Knickerbocker Village in the Dark
We have been keeping a close eye this week on Knickerbocker Village, the nearly 1600 unit affordable housing complex that’s still mostly without power and heat in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Yesterday we spent a couple of hours visiting with residents, checking out a warming center set up by Hamilton Madison House and trying to determine just how much longer the repairs on the development’s decimated electrical systems are likely to take.
The complex, which spans two city blocks on Monroe Street between Catherine and Market, includes around 700 tenants over the age of 60. There are a couple dozen home-bound seniors who require daily attention. On Tuesday, a 101-year old woman, Pao Chu Hsieh, died in a fifth floor apartment after experiencing trouble breathing. Hsieh, who did not live at Knickerbocker Village but was staying with her son, died of natural causes, according to the Medical Examiner. But news of her death has caused many at Knickerbocker Village to focus on the risks to the elderly population, living for an extended period with no heat.
As we reported earlier in the week, Knickerbocker Village’s mechanical rooms were swamped with flood waters when the hurricane hit. You can see evidence of the damage done in the photos posted above. On Cherry Street, a door to a mechanical room was no match for the waters that came rushing from the East River. Small pumps are being used to drain water from basement spaces.
Yesterday afternoon we were hoping to speak with Knickerbocker Village Manager Vincent Callagy, but he was not available. This being the case, our understanding of the the engineering issues being dealt with is based on information provided by Hamilton Madison House and local elected officials.
It appears that much of the Depression era complex’s mechanical infrastructure was completely destroyed. Salt water had an immediate corrosive effect on critical electrical equipment. Two large boilers must be replaced, but so far building management has been unable to locate replacement units. As of this week, limited power was restored to four out of 12 buildings at Knickerbocker Village. It could be weeks, however, before the west side of the complex is back to normal.
Hamilton Madison House, one of the neighborhood’s oldest social service organizations, has offices within Knickerbocker Village. They were flooded, so the agency has had to relocate while working hand-in-hand with several other non-profits, FEMA and city officials to provide emergency services to residents. Hamilton Madison established a daytime warming center at 50 Madison Street (in the Smith Houses), where a hot lunch is served every day. They have also been trying to open a 24-hour shelter for tenants, but their facilities do not meet city requirements so it appears unlikely this is going to be possible.
Yesterday we went along with Hamilton Madison House’s Vicki Mehmel as she visited Knickerbocker Village tenants. Jean Mendoza, a former nurse who is now confined to her bed in a third floor apartment, has 24 hour care, so she’s at least not alone. When asked what she needs, Mendoza said, “I need the lights.” In another apartment, Nancy Ijoe sat by the window, making the most of the fading daylight, and showed us a letter from management explaining Knickerbocker Village’s predicament. Ijoe asked Mehmel for a new hearing aid battery, but said she did not need more food or water. Many residents appeared to be taking the ordeal in stride. Enrico and Anita Galasso, who have lived in the famously diverse complex for 60 years, kept the apartment warm by turning up the oven. They offered us coffee and Anita (a twinkle in her eye) even asked Mehmel whether Hamilton Madison House could use a donation. “We’re supposed to be helping you,” Mehmel responded.
Not all residents are so charitable towards building management. As you can see from the comments left after we posted a story on Knickerbocker Village yesterday, there’s a lot of frustration about a lack of information regarding the status of repairs and a general feeling that not enough is being done to speed up the repair timetable.
Over at the Madison Street warming center we spoke with Abraham Lee. He planned to go stay with his son on Long Island but like many other local residents, his car was locked in the flooded public parking garage at the Cherry Street Pathmark. Lee said he’s inspired to see neighbors coming together to help each other and he’s thankful for the efforts of government agencies and non-profits. But at the same time, Lee acknowledged, tempers are growing short and all sorts of rumors are flying because there’s been little actual information from management.
Another longtime tenant, Emilio Valazquez, is making do in a fifth floor apartment with his 12 year old son. He also praised aid organizations for providing Knickerbocker Village residents with food, blankets and water. But Valazquez said preparations for the storm were clearly inadequate. He questioned why a switch box for building generators would have been placed in the basement, in a location so susceptible to flooding. The other day he encountered an 85 year old man attempting to navigate the pitch dark stairwell. He knows of another resident, with only has one leg, who’s stuck in a 10th floor apartment.
While we were at the warming center, City Council member Margaret Chin arrived with some news; two generators had been located to help expedite the repairs. She, along with State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senator Dan Squadron, have been working on the issues at Knickerbocker Village for several days. All of them have visited with residents.
Yesterday, the elected officials met with city agencies and FEMA. They’re in the process of helping to set up another warming center, within the Knickerbocker Village complex. They’re also assisting building management in the quest for boilers. FEMA was on site yesterday afternoon; they promised to bring in canteen trucks to supply food to tenants, but they had not yet arrived. Different organizations, including Asian Americans for Equality, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council and other groups with expertise in working with Chinese language tenants, are also lending a hand.
Following our initial stories, Mehmel said she received a large number of offers from people eager to volunteer at Knickerbocker Village or to donate money and supplies to the effort. If you would like to help, you can email her at email@example.com.