The long night of Lower Manhattan

05 Nov

6th day without power. Not so bad considering the widespread damage and the fact that we were spared by floods or falling trees.
On Tuesday everybody was out on the streets, happy to be safe after they hunkered down in basements for the fear of falling trees. In Long Island the trees are old and thick and the encroachment of civilization of paved streets left them very small places to extend their roots. So the trees simply topple exposing sideways expanded but very superficial roots.
The second day, on Wednesday, some trucks from North Hempstead town came up and started to cut the trees that fell on the streets. It’s a tough job but for sure the guys doing it did not show being under pressure to do as much as possible in minimum of time. Here there are 7 guys watching the man with the machine used to move the cut tree trunks in the trucks.

On Thursday LIRR started to work with free rides on trains, buses and subways, and it did a pretty good job with service every hour to Penn Station. I decided to go into Manhattan to experience how the lower part of the city looked like in its longest night.
Penn Station was half opened, the NJ transit side being cordoned off a sign of the flooded state across the Hudson. The entire area in front of Penn Station looked like in a regular day with lit advertising panels in the middle of the day and people rushing around.
The avenues lower than 34th were empty, few cars making their way uptown. Each intersection was guarded by police bored already by manning the traffic, a job that most of them never did. People were caring pails that were getting filled up with water from hydrants to bring them in the apartments devoid of power, water and toilets services. In the housing complex close around 30 Street and 9th Avenue an army truck was probably supplying food and water. Meanwhile the fire hydrants became what the fountains used to be in the past, community centers, places where the news were spread by the word of mouth where all races were the same, just New Yorkers hit by the hurricane and the blackout.

Chelsea’s galleries were bringing out everything from their flooded basements: cardboard boxes and wooden packaging together with discarded wet furniture and carpeting were piling up on sidewalks toward the river. The fancy art galleries were gutted hoping from dryer times. In front of each building was a generator that was pumping out water from its basement. The water was flowing in incredible amounts, surprisingly 3 days after the storm. I kept wandering how much water was in the basement that after 3 days it was still flowing like a river. In the news I never heard that was mentioned the amount of flooding.

I stirred toward the river on the West Highway trying to get to the riverside park  but like all the New York parks was closed during the hurricane. Close to the Meat Market, still on West Highway I asked some guys who were pumping water from the basement how high was the water during the storm. He pointed to me the level on the wall, a mark that I missed on most of the buildings I passed: 3 feet. No wonder that they are still pumping!! Latter I understood that at the tip of Manhattan the level reached around 6-7 feet, growing from 8pm and receded completely the next morning. During the hurricane the streets that are normality full of life with tons of bars and restaurants became rivers caring away parked cars, garbage bins and everything that was movable, water entering every store pulling the clothes out and pushing the tables and chairs toward the back of the restaurants. The Meat Market was shut down like I never saw it before. The signs of water on the fancy glass walls of the fashion galleries and fancy restaurants were everywhere. A Verizon truck was pumping a river out of the manholes. But the Village was full of life; people were on streets caring pails of water to bring to their apartments chatting excited about the events. You could stop and talk with any of them, a rare event in a city where people are continually rushing never having time for a casual chat.

Everybody was saluting each other, a thing I remember only from the time of 9/11. People walked their dogs and maybe the neighbors’ ones.
I did not have a plan where to go and when I saw some light in World Financial Center I decided to go there and charge my phone. My phone was discharged and it stayed like this because till I reached WFC it was no place that had power. But to charge it was easier said than done because near each and every outlet in the building was a person charging a computer, iPad, iPhone, regular phone, etc.They came from home with extenders and 6 outlet strips sharing the juice with friends and family. Finally I got my prized outlet and I started to suck the juice of electricity like an addict, empowering the only mode of communication that we had during Sandy’s week.

I decided not to continue to the tip of the island and start to return toward Penn Station. When I got off WFC I realized that the entire area around had power and the pumps were gushing water like crazy. It could have make the entire lower Manhattan the same pool it was the night before.

The park were Occupy Wall Street had its headquarters was open and full of lights, with all the trees prepared for Christmas.

The moment I left the park and start to ascend on Broadway, the show was over and it was no light in sight. Broadway, usually full of stores and packed with people was deserted. Everything was dark and the only occasional lights were from the shish kebab stands and incoming cars headlights. Some entrepreneurial Chinese were packing their make shift business with coffee and cakes setup for the day in the back of a Jeep. Whatever business existed during the day was packing for the night.

People were walking determined to get to their destination. Just a little bit of chattering and some movements of occasional flashlight hand held or connected to their heads. The happiest were the bikers who were able to have the entire Broadway for themselves, doing stunts in the middle of the street. Cars were coming down the avenue but sometimes were guarded by police that was careful that impatient speeding drivers would cross dark intersections or worse hit pedestrians who obliviously were walking on the street. The only lights beside the tiny flash lights were the cars head beams piercing the night like spot lights on a theater stage. New York Stern School of Business was the only building lit that I saw till I reached 23rd Street and it looked completely out of place. The entire atmosphere was spooky and even the people walking around that you only could hear were like invented characters in a film, doubtfully real, just shadows creeping in the landscape. At 8th street two huge spot lights were hanged on poles illuminating the street like a film shoot.

Inching through this eerie atmosphere I finally saw again work lights further and I realized that I was close to Union Square. The square was completely different than in any regular day. Gone were the jugglers, the OWS stands, the chess players and the regular crowd that packs daily the square. They were all replaced by line of electric trucks coming from all over the country parked near each other, electric crews that came from all over USA to help the great city left in the dark. One of that was Pepco whose slogan was extremely inappropriate for the moment: “keeping you plugged”. It crossed my mind to add the “un” for a more appropriate display of the current situation. Meanwhile millions of people living in high rises were without power for days, with no water and toilets in their several million $ apartments, with no elevators to bring you down to buy even a bottle of water.
I hanged out around Union Square for a while trying to find out where is located the famous exploded transformer that took power for the entire lower part of the city but none of guys I asked knew exactly. It was somewhere in their notes/emails but they could not find it when they looked for it. They were waiting to be dispatched to the entire area.
When I left Union Sq the most eerie image came into view; Broadway, in full darkness, was looking like tunnel and at its end around 32 street you can see a slither of powerful light from the high rises in the area. Just the light at the end of the tunnel. The only other light that you could see on this Broadway tunnel were the tiny LED headlights of the bikers and pedestrians. The image was totally surreal. It was like you had coming out of hell and now you realize that it exits an alternative.

23rd street was dark and the complicated crossing between 5th Avenue and Broadway under the Flatiron building was marked visible with magnesium burning lights and lots of cops were directing the traffic, to help cars avoid hitting one of the dividers.
But the most striking experience was just to come. When I turned the corner and got on 26th Street, the first street that had light, I felt like I was in dream; it was business as usual with the regular hassle and bustle of New York, people, bars, restaurants, and loud voices, cabs hailed to the curb, etc. I looked behind in awe and just one block way it was quiet and pitch dark. 25th street was not just another street of the city but an entire different realm.The long night of Lower Manhattan was only a dream seen from the other side.

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Posted by on November 5, 2012 in Blog, USA


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