By Ed Litvak
Earlier this week, the neighborhood’s elected officials piled into a cramped community room at the Smith Houses to honor tenant leader Aixa Torres. As Hurricane Irene approached New York last weekend, she and other tenant activists went to great lengths to evacuate Smith’s 4300 apartments.
As a result, the sprawling public housing development, located in the evacuation zone, got almost 90-percent of its residents out of harm’s way. Smith leaders worked with the offices of State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senator Daniel Squadron and City Councilmember Margaret Chin to get the job done. There was even an on-site visit from NYCHA head John Rhea over the weekend, just to make sure things were going smoothly.
On Wednesday, all of these officials, as well as City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, and community volunteers took part in a celebration at Smith. In this morning’s Daily News, columnist Juan Gonzalez has more on Torres’ “moxie” and what it took to accomplish a daunting task:
By 6 a.m. Saturday, the Smith Tenants Association office was functioning as the command center for the entire operation… “People really did not want to leave,” Torres said. “It took a lot of convincing on our part.” One woman on the first floor of a building was adamant about staying. The woman’s mother was in hospice care and she refused to put her mother through the ordeal of moving. “I left just before the storm arrived with my heart in my hands because there was some neighbors I was leaving behind,” Torres said. Despite the holdouts, Smith Houses “had a 90% evacuation rate, the highest of any public housing in the city,” Squadron said. At other lower East Side NYCHA developments like Baruch, Jacob Riis, Lillian Wald and Albizu Campos, barely 50% of residents heeded the mayor’s evacuation warnings. All of which proves that sometimes all you need is a few strong leaders like Aixa Torres to lead the way.