In the days and weeks after Superstorm Sandy devastated New York City in late October, scores of unsung heroes rushed to the aid of the afflicted and labored to bring relief to communities, many of which felt largely abandoned. Among the volunteers in Rockaway, Queens, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods in the city, was a certain former congressman, a politician who had left Washington in ignominy.
Anthony Weiner knows Rockaway as well as anybody. He represented the area for years, and invested time and money in it while serving in Congress. With canals of sea water filling the streets of the peninsula and houses burned to their foundations by electrical fires (including the home of his successor, Rep. Bob Turner), Weiner quietly put his expertise into action—so quietly that even months later, few know about his efforts.
With the cooperation of elected officials, including Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder and Rep. Gregory Meeks, Weiner spent several weekends in Rockaway helping people piece their lives back together.
“After Sandy, [Weiner] called me and let me know that he was out [in Rockaway] … and I said, ‘That’s great, let’s make sure we get together and work together,’ ” said Meeks, whose district includes the Rockaways. “A number of different weekends he was out with his work clothes on, going into people’s basements, removing debris and doing what all the other volunteers were doing. He got his hands dirty, no question about that.”
With Turner grappling with his own loss, and the city slow to send help to the area, a vacuum was created that Weiner hastened to fill. Residents recalled that when Weiner represented Rockaway he was a ubiquitous presence, attending every mundane community and civic meeting and endearing himself to the people in the neighborhood in the process. As a result, he was better equipped than most to coordinate relief for its residents, and sources say that he did not hesitate to phone city agencies to secure additional resources.
Rockaway locals were struck by the low profile Weiner kept while shuttling around the peninsula. Kevin Boyle, an editor at the local Rockaway newspaper The Wave, noted that Weiner was just trying to blend in, and even deflected some media attention.
“He wore a low hat and did not bring attention to himself,” Boyle said. “We had met up at my house, and I went over with him to St. Francis, a major relief center in this neck of the woods. He got in there, was handing stuff out to people. Some people recognized him, but quite a few didn’t. There was a news team there that he avoided. Somebody from the Curtis Sliwa show wanted to talk to him, and [Weiner] gave them to me instead.”
Jonathan Gaska, the district manager of Community Board 14, which includes Rockaway, said that Weiner had nothing to gain politically by lending a hand to the community.
“I saw him a lot,” Gaska said. “I heard he was helping out and clearing debris. He was out there bringing supplies to different neighborhoods, and he called me to say, ‘Look, what agency do you need help with? I still know people. Anything you need help with, I’m there. Here’s my phone number.’ I’m not gonna say there weren’t other people there helping, but he had nothing to gain and he was there, and that says a lot.”
To understand the sensibilities of Rockaway is to understand a community that tends to feel not only geographically disconnected from the rest of New York City but also civically disenfranchised. People on the peninsula refer to the “mainland” somewhat derisively when they talk about the laissez-faire attitude they perceive city officials have in regard to Rockaway’s needs. While in Congress, Weiner poured money and resources into the region, commissioned studies on environmental difficulties it faces and served as the area’s de facto ambassador, taking up the mantle from his predecessor, Charles Schumer, who was also a tireless advocate for Rockaway in the House.
“I spent a lot of time in Rockaway, knocked on every door twice, was down there walking the beach a lot,” Weiner told City & State. “I’ve just always loved the people of Rockaway. They’ve always been very kind to me. When I got in, given the sheer number of citizens and votes, I spent a disproportionate amount of time in Rockaway—and I did that, first of all, because I like the community and the residents very much, but also because there were a lot of needs.”
Those who know Weiner best say he often plays coy when it comes to his ambitions, perhaps not wanting to appear as if his volunteerism were a ploy to thrust himself back into the spotlight. After being contacted repeatedly by City & State for this piece, Weiner eventually agreed to speak about the recovery efforts in Rockaway—a subject he had previously written about in a November Daily News op-ed co-authored with Meeks—but made a point of highlighting the efforts of others over his own contribution.
“There was this woman who just took over this big open piece of land by the Cross Bay Bridge and set up a distribution center and set up a food service on her own,” Weiner said. “I took some people down there just to kind of show them, [people] who I thought might be able to help out in different kind of ways, writing checks or helping out—but we would constantly be coming across people whose stories were, ‘Yeah, I just came down one day, and I haven’t left since.’ ”
If hesitant to speak about his own efforts, Weiner was eager to discuss the environmental and economic issues that Rockaway faces going forward. In his op-ed with Meeks he advocated for a number of solutions to Rockaway’s unique environmental challenges, from rock jetties and groins to mitigate flooding to the establishment of a regular ferry to and from the area. He also noted an appetite in Rockaway to move past the old debates and on to a discussion of new ideas as to how to redesign and rebuild the community.
“There were so many people that kind of had this larger social frame about their neighborhood. Now a lot of people are rallying around that same notion to come up with ideas,” Weiner said. “To some degree, one of the things that Sandy did was make these small arguments seem small, because now there are these giant challenges.”