owners of the Roca Mia Construction co-op in the Rockaways neighborhood of Queens, New York City, stand in front of one of their construction projects.

So, a little bit of aid could have gone a long way and did go a long way…. lessons from this experience for others? What are we learning? And what can we do maybe to help people in Florida or in Puerto Rico or Houston, who are still recovering from storms, get the help you’re talking about?

Martin: I’ve learned that it’s not just, “Oh, people just don’t know.” “If they had only seen this example, they’d take it up.” It’s a political battle. The government is spending money and making all sorts of incentives for whom? For what? As Lorena put it, for building new buildings that are owned by outside capital rather than for the current residents. We’re not just going to nice our way into having that be dominant. When things happen like what happened in Houston, Puerto Rico, what’s happening in the storms that are hitting us right now in the Carolinas, you’ve got to walk in right away with this strategy and then with absolute certainty it’s an alternative. We’ve seen it work with less than .1 percent of what was spent on the housing development, what Lorena and others branch to do. But it’s going to be a political battle too. I mean, I think it dovetails into what’s happening nationally and with some of the candidates that have emerged and said, “Enough is enough. We’re actually going to push for a different kind of economic development.” I think that’s the only way to get this done. We can’t just be nice about it. We have to start demanding these things from the day the storms happen.