May 22, 2013
Walkabout: Manhattan After Sandy
Posted on Nov 3, 2012
NEW YORK CITY—Day four of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy saw a Manhattan eager to get back on its feet. I took a crowded bus into the East Village on Friday from the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn, where residents were spared the worst of the disaster. A downed Internet connection, suspended mail service and no trains into the city were the inconveniences much of my neighborhood had awakened to on Tuesday morning. As family and friends confirmed over the telephone, we were lucky. In addition to subway access, most of lower Manhattan lost electricity and water service, and for four days, neither members of the city government nor the utility companies seemed to know when they would get them back.
The shuttle bus dropped me at the corner of Essex and Delancey just after 10 in the morning. A police officer wearing a bright yellow vest waved traffic through the middle of the intersection. The streets were not bare like a ghost town. Cars rumbled down the road, stopping to let pedestrians and other cars go wherever traffic lights would have been and a traffic cop was not. Many people wandered the sidewalks, but no one seemed anxious. As I made my way through Chinatown, clouds periodically obscured the sun overhead.
Rolling metal gates covered many of the storefronts. A few others, clothing stores mostly, were open for business. Those I walked into had a strong security presence. If uniformed cops weren’t stationed outside, there were tall, alert, stern-looking men pacing up and down aisles illuminated by mounted construction lights, standing in for the security cameras and fluorescents that are usually enough to deter all but the most brazen shoplifters. Without a regular source of heat, shoppers and employees were bundled up against temperatures in the mid-40s. The loud sputtering of generators, powering both the open stores and the food carts that usually rely on them, could be heard up and down the sidewalks. Most of the storefront windows had been covered with large asterisks of tape to prevent glass from spraying into the street in the event they shattered.
The lights came back on when I reached the Financial District. I was drawn to the area in hopes of seeing an underwater Wall Street being literally bailed out by public workers, but it appeared I was a day or two late. People who seemed to be tourists crowded the sidewalks, snapping pictures of the tattered material that covered the unfinished levels of One World Trade Center. A window panel high up seemed to have come loose, while one on another building under construction had come off completely. More grim-faced guards patrolled metal barriers that had been placed around the New York Stock Exchange, which had reopened a few days earlier. Resolute demonstrators camped beneath the scaffolding outside Trinity Church were honoring the vow heard around corridors of the district for over a year now: “All day! All Week! Occupy Wall Street!” A Starbucks was open in the lobby of the Brookfield Properties building that towers over Zuccotti Park, birthplace of the Occupy movement. There I paid full price for a croissant that tasted at least a day old.
The blackout returned as I walked into Battery Park City. The area was flooded at the height of the storm, but it was calm now. Kids played soccer in a park on the banks of the Hudson River while young professionals in spandex and plugged into their iPods jogged through the scene. A large, dark military helicopter appeared, lumbering slowly overhead. I wondered what exactly its occupants were doing getting a bird’s-eye view of things, and whether they would be replaced in years ahead by unmanned surveillance drones.
But things came alive at the neighborhood Whole Foods store. Employees in chef’s tunics were barbecuing chicken breasts and beef patties outside the entrance. I bought a burger and walked inside. Business was brisk. All of the food one could want was there. A manager named Steve told me that at least 60 employees came to work the day after the storm.
“They just showed up and said: ‘What can we do?’ And we’ve been feeding them, taking care of them and making sure everyone is happy,” he said. The company has been busing in employees who live far away and reimbursing others who take cabs to work. The cashiers I spoke to were eager to talk. One bright-faced, middle-aged woman explained that she lives in New Jersey and has no running water at home.
“I’d like to take a shower this week,” she said, smiling.
As I left the store, small crowds were gathered here and there around electrical outlets. Some stared desperately into their smartphones. Others laughed while their phones and laptops were charged.
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