LES Ready: Strong Sense of Community Got the LES Through Sandy

Today, as we continue to lead up to the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the next installment of the LES Ready Series, a project of the Lower East Side Long-Term Recovery Group.  This article was written by Melissa Aase, the executive director of University Settlement.

community event
A Lower East Side street fair.

There’s a concept in the social sciences for what we have on the Lower East Side: “social cohesion.”   It’s a measure of how regularly people work together to achieve common goals, and if I had to guess at our community’s score, I’d guess we are pretty high up there.    I’d also hazard a guess that it’s one of the key factors behind how this community responded to and recovered from the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson recently finished a 10-year study of several Chicago neighborhoods and found correlations between high levels of social cohesion (something that might be considered a “soft” phenomenon) and several other measures that might be considered “hard” indicators of well-being (lower crime rates, economic stability, or the ability to bounce back from economic crises such as the recession).  When I read about his study in Chicago, I felt there were a lot of connections to be made with our experience on the Lower East Side, and some instruction for moving forward post-Sandy.

Social cohesion is when neighbors come together to build a garden, join the PTA, attend a community meeting, raise funds for a service organization or project, have a street fair, inform their neighbors about an important decision at City Hall . . . or help after a storm.   After serious crises, such as Sandy, the measure of social cohesion can be tested by asking if neighbors will stay, rebuild together, reach out and seek solutions  — or not.  On the Lower East Side, we witnessed a resoundingly positive answer to that question.

Other studies have shown that the same social bridge-building work that is often done in communities where there is great strife and conflict (think: Protestants and Catholics in Ireland), can, when done well, also help those communities to overcome major crises, such as Sandy.   The real skill of relating to one another not as “other” but as “neighbor” is a deep strength to be tapped and enhanced.  Our LES community is rich with opportunities for cross-cultural, cross-linguistic, cross-class relationships, with many formal and informal places and activities to bring people together across differences.  We can always do more, learn more, reach farther and engage more, but the basic value of celebrating our diversity is strong within the Lower East Side.  And that value – and the actions that flow from it – is another one of our “protective factors” in recovering from Sandy and preparing for what’s next.

community garden

During and after Sandy it was terrific that the neighborhood had several strong, flexible social service organizations and elected officials who could step in as “second responders,” when it seemed the first responders were not reaching everyone.  But what made an even greater difference than the organizations’ response is what Sampson calls the “neighborhood effect” — the character of our community, built over years and years, that values grassroots, neighbor-to-neighbor relationships within buildings, on blocks, in housing developments, and across the community, and the value and skill to reach across our many diversities.  Neighbors get to know each other and will knock on each others’ doors; they will offer or ask for help from each other; they know the more vulnerable people nearby and will do something with that knowledge.  This neighbor-to-neighbor willingness to reach out can make life and death differences in crises like Sandy.

As the City and community make important plans to be better prepared for another crisis — by looking at changes to the power grid; coordinating responses between government and local agencies; creating redundant communications capacities; identifying more safe places for food, medical, information distribution; developing a better evacuation and sheltering plan — we also must look at what we can do to create even greater social cohesion.  It is our community’s best preparedness plan, the least technical and, blessedly, not tied to any funding stream, government regulations, or owned and copyrighted by anyone.  It’s free and available right now.

Do You Know Your Neighbors?

Is there a fun and social way to get to know them?  Do you know who might be more vulnerable in your building, and do they have support in place?  Or might you be able to be a link to their support, or to official help in an emergency?  Might your building have some “co-captains” who are willing to step up in a crisis and who have everyone’s contact information ahead of time?

Approaching neighbors in a high-rise environment is harder than in low-rise and single-family dwelling neighborhoods.  It is also harder when perceived or real differences, particularly language, exist.  That’s where local organizations may be of help, particularly those that specialize in community building, youth development, community arts, and gardening.  Many settlement houses and other local CBOs and community leaders can work with tenant associations, families, schools and youth to create events meant for neighbors to meet each other, work together on common projects, communicate, and celebrate.

Are there local projects you have wanted to join, or create, that would help you meet and become closer to your neighbors?  Events and actions can be small, simple, fun, and extremely local, and in fact, those may be the most effective “preparedness” work we can all do.  Creating those relationships now, when we are not in an emergency, is what will make the biggest difference if, or when, the next storm comes our way.

Click here to read other articles in this series.