No good deed goes unpunished. In her cynical front-page story Saturday, New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir wrote on what she called on her Twitter feed "race, class, and the hurricane," fishing for criticism of the wealthy whites who donated time and money and effort to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy, and providing some on her own. Yet it's the alleged victims of all that generosity that look thin-skinned and insensitive, in "Helping Hands Also Expose a New York Divide."
After more than a week of self-sufficiency, George Ossy, an immigrant from Africa living amid the chaos of the Rockaways, with his 10-year-old daughter in tow, walked into the relief center down the street, one of several set up by the volunteers who had descended on the storm-battered peninsula in Queens.
Moments later, a white woman leaned down to address his daughter. “Have you eaten in two days?” she asked.
Mr. Ossy surged with outrage. Power was out, yes, and nights were cold for sure, but Mr. Ossy, a taxi driver proud of the long days he works to earn money for his family, was insulted by the suggestion that his daughter was not well cared for.
“I said: ‘What do you think? You think we live in the bush?’ ” He felt condescended to by the volunteers -- many of whom hail from upscale neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn. He turned and left.
Nir, a former nightlife reporter for the paper, found "dividing lines in a city long fractured by class, race, ethnicity, geography and culture" and managed to chide "white gentrifiers" for only caring about the poor when tragedy strikes (should they have stayed home and not bothered?)
The counterculture activists of the Occupy Wall Street movement found themselves tearing up sodden drywall in Rockaway houses owned by police officers, whom this time last year they despised only slightly less than the 1 percent. Upper East Side professionals headed into clapboard neighborhoods of Staten Island and got their hands dirty cleaning out basements. And white gentrifiers who may not have thought much about the brick public housing complexes scattered around trendy neighborhoods like Red Hook, Brooklyn, suddenly found themselves inside them, trudging up pitch black stairwells to inquire about the well-being of the mostly poor black and Hispanic residents.
And while the good being done is undeniable, the gap-bridging atmosphere has a melancholy undertone for some on all sides who are sure the moment is fleeting.
From her Gramercy Park apartment, where she had been without power for several days, Kelly Warren, 48, and a friend lugged 500 pairs of new socks and underwear bought at Walmart to the Rockaways. Her guilt at being largely spared the storm’s wrath was compounded by being up-close to the destruction of an area already struggling with poverty, she said. It made her only more keenly aware of privilege.
A similar scene was unfolding in the shadow of the Red Hook Houses, a housing project with nearly 3,000 apartments. Stung not only by pervasive income inequality, but also by the steady march of gentrification in this once-derelict area, some here found it hard to accept aid from the same apple-cheeked young people pricing out longtime residents of the neighborhood.
But realizing that this demographic group, long held up as the villain in the tale of life in the projects, could care, was just as hard for some residents.
“They’ve been talking about white people as bad for so long, they feel shaky, embarrassed,” Al Pagan, 46, who lives in the Red Hook Houses, said as he watched the volunteers help his neighbors. “They’re starting to realize white people are human beings just like us.”
Nir shuddered at the thought of successful people thinking their values could apply to those less fortunate.
As volunteers with the makeshift relief efforts have applied their own rules on how to dole out relief -- telling people where to wait and enforcing limits on how many blankets or food items storm victims receive -- some have entered the more fraught area of applying their own values to those they are helping.
As she gave out diapers and cases of infant formula to storm victims, Bethany Yarrow, 41, a folk singer from Williamsburg who has been volunteering with other parents from the private school her children attend, said she was shocked by the many poor mothers in the Arverne section of the Rockaways who did not breast feed. The group, she said, was working on bringing in a lactation consultant.
“So that it’s not just ‘Here are some diapers and then go back to your misery,’ ” she said.
That sort of response has rankled Nicole Rivera, 47, who lives in a project in Arverne, where the ocean sand still swirls up the street with every passing vehicle. “It’s sad, sometimes it’s a little degrading,” she said as she stood in line in a parking lot waiting for free toiletries.
Ms. Rivera said that she was thankful for the help, but that its face -- mostly white, middle- and upper-class people -- made her bitter.
“The only time you recognize us is when there’s some disaster,” she said. “Since this happened, it’s: ‘Let’s help the black people. Let’s run to their rescue.’ ”
“Why wait for tragedy?” she added. “People suffer every day with this.”
A woman standing in front of her in line interjected. "To be honest, I pray to God I never see these people again,” the woman said. “The only reason these people would be out here again for us is if something like this happens again, or worse."