Relief efforts a bridge over NYC divisions

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NEW YORK -- After more than a week of proud self-sufficiency, George Ossy, an African immigrant living amid the chaos of the Rockaways in New York's Queens borough, finally -- 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.

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 Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods. He turned and left.

Superstorm Sandy, the cliche of the moment goes, created a city of haves and have-nots; those New Yorkers with power and heat and the many other assurances of modern life, and those without. But the storm simply made plain the dividing lines in a city long fractured by class, race, ethnicity, geography and culture. And, in reminding of these divides, it stirred a measure of hope that they could be bridged.

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, such as Red Hook in 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.

But even within the honeyed glow of unity that has come to follow tragedies here, these disparities can be difficult to ignore, occasionally provoking moments of friction and misunderstanding.

More privileged New Yorkers unearth deep guilt among the piles of donated clothes as it dawns on some that, even before the storm, misery existed so close to home.

Those coming to them for relief worry that their helpers are treating it as an exotic weekend outing, "like we're in a zoo," said one Rockaway project resident, echoing a complaint often heard in New Orleans' Ninth Ward following Hurricane Katrina, as volunteers snapped iPhone photos of her as she waited in line for donated food and clothing.

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 purchased 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.

"I'm driving in my big Lexus coming down here," Ms. Warren said, betraying her self-consciousness as she stood in a parking lot amid people picking through towers of donated clothing. "I said, 'Thank God, the car is dirty.' "

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 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 neighborhood residents.

But realizing that this demographic group 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," said Al Pagan, 46, who lives in the Houses, as he watched the volunteers help his neighbors. "They're starting to realize white people are human beings just like us."

nation


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