Closed and boarded-up businesses in the Rockaways in January 2013, shortly after Hurricane Sandy. Seth Wenig / AP

An isolated part of New York City is still rebuilding its economy after Sandy.

Most New Yorkers rarely go to the Rockaways. Sitting just above sea level and surrounded by water, the narrow peninsula off the southeastern edge of Queens made horrific headlines after Hurricane Sandy: families stranded for days without food, seniors lacking water and electricity for months.

As the city’s memory of the storm has faded, so too has its attention on the 130,000 New Yorkers who live in the Rockaways. The area still hasn’t made a full recovery from the storm.

Luis Casco is one of those 130,000. Along with two other Rockaways natives and another friend from New York, he is a worker-owner at Luv Custom Prints, a co-op offering screen printing services to businesses and individuals in Rockaway and beyond. Luv is part of the Worker-Owned Rockaway Cooperatives, or WORCs, a program that helps Rockaways residents develop co-ops to address the needs of their community.

WORCs emerged out of Occupy Sandy, an Occupy Wall Street offshoot that was the first aid organization to arrive—and, crucially, the last to leave—when the storm hit. Four years later, that investment in community development is still paying off.

“[WORCs are] a network where we support each other, and the money stays in the Rockaways instead of going to Wal-Mart and never coming back,” Casco says of the WORCs. “It’s all people from the community trying to create something sustainable.”

Because the Rockaways are remote—90 minutes or more from Manhattan on transit—it has been hard to build a strong economy there. In the 1950s, the city installed housing projects on the coastline and moved in low-income New Yorkers by the thousands. Over the decades that followed, failed improvement efforts deepened stratification between locals, the poorest of whom live on the eastern side of the peninsula, and the wealthy visitors who spend summer days at beaches clustered on the western end. The per capita income was about $21,000 in 2010.

A man walks his children to school in the Rockaways. (Mark Lennihan / AP)

Racial segregation is deep, too, moving west to east, from overwhelmingly white to predominantly African American and Latino. Rebuilding has taken off since Sandy, but it hasn’t helped with mobility, Casco says. Many tourism dollars go to companies elsewhere, and because there are few locally-owned places to shop or work, the dollars of year-round residents leave, too.

Diego Ibanez, another worker-owner at Luv Custom who volunteered with Occupy Sandy, describes the conditions in the Rockaways as a “slow hurricane” that wreaked social and economic destruction long before the physical storm. “[Occupy Sandy] was addressing the fast hurricane: the floods, there’s no food, no water,” he explains. “But [think] about the things that had always been happening: racism, poverty, discrimination.”

Every so often, outsiders appear with offers to help address these entrenched problems. As a native, Casco has learned not to trust them. Over and over, he says, residents have pressed for affordable housing and locally-owned businesses, but have been ignored. “People in the community who live on minimum wage, two families bunched up into one apartment trying to live—developers don’t listen to that.”

The WORCs program was also founded by outsiders. Casco says he was skeptical when Occupy Sandy volunteers arrived in the aftermath of the storm and, six months later, said they planned to help start co-ops in Rockaway. But when he saw that the construction business that emerged was truly local-run, with minimal interference, he decided this program was different and signed on for the next round.

Tamara Shapiro and other Occupy Sandy organizers garnered support for a Rockaways program from The Working World, which funds co-op development worldwide (in the case of WORCs, though, much of the funding comes from the city, which has invested $3.3 million in co-ops over the past two years). Shapiro says the key to the program’s success is that organizers listen to participants. “Each round, we’ve been evaluating how we can shift what we’re doing to meet what people are giving us feedback about,” she says.

The program is on its third round, and each previous one has launched two steady businesses and several that are still in development.

A Luv Custom Prints staffer at work in the shop. (Diego Ibanez)

In considering businesses for funding this round, the WORCs are particularly concerned with supporting plans that demonstrate long-term value. “A small business with three or four owners is great for those owners, and it’s great it’s a co-op,” she explains. “But it may not be something that will have a wider impact. We need to be putting our resources into businesses [that] create lasting value for people who live in the Rockaways.”

The advisory committee, all co-op owners, has chosen to focus on value chains, businesses that have the potential to deliver products or services to other co-ops.

Although Luv Custom Prints didn’t come out of this round (it began in the second), it was a natural value chain. Being a lifelong local meant Casco understood how helpful screen printing could be for the Rockaway communities, so when he announced his business, orders came flowing in: t-shirts for Roca Mia (a construction company that emerged out of the first WORCs round) and for an after-school program Casco helped found several years ago; 10,000 tote bags for the Park Slope Food Co-Op.

Casco credits the initial success to locals and other co-ops who understand the importance of creating an ecosystem. “People already trust you, they already know the work you do, they want to support someone who understands their struggle.”

Luv Custom Prints has a long way to go. Right now they’re operating out of a previously existing shop in Brooklyn until they find a permanent space that’s actually in the Rockaways, and they only just finished training; none of the worker-owners was previously familiar with screen printing, just the fact that the Rockaways needed the service—and the local jobs.

“We’re building what we want to see,” says Ibanez. “It’s hard as hell, and we’re struggling still. [But] if we want to see that change we have to help build it. It has to be internal and personal. It’s stressful, but it’s so worth it.”

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