Told to Come for Gas, Residents Leave Armory With Nothing

4 Nov

Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who set up a help center at the Kingsbrige Armory talked to Chris Emdin and other frustrated residents right after police told them there would be no gasoline provided after they waited in line the entire day. (Photo: J. Moss)

Yesterday, at the end of a day of biking with a friend and our daughters, we decided to go check out the Kingsbridge Armory where I heard on Facebook that morning that Councilman Fernando Cabrera was setting up a service center for Bronx people in need.

We biked over there from my house a few blocks away and brought some non-perishable food I had in the house.

There was a line around the block, from Reservoir Ave. looped around to East 195th St. Almost every person on that line had with them one or more red plastic containers for gasoline. Early that morning they had heard that gas would be available at various locations in the city. It was announced by the governor and the info showed up on various web sites. People arrived as early as 8 a.m. (Though I somehow didn’t see it myself — maybe because I was focused on the people in line on the sidewalk — I’ve heard multiple reports that there were lines of cars headed into the Armory reaching back into Bedford Park.)

The massive Armory drill hall (where “Back to the Future” car scenes were filmed) was commandeered by Council Member Fernando Cabrera for distribution of food, water and other supplies. They already had piles of it, organized by enthusiastic religious volunteers like Gaby Santizo who works with the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. Cabrera himself is pastor of a local church and has many connections in the evangelical community.

Gaby Santizo of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition helped lead volunteers at the Armory yesterday. (Photo: J. Moss)

At around 4:30 when we arrived, several politicians were gathering on the drill hall floor with a large contingent of police who had asked them early that morning for space to distribute the gasoline. As it never showed up and people were beginning to get testy, the cops were planning to announce to those on line that there would be no gas.

Chris Emdin, one of many fed-up local residents on the line, told Councilman Cabrera that he was there since 10 a.m. because the government advertised the opportunity. He heard about it on the TV and on the borough president’s Facebook page, he said.

The pols, including State Senator Gustavo Rivera and Assemblyman Jose Rivera, stayed way past the announcement. They heard out the people, offered their help, told them they were as upset as them, etc. Cabrera gave Emdin his cell number. Deputy Inspector Jospeh Dowling of the 52nd Precinct, and other officers, also hung on for the back-and-forth with frustrated residents.

Cabrera said the governor and mayor should’ve predicted the gas problem before the storm and hired consultants to help them figure out a strategy of getting it out to people in worst-case scenarios.

As for other needs like providing food and batteries and generators, Cabrera said other states know better know better how to capitalize on the power of nonprofits and religious groups from the get-go, rather than wait for people like him to volunteer in the middle of the crisis. “Down south they know how utilize this,” he said. Here, he added, the city and state “failed to use the grassroots.”

Emdin is a professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers’ College. In an e-mail yesterday evening he told me he does research at schools around the boroughs and needs gas for that and to help family and neighbors get good produce. He wrote a thorough post about his experience yesterday here. Here’s an excerpt:

As the crowd grew more thin, an officer from another NYPD van mentioned that the gas intended for the Bronx was directed to parts of the city who needed it more. As this message came across, the people seemed to understand. They had empathy for other parts of the city.

Unfortunately, what officials failed to recognize was that while others may have needed the gas more, residents of the Bronx needed to know they were considered. A borough of people who have had political decisions about their neighborhoods made without their input for decades needed to know that they weren’t being toyed with. They needed to feel that they weren’t disposable.

Many Bronxites can struggle for a few days without gas. In fact, many were content with not having gas until they were told that some was made available for them. They came to the armory not because they wanted a hand out, but because they were invited to. They showed up and organized themselves calmly because they were appreciative. Unfortunately, as is always the case with those who lack power, and all too often the case with residents of the Bronx, they were dispersed without concern, treated unkindly, and asked to just grin and bear it.

Today marks another chapter in the story of disregard for the residents of the Bronx. The Great Gas Hoax at the Kingsbridge Armory adds another chapter to the sad tale of poor education, mistreatment, and police brutality for the Bronx. At what point will we be valued?

Regardless of when the gas shows up, the site will continue to provide food, clothing and supplies for as long as its needed, primarily to local Bronx organizations able to distribute it.

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