NY Conversation November 2012

If you walked down Broadway today, you’d never know any of it had happened. The shops are open, the subway’s running and the streets are packed with people. New York City’s open for business, just like it’s always been, just like it always will be.

 

All of which only makes it harder to believe that a week ago, Broadway was deserted but for security guards stationed in the windows of the bigger stores to discourage anyone who might be considering a spot of looting. As you’ve no doubt read in the news, lower Manhattan was without power for most of last week, which is a fact you only really consider in an abstract sense until you actually see what it means.

 

Thankfully, my neighbourhood in Brooklyn was largely spared any of Hurricane Sandy’s most dramatic effects — the internet crapped out for a bit when the storm passed by, and there was some scary wind and a few trees down, but that was it. There was no flooding, our power stayed on the whole time, and the whole thing felt more like a perversely exciting novelty experience than the end of the world.

 

But two days later, I walk over the Williamsburg Bridge into the city to take a look around. And it’s like a different world, it really is. The fact that it’s getting close to sundown by the time we arrive only heightens the spooky atmosphere. And it is spooky. All of a sudden there’s no cellphone reception, nor streetlights, nor really very many people. You wouldn’t want to be here after dark.

 

On Essex Street, there’s a girl reading by the declining light of a dusty window. A few bars on the Lower East Side are open, their patrons drinking cans of beer by candlelight. The smell of garbage is everywhere. On Ludlow Street we pass a couple of women discussing where they’re gonna buy food, with one exclaiming loudly to the other, “Oh, you have money?” All the ATMs are closed below 34th Street, and the lack of subway means that the buses uptown are packed and unpleasant. And taxis are charging way in excess of normal fares due to the sudden shortage of gasoline.

 

Further up Houston Street, the BP service station on the corner of Lafayette Street is closed and boarded up, its huge sign left shattered on the pavement by the force of the wind. Broadway, as we’ve already noted, is entirely deserted. In Soho, the chef from upscale restaurant Balthazar is out on the street with two little gas-fired barbecues, cooking up the lobster he’d otherwise have to throw away. He’s giving it away for free to the few people who pass by.

 

And then finally, on Mulberry Street, the most surreal sight of all — the local supermarket has thrown all their perishable goods into a skip. A huge crowd of people, all huddled in puffer jackets and overcoats against the cold, have gathered to hunt through what’s there in search of something salvageable. It looks like a scene from a slightly more civic-minded version of The Road. In the middle of the most expensive shopping district in New York City. In 2012.

 

We head back across the bridge as the sun goes down and a cold wind starts to pick up. Looking back on the lightless city, I start to think about how on earth to describe this experience. Like plenty of other commentators, the first comparison/metaphor/etc that comes into my head is a disaster film — When Worlds Collide, or Deep Impact, or something of the sort. But then, the thing with those scenarios is that they involve some sort of grand, dramatic, unforeseeable calamity — y’know, meteorite strikes Manhattan, or something along those lines.

 

The more you think about it, though, the state of the city after this hurricane doesn’t feel like an outlandish, one-off event brought about by some sort of unknowable act of God. No, the more you think about it, the more this feels like a glimpse into a dystopian but entirely credible future, of how this city might well look in 100 years’ time when the oil has run out and the sea level has risen. After all, nearly half a million people here live in areas less than five feet above sea level.

 

We tend to take it very much for granted that things will always be the way they are. And even though Manhattan is back to normal, there’s still plenty of New York — Staten Island, the Rockaways, parts of Jamaica — that are still without power and still suffering. We forget the lessons of events like Sandy awfully quickly. Here’s to hoping we don’t have to learn them again soon.

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