Wayne Surber and Tracie Lee of Bed-Stuy based Lonestar Taco have earned a devoted following at the New Amsterdam Market, where they’ve been serving up their everything-from-scratch-with-all-local-ingredients tacos every Sunday while they search for a more permanent home in Brooklyn.
After Sandy hit, they, like many in the community of food pros in Brooklyn, wanted to help the best way they know how – by making and serving good food. We spoke with Tracie to hear how that impulse landed them in Gerritsen Beach, a tight-knit neighborhood on the southern shore of south Brooklyn that was devastated by the flooding, making and serving tacos on a Sunday afternoon six days after the storm.
So Tracie, tell us how you ended up in Gerritsen Beach serving tacos.
It actually started with us going out to make tacos in lower Manhattan a few days after the storm. After the storm hit, we knew right away there were going to be a lot of people who needed help. We make food and serve it to people for a living. That’s what we do. If we were going to help, it just made sense for us help by going out and making food for people who had been impacted by the storm.
Every Sunday, we’re at the New Amsterdam Market in front of the old Fulton Fish Market near South Street Seaport. So we know that area well and we knew they’d had pretty bad flooding and damage and that power had been knocked out and everything, so we said, “Let’s go down there. Let’s go make some food for people.”
How did that all come together? Was it difficult getting to lower Manhattan?
On Thursday, we headed out. We felt lucky to be able to do something because we have a car, and we were fortunate enough to have filled the tank with gas before everyone ran out. We were fortunate to have a friend, Katherine, who wanted to come with us, because you had to have three people in the vehicle in order to cross into Manhattan on any of the bridges. Her boyfriend ended up coming with us to help too. So we loaded up all the food and equipment, piled into the car, and headed out.
The traffic approaching the bridges was really bad. It was all backed up. There were people everywhere on foot and on bikes, trying to get to work in Manhattan any way they could. When we got across the bridge and headed for the Seaport, the traffic wasn’t as bad, but all the traffic lights were out, so it was chaotic. There were cops at most of the intersections, but you could tell they weren’t all trained traffic cops – a lot of them seemed to be just figuring it out on the fly.
But we made it. When we got down to the waterfront by the Seaport and set up, one thing we really noticed was that it smelled pretty bad. That smell of backed up sewage and fuel and seawater was just hanging over the whole area…it was pretty bad. There were a lot of people working on cleaning up. There are a lot of restaurants and bars right in that area, and all those businesses owners and cooks and servers and friends were there working madly, pulling everything that had been flooded out of the buildings and piling it up at the curbs.
A bunch of them had even started demolition – they were pulling down drywall and pulling up floors in order to start rebuilding as quickly as possible. You know, small businesses like that are under a huge amount of pressure to reopen as quickly as possible. If they have to close for a few weeks and lose that revenue that they need to cover their expenses it can be very difficult to come back.
At that time almost everyone down there was someone who works for a business there. There weren’t really any volunteers or anything like that on scene. It seemed eerily quiet actually, other than the roar of generators going everywhere.
We had no idea what to expect or how many people would be around. We ended up being there for about four hours. We fed about a hundred and fifty people. Everyone down there was just working really hard to get their businesses ready to open again. There wasn’t anywhere open in the neighborhood to get anything to eat, so it was nice to be able to help the recovery effort in some way by doing what we do and feeding a bunch of people working hard to clean up and get back on track. It just felt like we were contributing in some way by give away good food to people who were working to salvage their businesses.
We had tweeted that we were going to go down there. We just did it to try to let people in the neighborhood know we’d be coming, but it kind of turned into a thing. People retweeted it and the word spread a little bit. Now a lot of people are doing a lot of things to help, but earlier on I think people were looking for ideas for ways to help in a more immediate way than just donating to the Red Cross or something.
That night we got an email from a guy named Aaron Cohen. He lives in Boston and has something called EatBoston – he covers restaurants and bars and that sort of thing in Boston. We didn’t know him. He had seen something about us making tacos in lower Manhattan, and he said he was looking for a way for the Boston food community to help with the storm recovery in a direct way. He said, “If I help raise money to cover the costs of ingredients for you to go out and do this again, will you do it?” We said, “Sure.”
So we scrambled to figure out how much money to try to raise and how to actually do it. We decided we needed five hundred and twenty five dollars – that would cover the cost of as much food as Wayne and I could possibly prep, cook, transport and serve on our own. We also scrambled to check all these different websites to figure out what we’d use to host the fundraiser.
We figured it all out and got the fundraiser live on Friday morning at eleven o’clock. Aaron did a lot to spread the word and we spread the word too. We wanted to go back out again on Sunday, so because we were on such a tight timeline we couldn’t actually wait to see whether the campaign would be successful before we went shopping. So we had to just have faith that it would work, and we went out and started shopping and prepping. We had half a pig in the freezer, so we pulled that out to make carnitas. We decided to do rice and beans and a lot of egg tacos too because we wanted to feed as many people as possible, and you can stretch your ingredients and make lots of food with those sorts of dishes.
When we checked again to see whether people were contributing, we were pretty shocked. The response was huge. We raised more than twice our goal in five hours. We’re hoping to use the surplus to go out a third time, but as of now we’re out of gas for the car. If the gasoline doesn’t start flowing again within a few days we’re going to donate the money to the Red Cross just to make sure it’s available to an organization that can use it right now.
So anyway, that was great – we had the funding and we were prepping to go back out on Sunday. We knew we’d need some help so we were getting ready to tweet out a call for a few volunteers, but before we even did that I guess word had spread a little bit among our friends that we were going to be going back out, and people just started contacting us. People just wanted to help in any way possible. They were just looking for a way to have a direct impact. So one of our friends came over on Saturday to help us prep and pack all the food, making the tortillas and all that, and a couple of others offered to rent a zip car and come out to help us cook and serve on Sunday.
The plan had always been to just go back to lower Manhattan again. That’s the place that we were most familiar with personally that endured pretty serious flooding, because we’re there every week for the market. But by the beginning of the weekend we had started to hear about all of these other places, other neighborhoods, where people were experiencing a whole different level of devastation but weren’t yet getting much help, or any help, at all. We decided we wanted to try to go to a place where people were really hurting – where people really needed help and weren’t getting much, but we weren’t really sure where to go.
So we got in touch with Allison Robicelli of Robicelli’s Cupcakes. She’s lived in Bay Ridge her whole life and is really well connected to the communities of South Brooklyn and Staten Island. She was hearing from a lot of people about places that really needed relief and hadn’t seen any. She’s been doing an amazing job of organizing people and getting sandwiches and supplies to specific people and places than needed them badly. She told us to go to Gerritsen Beach. She said, “They were wiped out down there. No one’s paying any attention to them. Just go there.” So we called the volunteer fire department in Gerritsen Beach. They told us to come down, and that’s where we headed the next morning – on Sunday.
The drive there was pretty strange. Everything seemed so normal around Bed-Stuy where we live. We started driving south and we’d get stuck in traffic and wonder what was going on, and then you’d realize you were approaching a gas station and that you were stuck in a half mile long line of cars waiting to buy gas. There were hundreds of people standing in line too, with gas cans in their hands, just waiting. And it was like that at every gas station that was open. A lot of others were closed off with yellow tape because they were out of gasoline.
There was a pretty heavy police presence at every gas station, directing traffic and keeping things calm. It was just stunning to think that things were so bad and people were so desperate that you’d have to have cops to keep the peace while people are doing something as normal and mundane as filling their car with gasoline. It’s kind of scary.
As we got closer to Gerritsen Beach everything other than the gas stations still seemed pretty normal, and then there was this point where it just wasn’t. All of the cars parked along the avenue were suddenly parked at bizzare angles, with one wheel up on the curb or facing in the wrong direction and that sort of thing. We realized that they had all floated and spun on the flood waters. Then we realized the power was out everywhere and the traffic lights weren’t working. And then we were there.
We didn’t really know what to expect. We had never been to the neighborhood before. It’s a community of mostly small houses, close together, on narrow streets along the water just north of the Rockaways and east of Coney Island and Brighton Beach. It was pretty tough. The water came right up and swept through the whole neighborhood, flooding the basements and first floors of every house. A lot of people were cleaning up, pulling furniture, rugs, books, clothes – everything that got soaked in the flooding – out of their houses out to the curbs. So there were these huge piles of wet garbage lining the narrow streets. There was no power, no heat, and it was cold. It felt like everything was wet. All the houses were ruined. And people were cold.
You see pictures of this stuff online or on TV, and it looks bad, but it’s very different to witness it in person, to see the faces of people who have lost so much, for whom this is all still happening, who don’t have a warm, clean place to sleep and who don’t know what comes next.
So what happened when you arrived? How did you actually cook and serve the food?
When we pulled up to the fire station they had the big garage doors open to the street. Wayne jumped out of the car and walked in and said, “Hey – we’re the taco people.” This one really nice fire fighter named Gary gave Wayne a big hug and said, “We are so glad that you’re here.”
The street is really narrow, so we had to maneuver the car and unload really fast so we weren’t blocking traffic. Wayne and I do the same setup every Sunday at New Amsterdam Market, so it really wasn’t anything too chaotic. We had five friends with us who came to help so it went really fast. We set up the sternos and the grill and just started cooking.
The Fire Department had spread the word that we were coming, and a lot of people came out. As we were cooking and getting ready to start serving, people kept saying things like, “That smells really good. When’s it going to be ready?” We were like, “Sorry! Just give us a few minutes!” And then we just got down to it. We were there to cook tacos and serve as many people as we could, so that’s what we did. It was good. A lot of people said things like, “Thanks for doing this. We really appreciate you coming down here and doing this.” It was just good to be able to do what we do, make food, for people who’ve had their lives turned upside down. It seemed like the best thing we could do for them.
It was tough, but most people seemed pretty positive and hopeful, all things considered. There was one thing though. The hardest part of the day for me was…I guess there’s always been an annual Halloween parade for kids in the neighborhood. Halloween was on Wednesday, two nights after the storm, so things were way too chaotic to do it then. They could have just cancelled it, but they didn’t. They decided they were going to do it as soon as they could, I guess to honor the tradition and to give some sense of normalcy to the neighborhood kids. So they postponed it until Sunday afternoon, when we happened to be there making food.
So we’re making tacos and handing them out, and we start to hear music down the block. We look up and see a bunch of grownups in costumes playing drums and these big xylophones and marching down the street ahead of a whole bunch of kids and other adults, all in Halloween costumes. They’re all parading down this street of ruined homes with no power, between big piles of furniture and books and toys and clothes and all kinds of stuff that had been destroyed in the flood. A fireman ran across the street from the fire house to us with some candy to ask us to give it out to the kids, so there would be more than one place for them to trick or treat. I don’t know. It was a beautiful thing in one way, but it was really hard because you could see how difficult it was for a lot of the grownups around to hold it together in the face of this unbelievable situation.
It was just so sad. Grownups in costumes playing xylophones and drums and leading kids in costumes down this destroyed street? Trying to be strong for the kids and having a hard time keeping it together? Oh my god. it was so sad…You knew they just had to be wondering, “What’s going to happen to our neighborhood? What are we going to do next?”
What was your sense of the relief or aid situation on the ground? Did you chat with anyone?
We were mostly focused on cooking and serving as much food as we could. That was our goal. But we did chat with some people. It’s clearly a pretty tight-knit community. Everyone seems to know everyone.
One girl said, “I really miss my boyfriend. I hope he can find some gas so he can come see me.” One guy was saying, “It’s getting pretty cold and there’s no power or heat, but I’ve got some dry blankets for my kids. I think we’ll be ok.” It’s pretty heartbreaking to hear people say things like that because it just drives home the extent of the disaster for all these people who live just a few minutes or a few miles from places that were hardly damaged at all.
They clearly hadn’t seen much official aid. FEMA and the Red Cross definitely hadn’t been on the ground yet. At one point a relief convoy of a few Uhaul trucks full of stuff collected and driven in by people from Ohio rolled up to the fire house. Another truck showed up with MRE’s while we were there. I didn’t get any details because we were busy making tacos, but it seemed that some supplies were starting to make it into the neighborhood on a little bit larger scale.
But what we really noticed was that there were a lot of individual random people from other neighborhoods who were pulling up in their own cars to drop things off. A lot of people were pulling up and asking, “Where can we drop off food?” I guess they had just decided they had to do something to help, and they thought the best way to do it was to load up their cars with whatever they could and drive it in. That was really good to see. It seemed like an outpouring of support was starting to happen.
But people in places like Gerritsen Beach definitely still need help. I think a lot of people outside the city had a sense that when the power came back in on Manhattan, everything was pretty much ok. And that’s absolutely not the case. Things are not ok. There are thousands and thousands of people out there with homes that have been destroyed, that have no power, no heat. It’s going to take a long time for things to be ok for a lot of people, and the more people who can do something to help those people directly, even if it’s just a small thing, the faster we’ll get there.
I don’t know. I just keep thinking about that Halloween parade, and how those parents were trying to create some sense of normalcy, even if just for a moment. We were only able to provide this one meal, and that can feel like just a drop in the bucket in the context of all this. But at the same time, if we can provide just a moment of respite and comfort and connection, we just hope that can contribute in some small way to the healing of one community among many that have really been hurt by this storm.
Under normal circumstances, Lonestar Taco is at the New Amsterdam Market on Sundays. They are in the process of finding a permanent space in Brooklyn.
Gerritsen Beach and many other neighborhoods need help, warm food, and supplies. Even after FEMA and the Red Cross have established bases in these places, help will be needed on the food front. This is Brooklyn. We don’t want our neighbors living on MREs. Do what you can.