The Kindness of Neighbors

After Sandy, Finding True Meaning of Community

Real Community: Paul Berger’s family returned home after Sandy to find neighbors had chopped wood to help keep them warm without heat or power.
paul berger
Real Community: Paul Berger’s family returned home after Sandy to find neighbors had chopped wood to help keep them warm without heat or power.

By Paul Berger

Published November 10, 2012, issue of November 16, 2012.
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At 4 p.m. on Monday, October 29, as Hurricane Sandy’s powerful wind gusts buffeted the trees surrounding our home, I Tweeted, half jokingly, that maybe 2012 was the wrong year to move to New Jersey.

One week later, with night-time temperatures plunging to 30 degrees, and still no power to heat or light our home, I can say with some confidence that there never was a wrong time to move to this particular part of the Garden State.

That’s because, despite all the fears my wife and I had of New Jersey suburbia as an uncaring and unfriendly place after almost a decade of living in community-minded Brooklyn, it is our new neighbors and our new community that are carrying us through.

In the past week we have been the beneficiaries of more acts of kindness in the township of South Orange than I could ever have dreamed of. Those without power have stopped by to check on how the new family with the young children — an almost 5-month-old and an almost 3-year-old — are doing, or to offer us firewood and a line from their generator. Those with power, whose own houses already overflowed with refugees from the dark and the cold, have brought over hot meals and baked goods. They have let us do laundry in their homes. They have even looked after our elder daughter while I took my wife — along with a sleeping baby — for a birthday meal. They have let us hang out in the warmth of their homes, and when the weather simply became too cold, they gave us a bed.

They barely know us; we moved to South Orange only a couple of months ago. Yet in the space of one week, homes and businesses that were little more than a backdrop to the place where I slept between commutes have become a community. Neighbors have been transformed into friends. And I have learned an object lesson about the real meaning of community.

I say this for fear of seeming crass when dozens have died and thousands have endured so much worse than we have.

Driving around South Orange and neighboring Maplewood in the days after the storm, it quickly became clear how lucky we have been. Enormous trees blocked roads, lolled against rooftops or lay among the debris of smashed garages and sheds. Power lines snaked down onto sidewalks, and wrecked roofs were stripped of shingles. Our cell phones relayed apocalyptic images of neighborhoods along the Jersey Shore and Long Island and in low-lying areas of New York City.

Indeed, in those early days our plight did not seem all that dire. But as it became clear that a few powerless days could stretch on for a week or longer, as gas became an increasingly precious commodity and as the temperature began to drop, what started out as an inconvenience quickly turned into a test of mettle.

Prior to the storm, we prepared by stocking up on food, filling the car with gas and buying several packs of firewood. We already had candles, flashlights and batteries.


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