Revealing the Two New Yorks

Gary Lapon Nov 2, 2012

Hurricane Sandy, the most devastating storm to hit New York City in decades, has left the city divided between areas facing ongoing devastation and those where life is returning to normal.

But the hurricane has also revealed divisions in the city that existed long before Sandy touched ground: between rich and poor, and between the workers who make the city run and the wealthy who reap the benefits.

Some sections of the city, such as Manhattan north of 39th Street, and inland parts of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, are practically back to normal. Residents have power, water and Internet, restaurants and stores are open, and for the most part, the bustle of the city has returned.

In the other New York, however, a humanitarian crisis is looming. As this article was being written on Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of people were still without power–and will be for several days more–after a transformer explosion that affected Manhattan below 39th Street.

Dozens of homes were destroyed in a massive six-alarm fire that hit Breezy Point in Queens on Monday night, leaving hundreds of residents homeless. NYU Langone Medical Center evacuated when its backup generators failed, and Bellevue Hospital, which suffered damage during the storm and was running on generators due to a loss of outside power, evacuated some 500 patients on Wednesday.

Laura Durkay, a resident of the East Village and a contributor, walked over 30 blocks on Wednesday to charge her cell phone in a deli in Midtown. "People are helping each other and sharing information," she said. "A man parked his truck on 12th Street with his radio on, and people gathered around to listen to the news. Electricity is the biggest issue. Starbucks and other places are jammed with lines of people waiting to charge their phones." In addition, cell phone service for many is spotty or down in areas without power.

SW contributor Sherry Wolf, who lives in Park Slope in Brooklyn, described the scene at a makeshift shelter in her neighborhood:

The Park Slope Armory that usually serves as a colossal YMCA–built by the 19th century robber barons as a fortress against the poor–is currently packed with more than 600 climate refugees, mostly seniors and others in desperate need. They appear like any of us would who haven't worn dry socks in days–happy for the donated hot meals and a dry place to sleep, but uncomfortable, frustrated and frightened about what happens next. Even teens off school this week are helping out, though, so many of us have displaced friends staying with us. In fact, I've got two camped out at my small place.

Although the Red Cross said that food relief was on the way, on Wednesday, residents stuck in lower Manhattan were relying on the few restaurants, such as pizza parlors with gas ovens, that were serving food to long lines of those who could afford it. Other restaurants, such as Northern Spy Food Co., "served [free] lunch to everyone who lined up outside their restaurant at Avenue A and 12th Street," according to the Gothamist.

Another obstacle for the poor stuck in the blacked-out area of Manhattan: They can't use the assistance they receive for food purchases from the state's food stamp programbecause the subsidy is delivered electronically, via Electronic Benefit Cards. Wherever the power is out, the cards are useless.

Durkay described the contrast between her neighborhood and Midtown as "surreal. Midtown is basically functional, while my neighborhood is a disaster zone–no power or cell phone service, maybe one business of out of every 10 or 20 open, no water or heat for many people, a few restaurants and bodegas open, but no grocery stores. Two guys called it the 'dead zone.'"

Residents of public housing were especially hard hit, with nearly 60 complexes without power as of Wednesday. Durkay reported seeing residents on the Lower East Side, many of whom were without water or power, filling up buckets of water from fire hydrants outside their buildings.

Several of the public housing complexes in New York City are in Zone A, which is at greatest risk for flooding. Inside the high-rises of 14 stories high or more, thousands of residents, including the elderly, disabled and those with limited mobility, are stuck without water or power, with humanitarian consequences.

Hector lives in the Jacob Riis housing project, which is located in Zone A on the Lower East Side. "They shut down the elevators and hot water just a few hours after I found out about the mandatory evacuation on Sunday," he said. The pre-emptive shutdown, presumably intended to force people to evacuate, actually made it more difficult for those trying to get out.

According to Hector, most residents of his complex decided to stay. Some thought that Sandy, like last year's Hurricane Irene, which mostly missed New York City, would end up being mostly hype. Others, especially immigrants, had nowhere to go because they were without family in the area–or no way to get there because of a lack access of transportation.

The subway and bus system shut down at 7 p.m. on Sunday, and a cab ride from Manhattan to the outer borough, with extra fees for bridges and tolls, can run $40 or more.

While most of New York City's homeless population rode out the storm in one of the city's 46,631 shelter beds, according to Russia Today: "Lacking enough beds to house all those in need, many shelters made exceptions, allowing their buildings to go over capacity for the night. But although the efforts helped many in need, there still wasn't room for everyone."

As the hurricane approached on Monday, several homeless remained on the streets to face the storm unprotected. But billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg had little sympathy. "There are some people that are just very difficult," he told the New York Observer. "They want to avoid interacting with others, and how you get to those has always been a challenge and as far as I know, we're doing a good job with that."

One homeless man, 43-year-old James, told freelance journalist Julia Reinhart: "I can't go back to the shelter system for another two months…Only once you've been out for a year, can you be classified as long-term homeless, and therefore get access to additional assistance." When Reinhart asked about the emergency shelters, James said, "No, they don't want us there. These shelters are for the good folks, the families that get evacuated. There is no room in there for me."

Also left twisting in the wind during the storm were the thousands of prisoners jailed at Rikers Island. Most are awaiting trial, but can't afford or were denied bail, or are awaiting transfer to serve minor sentences. Amy in Queens reported that the buses to Rikers Island, which had begun running again by Wednesday, were full of people anxious to visit their loved ones to make sure they were okay.

The storm also raises questions about the state of New York City's basic infrastructure–and the priorities of the city's elites.

ProPublica, reporting on the failure of backup generators at NYU Langone Medical Center, explained that part of the system was in the basement, which flooded. New hospitals build generators above the level floodwaters are likely to reach, but according to hospital trustee Gary Cohn, "The infrastructure at NYU is somewhat old."

Tragically, lives were put at risk, including infants in neonatal intensive care, who had to be transported while nurses helped them breathe manually. Years of medical research were also lost when the generator failed.

Cohn, the NYU trustee, is president of banking giant Goldman Sachs, which is helping fund the construction of a nonunion Harlem Children's Zone charter school on public housing green space, in spite of community opposition. There is plenty of money for union-busting and school privatization, but updating hospital infrastructure is apparently lower down on the list.

Nor is there a centralized plan for dealing with hospital evacuations. According to a nurse at a downtown hospital, because of the continuing power outage, every hospital below 34th Street in Manhattan has been ordered to evacuate its patients by the weekend. But there is no plan for where to put the patients–nurses and other staff are working around the clock to find hospital beds for all the people who are soon to be displaced.

Meanwhile, the demand for hospital beds may be increasing as the supply dries up–as a result of injuries from the storm, the potential for the spread of disease resulting from the breakdown of sanitation systems and the possible worsening of New York's rat problem.

Power is out below 39th Street because of an explosion at a Con Edison substation at 13th Street, next to the water on the eastern edge of Manhattan. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, a senior Con Ed executive said the explosion might have been prevented had they moved some of the equipment to a higher level to avoid flooding, but that is "going to take some time." It's unclear why Con Ed, which knew about the risk of flooding after Hurricane Irene hit last year, did not take this precaution sooner.

A Con Edison employee, speaking anonymously, said that while company executives and Mayor Bloomberg declare that most New Yorkers will have power restored in four days, the real timeframe could be weeks–because of the unprecedented scale of the damage and the challenges it poses.

Con Ed workers are putting in 12 to 16 hour shifts in dangerous conditions to restore power as soon as possible.

While the contrast between Hurricane Sandy's impact on different sections of New York City is stark, the truth is that New York has been sharply divided for a long, long time.

It is both a playground for some of the wealthiest people in the world–home of the $175 hamburger, $3 million parking spot and the $95 million condominium–and the home of some of the poorest people in the U.S..

The scale of inequality is staggering. New York City trails only Moscow for the most billionaires with 57, yet it is also home to the poorest congressional district in the nation. The city's inequality surpasses that of Brazil, as Doug Henwood pointed out in a blog post last year: "The bottom half of the city's income distribution has 9 percent of total income; the bottom 80 percent, 29 percent…[the top 1 percent] has 34 percent of total income, compared with 19 percent for the U.S. as a whole."

David Rohde, a Reuters columnist, pointed out that Hurricane Sandy exposed how unequal New York City has become:

Divides between the rich and the poor are nothing new in New York, but the storm brought them vividly to the surface. There were residents like me who could invest all of their time and energy into protecting their families. And there were New Yorkers who could not.

Those with a car could flee. Those with wealth could move into a hotel. Those with steady jobs could decline to come into work. But the city's cooks, doormen, maintenance men, taxi drivers and maids left their loved ones at home.

Rohde praised "the tens of thousands of policemen, firefighters, utility workers and paramedics who labored all night for $40,000 to $90,000 a year," as well as "local politicians who focused on performance, not partisanship, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie [and] New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg."

But it is politicians like Christie, Bloomberg and others–along with the corporate elites they serve–who are responsible for rising inequality in the first place.

In the years before Hurricane Sandy devastated his state, Christie took the axe to the benefits of the very workers who are taking the lead in helping residents during this crisis. Christie, with the help of several Democrats in the state legislature, attacked public workers with legislation to "remove health insurance from collective bargaining, more than triple employee health care contributions and raise workers' pension contributions." And Christie has led attacks on teachers' unions in his state, using his platform at the Republican National Convention to demonize teachers' unions further.

Bloomberg, with a net worth of more than $20 billion, is the tenth richest person in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, he opposed the extension of the so-called "millionaires' tax"that would have raised billions by taxing the very wealthy–money that could go towards repairing the city's outdated infrastructure.

During his term as mayor, Bloomberg's net worth has more than quintupled, while he slashed budgets impacting the neediest; cut funding to education, health care, child care, homeless shelters including for LGBT youth and libraries; and attacked the very public-sector workers whose response to Hurricane Sandy Bloomberg has hypocritically praised in front of television cameras.

According to an article from U.S. News and World Report, the city could have protected New York City from the flooding with sea barriers of the kind used in major European cities–at a cost of just over $6 billion. That's less than one-quarter of Bloomberg's current fortune–and less than one-third the amount that Bloomberg's net worth has increased since he became mayor.

The efforts of those workers have done an enormous amount to reduce suffering during this crisis. Limited bus service was active by Tuesday, and full bus service as well as limited subway and train service was restored by Wednesday. The MTA workers who made this possible–and who run the largest public transportation system in the country, the backbone of New York City–are more than two-thirds Black and Latino workers, who have been working without a contract since January due to the MTA's unwillingness to give them a fair deal.

Meanwhile, the MTA has announced further fare increases that will push the cost of public transportation even more onto working class New Yorkers.

Con Edison, despite making over $1 billion in profits each year, locked out employees just a few months ago in order to impose a two-tiered pension system and increased health care costs that cancel out pay increases. These same employees are working around the clock in dangerous conditions in order to restore power.

Then there are Verizon workers, who went on strike in August 2011 after the telecommunication giant, also incredibly profitable, demanded cuts in their pension, health care and retirement benefits. They are currently working 12-hour days repairing the damage done to phone and Internet lines in New York City.

Just as Hurricane Sandy revealed the importance of dealing with climate change, it has also revealed the vital importance of public-sector and utility workers. Sandy has showed that these workers, so often demonized and attacked, are so central to making this city, and our society, run.

Not only that, but the closure of grocery stores and restaurants across much of the city highlighted the vital work performed by a largely immigrant workforce for low wages in New York City's service industry.

While a general strike actively demonstrates the collective power of the working class to shut down production, Hurricane Sandy illustrates–by disrupting the everyday labor of millions of workers–the essential role performed by New York City's under-compensated and under-appreciated working class.

This article was originally published on

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