Aside from a couple of recent additions to the neighborhood, the most famous — and most visited — denizen of Red Hook, Brooklyn, is a wealthy Swede on the verge of turning 70.

From her blue- and yellow-colored waterfront fortress — a solar panel-clad space boasting ample square footage and commanding harbor views — this design-savvy, sustainability minded Scandinavian seductress peddles frozen meatballs and duvet covers to the thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers who flock to her climate-controlled palace by the sea via water taxi, bus, bicycle, shuttle, and private or rented automobile.

In the summer of 2008, the first IKEA outpost in the New York City metro area that didn’t involve schlepping to New Jersey or Long Island opened its doors on the Red Hook waterfront. Needless to say, it was controversial. Many area residents, myself included, anticipated a nightmare of big box-y proportions. However, I think IKEA has proven itself to be a useful if mostly unobtrusive, neighbor and I visit the store semi-regularly (weekdays only, weekends would require a Xanax and more patience than I could ever possibly muster). My own apartment is strong evidence of our friendship. Hell, I've even gone on dates in the store (and in adjacent Erie Basin Park). 

When Superstorm Sandy rolled into New York City earlier last week, IKEA Brooklyn emerged as one of the few Red Hook businesses that wasn't overcome by the storm's destructive floodwaters. The fact that most of the store itself is elevated above a massive car park didn't hurt.

Aside from downed phone lines, the lights stayed on and the store opened for business as usual on Nov. 1 after being shuttered ahead of the storm on Oct. 28. The store's immediate neighbors such as Fairway Market and Added Value Organic Farm, were submerged. Red Hook’s small but scrappy collection of cafes, boutiques, and bars — ones that predate the arrival of IKEA in the neighborhood and ones that came after — suffered extensive damage. Homes were rendered uninhabitable. Art studios were destroyed. As of this writing, Brooklyn’s largest public housing complex, the Red Hook Houses, is still without power, water or heat.

This IKEA shopper is still displaced.

In the days since Sandy, daily life in Red Hook has centered around reliefrecovery, and restoration. So far, it’s been a largely grassroots, community-based effort. My distaste for the Occupy movement has turned to utmost respect as government assistance has been scarce in the area. And I’m pleased to report that IKEA, unscathed by the storm and filled with a stockpile of blankets and strong black coffee, has proven itself to be a major humanitarian presence in the neighborhood.

The fact that IKEA, a mega-retailer with a long history of do-goodery, has pitched in with post-Sandy community outreach isn’t all that surprising. The store has donated “essentials” — flashlights, blankets, candles, water, edibles — to the Red Hook Initiative, a local nonprofit that’s headed the local relief efforts in the absence of help from the city and federal government.

IKEA Brooklyn has also pledged to provide impacted firehouses in the area with basic furnishings; the same goes for local small businesses as they work to rebuild and reopen. The restaurant at IKEA Brooklyn has also been transformed into a makeshift meeting space for residents to meet with FEMA representatives; the company is helping its own — displaced co-workers living in the area — find comfortable, temporary housing. What’s more, IKEA has committed to offer seasonal employment to displaced Red Hookers who have lost their jobs due to the storm. The IKEA Brooklyn Twitter feed often broadcasts useful, relief-centric information.

IKEA stores on Long Island and in New Haven, Conn., have also initiated their own relief efforts.

On a larger scale, IKEA has provided the American Red Cross with more than $450,000 of in-kind donations to be used in shelters across New York and New Jersey. This includes more than 40,000 blankets, pillows and pillowcases, bath towels, and wash clothes. IKEA has also provided long-time charitable partner, Save the Children, with items to help kids temporarily hunkered down in shelters feel more comfortable. IKEA has also helped to furnish Save the Children’s temporary office space after the nonprofit's Westport, Conn. headquarters were flooded.

Good for IKEA for pitching in both in Red Hook and across the Northeast. It would be great to see more of this from major companies (Duracell and P&G, are you listening?) that provide services in dire need by many folks impact by the storm.

And for anyone reading this who frequents IKEA Brooklyn and makes it a mostly in-and-out affair by water taxi or in a ZipCar, please take the time to explore the rest of the neighborhood and frequent the other, non-MDF coffee table-selling businesses that make Red Hook such a singular place to call home. 

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