The Mailbag: Hurricane Sandy Recovery in Jersey City

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To the Editor:

The real test of a community’s bond is how well it holds together in tough times. By any measure, the Jersey City community didn’t just pass the tests posed by Hurricane Sandy — it aced them.

But was the community spirit we’ve seen this past month a one-time occurrence, or will it last? Judging from my volunteer work in Jersey City Heights these last few years, I suspect we’re only just getting started.

Certainly, Hurricane Sandy mobilized more people than ever before. While our local government, mass transit and utilities worked around the clock to contain the emergency and restore public services, they needed more hands: Helping hands to donate food and clothing to those whose homes were destroyed. To clean the wreckage in the streets. To calm the nerves of stir-crazy families during the worst of the power outages. Fortunately, friends, neighbors, and perfect strangers across the city graciously filled that need.

Two days after the storm surge, I ventured out from my apartment in the Heights to answer a Facebook post requesting volunteers to clear out flooded basements in Historic Downtown. The daunting task was made easier by the smooth cooperation of the dozen or so volunteers who came from all over town. Our group included a young man from McGinley Square, a young woman from Hamilton Park, and a former Jersey City resident from Belleville.

Practically overnight, residents from across the City filled a makeshift food pantry at Barrow Mansion and met daily at the City Hall steps, donating their time to help.

Their efforts were an outgrowth of something exciting that’s been happening in Jersey City for several years now. New leaders have emerged, and community organizations across the City have been working hard to improve our collective quality of life. People of all political stripes have gradually stepped up — from the Heights, to Downtown, to Hilltop, to Bergen-Lafayette, to Communipaw Avenue — yearning, more than anything else, for action.

One way to look at these developments is that they’re filling a void left by local government. For example, over several decades, our government largely let its neighborhood parks go, taken over by crime and vandalism. Thus, community groups like the Washington Park Association, which I served as past president, were born to reclaim and revitalize them. Similarly, as shopping districts lacked healthy food vendors, groups like Farms in the Heights or the Journal Square CSA organized to provide residents with quality, sustainably grown fruits and vegetables.

Organizations and block associations are not new to Jersey City. But the last several years have seen a level of coalition building that is unprecedented. For example, just before the hurricane hit on October 27, the Jersey City Parks Coalition assembled leaders of local park groups across the City for the Second Annual Big Dig. That project alone drew over a thousand of volunteers to plant over 40,000 daffodil and tulip bulbs in our city’s parks and open spaces.

Our local government (at the city and county level) has also been taking community groups more seriously, partnering with us on grants, events, and neighborhood developments. These relationships have not always been easy, as both sides have had to build trust and track records of cooperation, but they have generally yielded progress.

Meanwhile, social media, especially Facebook and JCList, have allowed groups and leaders from different neighborhoods to spread news and recruit volunteers for projects critical to our community’s welfare. We’ve learned more about each other’s organizations and explored new collaborations.

A district like ours deserves a voice in Trenton who understands these dynamics and knows what we’ve been working for these last few years. I’m running for State Assembly in the Democratic primary on June 4, 2013 to be such a voice for our community. Our bond is strong, and as our economy bounces back from the recession, partnerships between local government and community groups will play a central role in improving life for all of us.

This is a time for all hands on deck. And as Hurricane Sandy demonstrated, our community has plenty of hands looking to help. Let’s get to work.

— Peter Basso

Vice President of the Jersey City Parks Coalition
Candidate for New Jersey State Assembly

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