On July 25, members of the Canarsie community met at the Brooklyn Lifestyle Athletic Club for Jamaica Bay Jeopardy, an event combining local environmental science and history trivia. Jamaica Bay Jeopardy is a key part of the Cycles of Resilience programming developed by an interdisciplinary project team, which includes the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay (SRIJB) and Public Agenda. Cycles of Resilience’s primary purpose is to “create a stronger role for [Canarsie] residents in prioritizing research and action in Jamaica Bay.” In its purpose, the Cycles initiative doesn’t differ much from that of SRIJB.
According to the Institute’s executive director, Brett Branco, the organization’s mission is to produce “integrated knowledge to increase biodiversity, ecosystem health, and community and social resilience, or well-being.” The SRIJB also works to increase communities’ ability to adapt to ongoing climate change. Its mission statement is very similar to that of a research organization, but Branco emphasized that the Institute is a boundary organization. Like other boundary organizations, the SRIJB facilitates an idea exchange between researchers, government and private agencies and affected communities. Branco stressed that SRIJB creates “spaces and opportunities for those sort of three different groups to come together, to share information, and collaboratively come to decisions.”
It’s in these collaborative environments that Black Canarsie residents have had the most to gain as both concerned residents and receptive listeners.
At Jamaica Bay Jeopardy, attendees were completely open with their concerns about how local, state and federal agencies were preparing their neighborhood for impending climate crises. During one conversation, an attendee, Shelly, asked members of her table, “What are the plans if there’s another [Superstorm] Sandy?” Because Canarsie lies just north of Jamaica Bay, it was one of New York City’s worst-affected neighborhoods during the storm. The storm’s legacy provoked most of the night’s questions, but instead of answering these questions outright, SRIJB and Public Agenda used trivia to generate the answers.
Jeopardy categories, like “Agency ABC”, taught attendees that the NY Rising Community Reconstruction Plan allocated over $11 million to Canarsie for the planning and implementation of community resilience projects. A question from “Bay Trivia” provided a digestible but informative explanation of how excessive nitrogen concentrations caused algal blooms in Jamaica Bay.
The information from some of these questions provided residents with important facts about ongoing resilience projects in Canarsie, but some still lamented the lack of tangible emergency action plans for the neighborhood.
Harold Jones, president of one of Cycle’s community partners, Canarsie Community Development Inc. (CCDI), told Blavity that “[SRIJB], Public Agenda, and CCDI are trying to get an emergency [weather] plan in place.” So far, elected officials representing the area have yet to materialize an emergency plan. Unfortunately, New York City’s July heatwave demonstrated the necessity for a plan.
“During the blackout, we had to get a city bus, and put nursing home residents inside the bus to cool down,” Jones said. “Why can’t we have an emergency generator? We have to have the funds for the community to buy into a plan.”
Others in attendance thought that agency inattentiveness came from a general misunderstanding of neighborhood needs and features. Wayne Clarke, another member of CCDI, revealed that, in the Sandy aftermath, representatives from FEMA recommended that houses in Canarsie be physically elevated out of floodwaters. Most homes in Canarsie are rowhouses, which are impossible to elevate without dismantling their foundations.
“How do you raise rowhouses?” Clarke asked.
Community-based questions like Clarke’s point to Canarsie’s perception of government agencies as misinformed. In Clarke’s situation, FEMA’s recommendations may also indicate a dependence on outdated environmental data. FEMA’s Effective Flood Insurance Rate Map for Canarsie (effective since 2007) shows that most of Canarsie are in the “Area of Minimal Flood Hazard.” The NYC Sandy Inundation Zone Map shows that Sandy floodwaters in Canarsie actually reached as far as Flatlands Avenue, almost a mile further than FEMA’s predicted extent of floodwaters. The property damage from this unexpectedly severe storm surge had aftereffects that reverberated throughout the neighborhood.
“When Superstorm Sandy happened, our basements got flooded. We lost our ability to make income from renting basements that got flooded out. People can’t pay rent and go into foreclosure,” Jones disclosed.
The Post-Sandy foreclosure crisis in Canarsie was and still is, worrisome for many residents, as Canarsie boasts a near 60% homeownership rate (one of the highest rates in Brooklyn). As climate change worsens, it’s probable that the longstanding predictive weather and climate models that would prepare a community for such a crisis will become obsolete. SRIJB sees itself as an organization well-positioned to remedy this problem.
“Part of what we want to be able to do is constantly update the state of the science at this moment in time, and then communicate that in a way that helps agencies and communities make decisions based on the best knowledge at that time,” Branco stated.
As an intersection between the scientific community, government agencies and local communities, however, SRIJB is tasked not only with communicating information, but also with justifying the pace at which that information is produced. Branco noted that “the pace of science and the pace of decision-making are at two completely different paces.”
“Science is slow. Pose me a question, and I can give you an answer in three years. And not until I publish it. Elected officials need to make a decision right now or next week. They can't wait three years to get an answer.”
Despite the discrepancy between the research pace and public expectations, SRIJB has immersed itself in Canarsie’s Black community with little apparent resistance. The Institute believes that honest and transparent connections with community leaders are necessary for forging lasting, working relationships.
“You're going in and respecting the community, really listening to what their priorities are and what their concerns are,” Branco said. “There was a listening tour where the Institute just sat back and absorbed concerns of the community, and then tried to develop a program based on the community’s expressions. I think when you do it like that the racial composition of the community then starts to kind of melt away a little bit in terms of that being a barrier to working in different communities.”
Bringing this level of attentiveness to the specific interests of the community stabilizes the SRIJB’s three-pronged information exchange.
“Communities, researchers and agencies are like the three legs of the stool,” Branco expressed. “If you remove any one of them, the whole thing falls apart.”
Although this “stool” already exists in Canarsie, making it stronger is a progressive challenge Branco believes the Institute can handle.
“[Cycles] is really about finding new and effective ways of engaging communities in the long term,” he said. “It’s not easy, and if it were, then we’d all be better at it already.”