East Berlin, New York

With the electricity finally back on after four days in the dark following Hurricane Sandy, the question I am asked most often is what was it like?  Strangely, the answer is the old East Berlin, when it was under communist rule.  In large swathes of downtown Manhattan — Soho, Greenwich Village, much of the East Village — what it did not feel like was the New Orleans hurricane, Katrina; or, indeed, a natural disaster of any kind.

A few tree limbs littered the ground and, next to Gramercy Park, two trees toppled over with their roots ripping giant concrete slabs out of the sidewalk, but the flooding from the storm surge was contained to the coastal areas and the interior of the island was largely unscathed.  But the flooding triggered an explosion at the 14th Street transformer, which, if you haven’t seen the video, was pretty astonishing:

That caused the electricity to go out for 92 hours; with it, the heat, hot water, mobile phone coverage, internet, refrigeration, the lights…this list will sound obvious but until it failed I never recognized how many basic functions of life are dependent on the electric grid.  But it didn’t fail everywhere, only south of about 39th Street, and this created the much-discussed division of Manhattan into a northern zone where life went on totally uninterrupted and a southern zone where we were huddled on cold, dark corners where word had gotten out that someone had once caught a mobile phone signal or trapped at home sniffing rotting food to ascertain whether it still might be edible.  Streets soon felt deserted as residents moved in with uptown or Brooklyn friends, shops and bodegas closed, debris gathered in piles, and there was a general sense of abandonment.  This very quickly came to seem like a new mindset rather than a temporary phenomenon.

At night, looking south, there was only an inky, impenetrable darkness but looking north the Empire State Building at 34th Street was lit up obnoxiously like a taunt written in the sky.  There, we could see, was a kind of West Berlin manifesting all the profligate excess and waste of a decadent capitalist society, so close yet inaccessible.  It looked amazing.  Where we were, the shelves were bare and, it seemed, all the vitality had been leached from civic life.  There was nothing therapeutic or purifying about it: I wanted a rib eye steak and a hot shower in an unbelievable way.


Update (5 Nov): The New York magazine cover photograph by Iwan Baan showing the division of light and dark from the air is pretty amazing, calling to mind the famous satellite photo of North and South Korea.  In fact, though, in New York the border between the two felt closer than that — more concrete wall than DMZ.


Update (11 Nov)
This time-lapse video from Already Alive (via The Atlantic) gives a good sense of the darkened streets of lower Manhattan. I strongly suggest muting the sound and watching in silence because the juvenile philosophical musings in the voiceover does it no favors:


One Response to “East Berlin, New York”

  1. DonW says:

    Vividly and sensitively described, Sean. I felt as if I were there with you. Sureal comes to mind. Glad you are still genki.

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