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Memo from Manhattan: Eye of the storm

By Sharon Zukin

Everyone knows by now that Tropical Storm Irene, which blew through the East Coast last weekend, flooded the beaches, suburbs and some inland towns but did little lasting damage in New York City.  I have seldom felt so lucky to live on a high floor with no river view and on a street with very few trees.

We all over-prepared for harm, of course.  New York City has more than five hundred miles of waterfront and the Bloomberg administration, with visions of Hurricane Katrina’s victims still imprinted on everyone’s mind, told thousands of residents of those areas to leave their homes for emergency shelters.  The governor of New York worked with the Obama administration to declare a state of emergency.

Since there was no need to evacuate my apartment I followed my Noah’s Ark reflex.  I baked two loaves of bread before the storm’s expected arrival, filled pots of water in case of a power outage or water main break and removed books and furniture that were in the room with the biggest windows—those most likely to shatter in hurricane winds.

As in the social storms of the Arab Spring and the recent British riots, social media channeled urgent communications.  The city government and local public radio station coordinated crowd sourcing of the hurricane’s effects through a special website:  http://nycsevereweather.crowdmap.com/main.  On Saturday night, the eve of the hurricane’s expected arrival, I got more emails from friends than on any other weekend I can remember.

When the city awakened to gray but mostly still skies on Sunday morning, those of us who had escaped the storm’s fury felt fortunate indeed.  Apart from the joy of seeing the skyscrapers and rooftop water towers in their right places and being able to flush the toilet and turn on the lights, I had a good chance to reorganize a major share of my family’s possessions.

Now I followed my Laura Ingalls Wilder instinct for domestic sufficiency.  Which books do I not need on the coffee table?  Does the telephone that never worked really belong close at hand?  Should that drawing in its old frame remain on the floor?  Or the pile of hand-drawn “books” that my daughter made in elementary school:  shouldn’t these be kept in a drawer?

The city as a whole faces more important decisions.  In the long run use of the waterfront must be made safe and secure.  Last year an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that showcased the innovative ideas of architects and urban designers for environmentally sustainable and even productive uses of the city’s shores.   So far none of these have been taken into account by the otherwise thoughtful PlaNYC, the Bloomberg administration’s statement of action principles that will guide the city’s environmental planning until the year 2030.

Neither has the city planning commission made an effort to curb rather than expand waterfront development.  The waterfront is a lucrative site for high-rise, luxury residential development and no one in the city government wants to frustrate developers’ interest in milking this cash cow.  In fact, financing the public parks on the waterfront that are planned to ring the city depends on selling development rights on and around them.

At this very moment the public-private conservancy that manages the beautiful new Brooklyn Bridge Park is soliciting developers’ proposals to build high-rise hotels and housing there to help pay for maintaining the land and building new public attractions.  Because expensive hotel rooms and apartments can generate the most income with the fewest units, thus making the smallest footprint in the park, this type of development is favored.

In the short run the joy of escaping Hurricane Irene confronts the irony of living in an epicenter of high-rise development.  When the storm blew over the city on Sunday morning an advertisement on the home page of the New York Times’ website was promoting  “New Waterfront Condos in Downtown NYC.”  Business as usual.

Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Loft Living, Landscapes of Power (winner of the C. Wright Mills Award), The Cultures of Cities, Point of Purchase, and most recently Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. You can read her previous posts here.

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