Storm protections are coming, so group says let’s danceAugust 14, 2014 • By The Villager
BY ZACH WILLIAMS | In the Lower East Side partying and emergency preparedness can go hand-in-hand.
A DJ presided over an Aug. 8 soiree held in East River Park as a collective “thank you” to local residents for their input in the Big U project — the proposed storm protections for the U-shaped section of southern Manhattan starting with most of the East Side.
Local dancers and spoken word artists performed as residents watched and mingled with representatives ranging from the Red Cross to Good Old Lower East Side [GOLES], which helped Rebuild by Design organize the approximately three-hour event.
“It’s really important to have you operating with us on the design for the Big U, which is a plan that will receive federal money to connect the waterfront back to the community and to also protect you from future storms,” said Tara Eisenberg, a research coordinator at Rebuild by Design, which formed after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the city two years ago.
The $335 million project will construct a “living barrier” integrating berms from 10- to 20-feet tall into the park from Montgomery St. to E. 23rd St. Federal funds will pay for the project which is just one out of 157 projects in a $3.7 billion city effort to mitigate climate change in low lying areas such as the Lower East Side and East Village. Planners anticipate that within four years the Big U will stretch from W. 57 St., south to the Battery, all the way to E. 42nd St.
Residents were at first skeptical about the idea of changing the beloved park, but gradually began to trust the Big U team, offering suggestions as to how the project could increase accessibility to the riverfront by increasing pathways across F.D.R. Drive, according to Lilah Mejia, disaster relief coordinator for GOLES.
“They literally took those ideas and incorporated them into the berm,” she said.
Fears remain however, that a reinvigorated park, protected by the Big U, might invite increased attention from real estate developers in the coming years at the expense of public housing residents, she added.
“I’m still kind of hesitant. I’m still kind of scared because I don’t know what that means,” she said. “We all know this community became gentrified rather quickly.”
Such concerns though did not play prominently within the event. Children perused disaster preparedness guides helped along by the narrating Mickey Mouse. Another table had children design their own ideal version of public space through implements such as re-purposed plastic Easter Eggs and plastic pipes. Voluntary emergency works with the city Office of Emergency Management sought fresh recruits for free training as Community Emergency Response Team members.
Next to them was Pedro Barry, who deployed a table and clipboard for Operation Hope, which helps people prepare for the financial implications of natural disasters, he said. He got more than 20 people at the event to sign up for more information about the FEMA-affiliated program.
“The piece that people tend to lack on is the financial piece,” he said. “They go into the hole, they go into debt. We help them navigate the process a little bit faster.”
Native fauna will figure prominently within the park once construction on the project begins. A nursery in Staten Island is busy raising salt-resistant species which will also absorb a significant amount of storm water once they are planted in the park, said Steven Handel, an ecologist for the project who attended the event.
Despite the visibility of the Big U team about 15 feet away, some residents still had yet to hear that their beloved park would be the site of construction in the near future.
Baruch Houses resident Miriam Capo said she heard about the event through her Tai Qi class which performed at the event. She and her friend Dora Morreno had no idea the event concerned flood mitigation efforts. However, she welcomed efforts to address the vulnerable situation residents such as herself faced when the full wrath of Sandy caught the community unprepared in 2012.
“By doing these events, it’s perfect,” she said. “But they need to distribute the information a lot more.”