Marissa Bernowitz: The Free Flea Market

I met Marissa Bernowitz in a dingy, windowless room in a small office building near the A train station on Beach 116th Street. “Belle Rock,” she emitted in a veteran, no-nonsense tone, as she fielded calls from customers needing a ride.

Before becoming a dispatcher in Rockaway, where she had lived for ten years, Bernowitz, 27, worked in billing for a corporate car service in Manhattan. On the night before Sandy hit, she posted a status on her LinkedIn page to let clients know that she might miss work the following week, and which number they could call to get their invoices.

After the storm the clients called, but not about business.

“They were questioning my boss,” Bernowitz said. “‘Where’s Marissa?’ ‘How do we help her?’”

After she posted that status, Bernowitz drove home with her mother, who worked nearby, into an area where flooding had already begun. She saw a young person, maybe in his late teens, waiting for a bus in Broad Channel as the rain started to pour, and told him to get into her minivan. Coincidentally, he was heading to the same residential complex where Bernowitz’s one-year old son was in day care.

“I have picked up random people, supplies, elderly women, people with children, since that day,” Bernowitz said. “It’s been non-stop.”

But picking up people and resources constituted just a fraction of Bernowitz’s contribution to the relief effort. She’s best known for providing food and goods via an operation called the Free Flea Market.

In January, 2013, she and four volunteers started serving hot food and dispensing basic supplies outside her mother’s home on Beach 111th Street, every day at first and then once a week. They moved into an empty storefront that summer, and lost it after Build It Back, the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery program, stipulated that damaged properties be vacant to receive funding. Still, the market endured, returning monthly at various locations in Rockaway.

From the start, Bernowitz used Facebook to amass inventory. She created a Free Flea Market page, and a hotline for requests for supplies--which she posted there--and donations. On Twitter, Bernowitz created the account @RockFreeFlea, and linked it to her personal one, @MJ_Bernowitz, so that market tweets doubled as personal tweets and vice versa. Moreover, Bernowitz’s Facebook posts also appeared as respective flea market or personal tweets, and as status updates on her LinkedIn page. All told, her social media messaging reached over a thousand people, from close friends to those who “liked” the flea market’s page or followed it on Twitter.

Social media, while also a place to bully or vilify, has become a powerful place to connect and spread empathy, according to Emma Seppala, Ph.D, the associate director at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University School of Medicine.

“Empathy is something we’re biologically wired for,” she said. “Compassion is feeling that empathy, and being moved to help. It’s taking that to the next level, where [a person] wants to do something.”

Using a site like Facebook to instantly update with photos of real-time suffering implores people to help more so than a regular news report, since it instantly connects strangers, she said.

“When you feel that connection more, you're going to be more likely to help,” she said.

Almost to prove that point, the Free Flea Market itself reached beyond New York City. When Bernowitz learned about the tornado that hit Moore, OK on May 20, 2013, she immediately thought of an Oklahoman who had sent trucks filled with relief supplies to Rockaway. She and market volunteers loaded an RV with first aid supplies, water, shelf-stable food, batteries, baby wipes, toys, and blankets bound for Moore, and posted photographs of the packing process. The drivers posted and tweeted along the journey west, and posted photographs of their cargo after unloading it; Bernowitz, on a computer in Rockaway, tagged its donors.

“We noticed that donors liked seeing their things go from here to there,” she said.

Sitting in her office with a map of Rockaway on the wall, Bernowitz admitted that she “[couldn’t] care less about the person next door to me” before Sandy. She now thinks that as long as people feel connected to one another—something that social media helps bring about—they will answer calls for help.

“That’s humanity,” she said.

With We Care New York, the seasoned volunteer is currently partnering with the Secret Sandy Claus Project, a nonprofit that emerged in December 2012 to provide toys to children in Sandy-affected areas.

And during the Free Flea Market page’s continued life, Bernowitz organized summer activities, field trips for kids and holiday events, utilizing her large social network to keep her good work going.

“These are issues that came to light more so because of Sandy,” she said. “I don’t think we’re ready to quit yet.”

Philippe Theise is a writer based in Brooklyn. He partnered with Jaime Jordan and Katie Honan, the co-founders of Rockaway Emergency Plan, to profile activists who used social media to help provide relief and reconstruct homes after the hurricane.