From Sandy to SoHo: Teen Artists Paint New York City’s Recovery

Young artists from neighborhoods devastated by New York City's worst natural disaster want to tell their stories.

By Jamilah King Aug 05, 2013

It’s hard for some of us to remember the storm on a summer day like this one. But in a warehouse tucked away in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy is a main focus. It’s here in a modest white-brick office housing a dozen staffers that roughly twice as many aspiring teenage artists from across the city have been working on a series of murals to restore some of what Sandy took away: home.

The Park Slope office is home to Groundswell, a community mural service organization that’s hosting the Recovery Diaspora Project. The project is a collaborative public art installation created by renowned street artist Swoon that brings together youth from all five of New York City’s boroughs to paint their Sandy stories. The young artists are creating a mural for each of the city’s hardest hit areas: Coney Island, Red Hook, the Rockaways and Staten Island. On the one-year anniversary of the storm, October 29, Swoon will then combine elements of their murals and put up a piece on the Houston Bowery Wall, a curated mural space in Manhattan’s tony SoHo district.

The program is part of New York City’s summer jobs program. Each young artist is a paid intern and over the course of the summer they also participate in workshops to talk about a host of topics ranging from why it’s important to be on time and organized to the social issues often unearthed by natural disasters. "When it comes to Sandy, we’ve talked about the difference in how men and women are often affected by storms," says lead artist Yana Dimitrova, 30. "Women are often tasked with taking care of more than just themselves."

Few things have brought New York City to its knees the way that Sandy did last October. Due to a uniquely fierce set of weather circumstances, the storm was half blizzard, half hurricane, earning it the title of a "superstorm." As the Sandy roared up the Eastern Seaboard, it was directly responsible for 72 deaths. It was also the second costliest storm in U.S. history (the first was Hurricane Katrina), causing roughly $68 billion in damage and completely devastating some of the area’s lowest lying areas.

The storm uncovered much of New York City’s increasing inequality. "The grim reality is that the storm disproportionately impacted our city’s most vulnerable populations–low-income people, people of color, and the elderly–in communities that are already overburdened with an unfair share of toxic pollution and health problems, "Al Huang wrote on the National Resources Defense Council’s Switchbord blog.

Take the 80,000 mostly black and Latino residents of New York City Housing Authority buildings who lost heat, power, and water after the city turned off essential services to compel them to evacuate. They were forced to go without these basics for up to two weeks after the storm. To make matters worse, residents have reported a months-long backlog to fix storm-related damage to their homes, including the spread of mold.

The Recovery Diaspora Project is an attempt to undo at least some of the destruction. "No one else is going to make our point," says Tasleem Sheikh, a 17-year-old senior at Brooklyn High School of the Arts who grew up between Bay Ridge and Staten Island.  Sheikh saw the effects of Sandy firsthand, in her family’s own water-damaged apartment on Staten Island and then on her daily bus rides to and from school, which carried her past homes that had been lifted from their foundations.  "We want to keep our voices heard and speak to what really happened." 

When the mural that she’s working on finally goes up in her community, she wants the people who see it to be inspired. "They don’t want to be reminded of the storm, necessarily," Sheikh says of her neighbors. "But they do want to see what we took from it, how we bettered ourselves."

Shawntell James, 17, initially questioned her family’s decision to remain in their home in the Rockaways despite Mayor Bloomberg’s orders to evacuate the area during the storm.  But now she’s using artwork to piece together the lessons she learned during the harrowing days after the storm devastated her family’s home. "Sometimes you can’t find the words describe [what happened]", she says. "This is one way for people to express that we’re stronger than Sandy."