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How Bikes Powered a Neighborhood Through Sandy's Blackout

A few resourceful East Village residents used a Occupy Wall Street bike generator to power electronics during the blackout caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Five days after Hurricane Sandy ripped through New York City, Niko DeGallo was in the same place as the first night she went without power: barbequing on the sidewalk, feeding anyone walking by.

DeGallo lives in C-Squat, a squat that has been in the East Village for the last twenty years, though it has been legally occupied for the last ten. When the neighborhood flooded and went dark from Sandy, residents of C-Squat banded together to help their neighbors, feeding hungry people who went days without food, water, or electricity in their homes. C-Squat also offered up a bike-powered generator so people could charge their cell phones.

“We fed 2,500 people over five days,” DeGallo said Saturday, while she kept an eye on burgers browning on the grill. All of the food she had been cooking all week, as well as the coals for the barbeque and the packs of dry ice to keep everything fresh, was donated by New York City residents.

“The National Guard mentioned last night that we’ve fed more people than they have,” DeGallo said. The National Guard also used C-Squat as a drop-off point, leaving boxes of bottled water and MREs—ready-to-eat packaged meals used by service members in combat.

“We were feeding people way before the city was,” said Bill DiPaola, the director of the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, which occupies the storefront section of C-Squat and holds archives of the Lower East Side’s squats and gardens. When Sandy hit and the museum’s basement began to flood, DiPaola raced to save the exhibits, including a bike generator that was used during the Occupy Wall Street protest.

The bike was one of many built by the environmental group Time’s Up!, and were created to replace the generators New York City officials confiscated from Occupy Wall Street in 2011. Power is generated by connecting the bike, a stationary Schwinn, to wires, which are then connected to a flywheel. The flywheel spins a motor that is connected to a semiconductor, which then charges a battery. After that, it’s just a matter of plugging in.

Initially museum staff and C-Squat residents tried hooking up the Occupy bike to a hose to pump the water out of the basement, but one person couldn’t create enough energy to suck out the water. A neighbor loaned a generator and the bike was moved to the sidewalk near the tables of free food.

“After that it was all about feeding people and charging cell phones,” DiPaola said. He guessed about 200 people per day were coming by to charge their phones, giving some their first opportunity to contact loved ones.

Bob Griffin, a resident of the nearby Baruch Houses, the largest public housing complex in Manhattan, was without power until Friday. Griffin used the bike to charge his cell phone, and then stayed to eat and help out. “I’m not much of a bike rider anymore,” he said, but took a turn on the Occupy bike. “It was like riding a ten-speed in high gear.”

Griffin said it was inspiring to watch the community band together and help out. “Beats the hell out of running around with machetes, trying to cut each other up,” he said.

Out of donated food and with the power back on, residents of C-Squat wrapped up their last night cooking out on the curb. “We have some eggs left, though,” DeGallo said. “Just enough to make hangover omelets in the morning.”

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