New lease on life for housing complex bolsters tenants accustomed to hardship

Lynette Meacham didn’t think twice when she heard Sandy was approaching — she left right away.

“I have zero tolerance for that kind of stuff,” said Meacham, who stayed with her mother in Laurelton, Queens, for nearly a month. “If I can avoid the situation, I will.”

As a resident of an apartment on the 17th floor of one of the buildings in Ocean Village, a sprawling affordable housing complex in the Arverne neighborhood of the Rockaways, she said she didn’t want to walk up and down dark stairwells.

The Ocean Village housing complex in the Rockaways is undergoing a transformation that started in the aftermath of Sandy, and under new ownership. Photo: Claire Moses

The Ocean Village housing complex in Arverne is undergoing a transformation that started in the aftermath of Sandy, and under new ownership. Photo: Claire Moses

The complex — plagued with problems even before the storm — was without power for about three weeks, residents said, which meant that the elevators weren’t running and that the complex didn’t have running water.

Now, a year later, Ocean Village is under new management, with help from the city’s Housing Development Corporation, and construction is underway in the hopes of filling some of the hundreds of vacant apartments in the 1,100-unit development, which even before Sandy had grown decrepit.

“It’s coming along,” said Phyllis Massie, who has lived in the complex for more than two decades. “The new management is a great thing. [We are getting] new bathrooms and new kitchens.”

While life has resumed its normal pace, the memory of Sandy is still very much alive.

“I hated it,” said Carlise Simmons, who moved into Ocean Village only weeks before the storm hit on October 29, 2012. As a resident of an apartment on the 19th floor, he said he tried to minimize his trips up and down.

Without water, electricity and video games, Simmons said, “I basically lived like a caveman.”

Ocean Village in 1979, long before its recent ravaging and renovation. Photo: M. Joedicke/Flickr

Ocean Village in 1979, long before its recent ravaging and renovation. Photo: M. Joedicke/Flickr

While some of her neighbors stayed, Meacham, 43, said she remembered only entering the building three times during those weeks without elevators to get her bank card and other personal effects and to clean out her refrigerator.

“I just kept calling my neighbors, asking if the elevator was up and running,” said Meacham.

While many residents of the complex decided to seek shelter with friends or family in other parts of the borough or state, others stuck around, bracing cold weeks without electricity and heat.

“It got a little unbearable,” said Phyllis Massie. In an attempt to stay warm, she said she fired up the oven and boiled water on the stove.

Massie stayed for the entire time, and for the first two weeks her two young boys stayed with her.

“At first it was fun for them,” she explained. “Running up and down the stairs and getting all the free stuff.”

After two weeks she began to worry about their health and got their father to bring them upstate.

“It was bad, emotionally,” Massie continued, “I had never been through that before.”

Although living conditions deteriorated, Massie also remembers how the community came together and pulled through.

“We bonded,” she said. “It was kind of OK for two weeks.” Massie added that the Red Cross and other help organizations did a good job providing blankets, batteries, food and other necessities in the weeks after the storm.

Barbecues popped up. Food trucks trekked out to the development, and were met with long lines, residents remembered.

When asked how they got through the storm and subsequent unpleasant weeks, residents in Ocean Village said they simply did what they had to do.

Dress warm, make sure to have enough bottled water and get food from different places, said one woman in her forties who refused to give her name because she wasn’t a resident of the complex but a grandmother taking care of her grandkids who live there. Living on the eighth floor with two small kids, who were both asthmatic, she said she tried to leave the complex as soon after the storm as possible.

But she, too, found a positive side of the whole experience.

“A lot of people came together,” she said.

Before the storm, she said she felt a disconnect within the larger Southeast Queens community, particularly between her mostly black community and the predominantly white Howard Beach and Breezy Point.

“I found them a little uppity,” the woman said. After Sandy, however, “We’re all on the same line.”

Residents appear happy with the fact that the complex is under new management and are hopeful the renovations will improve their living conditions, which have been problematic since long before Sandy.

“I hope,” said Mary Ivey, a lifelong Rockaway resident, “that this is hurricane proof.”

“It is hurricane proof,” responded Massie confidently. “They have put in new drains and stuff and did what they had to do.”

Meacham also expressed confidence that her community will weather the next storm better than the last one.

She said that most people didn’t leave because Hurricane Irene wasn’t as bad as predicted:

“I believe that after [Sandy], if they say go again, more people will definitely leave.”

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