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For the last week, MoMA PS1 director and curator Klaus Biesenbach has been actively tweeting about the devastation in the Rockaways section of Queens, which was hit hard by post-tropical cyclone Sandy. While power returned to most of lower Manhattan late Friday night and 80% of the city’s subway system is back up and running today, some parts of New York continue to pick up the pieces from the Frankenstorm storm that rocked New York, New Jersey, and the surrounding region.
Starting soon after the storm hit, Biesenbach took to Twitter to prod celebrities, socialites, and the media into discussing the problems facing a neighborhood not normally on the art world’s radar. From CNN host Anderson Cooper to reality TV star Padma Lakshmi, Biesenbach appealed to anyone who would listen.
While some people may think the German-born curator and director’s fixation for the Rockaways may be a little unexpected, the passion shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who are aware that Biesenbach has a small house and garden in the area and last weekend he proudly tweeted that he had “storm proofed” his patch of New York against Sandy. It wouldn’t be enough.
“I left last Sunday before the storm when the evacuation note went out and I went back Wednesday. The scene there was absolutely devastating, so many homeless, shelter-less, freezing. Families standing in the water with all their belongings destroyed, no electricity, no water, no heat,” he told Hyperallergic via email. “I had not seen many reports about the devastation in Rockaway in news and media, and that is why I reached out to artists that are visible to create a lobby and awareness.”
“The whole open letter was done within a very short time, but the commitment, the willingness to help and donate was overwhelming,” he said about the letter he spearheaded and circulated to prominent signatories.
After circulating the letter to the media last weekend, Biesenbach has since updated the letter to to be “more inclusive” and the newer version is addressed to not only New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg but to “All Fellow New Yorkers.”
Biesenbach’s first trip to the Queens neighborhood was over a decade ago and his passion for the neighborhood has grown ever since. “I know the Rockaways through artists like Doug Aitken and Richard Phillips. I think I first stated going out there around 1999,” he said. “It feels like the true New York, a very beautifully diverse community where the city and the ocean together create an intense energy. The community in rockaway has a huge percentage of housing projects, homes for elderly citizens, and special care buildings. As welcoming as the local community was to so many artists and creative people spending wonderful time there, so the artistic community should be energized to help now when it is so incredibly needed.”
Biesenbach rallied volunteers starting November 1, and was able to bring dozens to the Rockaways this weekend. “Saturday, we had a huge bus filled with more than 50 volunteers, and a huge amount of urgently needed supplies like shovels, gloves, food, water, blankets, winter clothes, flashlights, and so on. Spontaneously, nearly 100 volunteers grouped, and with the bus, a pickup truck, and a small fleet of spontaneously hailed taxis, and some of the cars the volunteers brought, we headed out to Rockaway,” he explained.
The group arrived at the local Rockaway Beach Surf Club, which was completely destroyed by the storm, and started unloading goods. Coordinating with the club, they organized food distribution. “Teams of two went from house to house, asking what was needed and either brought food or volunteered in the community, emptying out basements, helping the residents carry heavier objects, and cleaning up the mess a bit,” he said, “One of the artists that had signed the petition, film director Darren Aronofsky [arrived] with his own car full of stuff, [and he] joined the volunteer teams. Another under-signer of the letter, MoMA trustee and actress Anna Deavere Smith helped with the food distribution. I think the day really made a difference in the area.”
“Right now we are working on a priority list of more needed items as the weather is getting colder, and heat lamps and propane generators might be the next most urgent items. We are planning a new volunteer work session and delivery for this coming Saturday,” he said.
This coming weekend, Biesenbach will be heading a new group of volunteers destined for Rockaway. Volunteers are expected to be at MoMA’s education center (4 West 54th Street in Midtown Manhattan) at 10 am on Saturday, November 10.
The following is a short video about the situation in the Rockaways created by two artists, Alex Braverman and Poppy de Villeneuve, drawing on their experience in the neighborhood last Saturday:
There are also a number of images of The Rockaways devastation on Gothamist today.