Sunday, November 4, 2012

For Better or For Worse

When you move to New York, you develop a strong bond relationship with the city, no matter the borough. As a New Yorker, you promise to love and cherish your city in good times and bad, in sickness and in health. When it hurts, you do your best to ease its troubles and when it falls, you make a promise to pick it back up. It is simply the commitment you make when you move here, whether you know it or not.

Last week, Hurricane Sandy whipped through the tri-state area, leaving over $50 billion worth of damage. Homes without power, businesses shut down, beaches and boardwalks destroyed, families displaced. Sadly, these are typical circumstances for any powerful storm and I have seen them in action before while living in South Florida, but seeing my new city in ruin, my adopted home a crippled shell of itself, was and is frightening.

Perhaps like most New Yorkers I do and always have put the city on a pedestal. The city that never sleeps, the lights that never dim, the people who toil endlessly in pursuit of their dreams because they know there's no other city on earth who can give them what this one does. New York City is one of the most powerful cities in the world--the epicenter of countless industries, the city where, truly, if you can make it here you can make it anywhere. Its power is also raised to mythical proportions, the city taking on a life of its own, a strong silent god-like figure glowing and beating in the heart of every New Yorker. The city could be filled with atheists and heathens, but everyone believes in New York--it is in itself a force of nature.

So to see this giant of industry, this giant of dreams, beat up by another force of nature, is unsettling. Living uptown, thankfully, we didn't experience too much damage. But downtown lost all of its power, it was flooded, it was completely dark--no heat, no water, nowhere to buy food. It was, as a friend said, a war zone.

On Friday, I took part of the day off of work to do what I could do give back. On a bus ride downtown (the subway service had only been partially restored at that point), I saw my favorite neighborhoods, often lit up with neon, with people and with taxicabs, reduced to ghost towns. In the middle of the day, businesses were shuttered up as tight as they would be around 5am. The bus ride downtown was jarring and I kept forgetting what time of day it was.

People lined up around the corners at shelters and churches for free coffee, diapers, food, and necessities. The National Guard and the Army were stationed giving out water on the Lower East Side. Volunteer groups went into housing projects to make sure everyone was okay and had supplies they needed--if not, they brought the supplies. Businesses opened their basements to clean and the air smelled of mildew. I could not will myself to take pictures of it all, for fear of capitalizing on others' misfortune, and my camera stayed in my bag.

The most unsettling, though, was to see army vehicles stationed up and down 1st Avenue near 14th Street. Covered in camouflage, they lined a few blocks in front of a grocery store. Soldiers in fatigues leaned against them, some took a picture with a little boy whose mother was poised and ready with her iPhone. At sweet as it was, it was also scary. Army vehicles in Manhattan? My city, she is not okay.

While power has for the most part been restored in Manhattan, it is still not back to normal. Many of the subway lines are running, but many are flooded and will be out of commission for weeks. After Katrina and Wilma, it took at least two weeks, if not longer, for everything to be back to normal in South Florida. And that is an area that is accustomed to hurricanes. It will be impossible to get gas, it will be impossible to get around the area as easily as we usually do, power may flicker, internet will be spotty, we will have to go to friends' houses to shower or even to have heat. It is what it is. But we survived, and we will have to persist with the knowledge everything will be back to normal eventually. Because it will. New York is not just built of concrete and steel and glass and whatever else buildings are made of. It is built of resilience, of rebirth, and that is one of the promises we all make to ourselves and to the city when we get here: that we will just keep going.

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