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It has been a week of unprecedented images and happenings: rescue rafts on 14th street, people throughout the city without power for days, no subway out of Brooklyn, Chelsea galleries flooded, National Guard patrolling the streets near our studio in Red Hook, Red Hook residents with no heat or lights. The city that felt unshakable and infinitely resilient has been surprisingly slow regaining its footing. This delay has forced us all to acknowledge what we didn’t want to: the city that never sleeps has been diagnosed with an incurable, likely to reoccur case of vulnerability. This realization fundamentally changes what it feels like to be here. It includes a cathartic release into reality, but it also includes a sense of irrevocable loss. One week after Sandy’s arrival we are waking up to realize the city that we live in has changed and isn’t coming back the same. The city is no longer exempt from planetary realities of the contemporary moment. If we don’t take them seriously and start reassessing, human life will endure the material consequences of willful ignorance.
But, all of this was true last week, and many weeks before. For years, artists, architects, and designers have been preparing for this moment. If we let go of that old image of the hard, resilient city, and acknowledge our porous edges, what new city will emerge?
Eve Mosher, walking NYC’s High Water Line in 2008
Failures to address the risks of climate change. Willful ignoring of urgent needs for infrastructure renewal and innovation. Cowardly avoidance of “reality based” approaches to political deliberation and policy making.
How many Sandy-like superstorms will it take before these actions “begin to be seen as shameful, illegitimate, and intolerable by enough men and women to become doomed” (to quote an analysis of the unexpected timing and surprising sequence of events that culminated in the fall of the Berlin wall)? How many hybrid cyclone-delivered “fatal blow[s] from Mother Nature” will it take to “alter the course of human nature” (as Timothy Egan asks below).
Maybe just one. Because finally and suddenly—this week has unleashed a flurry of utterings and publicly admitted realizations (like those listed below). Might this break in consciousness open the floodgates? If taken into public imagination and will, simply stated matters of fact and deeply felt post-Sandy realizations could bring on new partnerships between humans and geologic forces and events—and whole new practices of human habitation and public works that are responsive to earth forces.
We sense this is a provocative and valuable moment to learn from. It’s worth pausing and taking note of the wide range of statements that, collectively, could spring the city into unprecedented new directions. We’ve sampled just a few from The New York Times over the past week, they include:
“A catastrophic storm has no feelings, no fury, no compassion and certainly no political position. Hurricanes may sound like bridge partners at the Boca community center — Sandy, Irene and Katrina — until they land and become monsters. The mistake, perhaps, is trying to anthropomorphize them. But that doesn’t mean that a fatal blow from Mother Nature will not alter the course of human nature. When the seas rose earlier this week, swamping the world’s greatest city and battering a helpless state, the turbulence of the elements washed away the sand castles of politics.” -Timothy Egan
“We were expecting tides at 10 to 12 feet,” Mr. Miksad [senior vice president for electric operations at ConEd], said. “Not only did we exceed those tides, we went up to 14-foot levels, which no one expected” -Michael Schwirtz
“In 108 years, our employees have never faced a challenge like the one that confronts us now,” Mr. Lhota, the transit authority chairman, said. -City Room Blog
In a news briefing on Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said elected officials had a responsibility to consider new ways to prevent similar damage to the region’s infrastructure in the face of future storms. “For us to sit here today and say this is a once-in-a-generation and it’s not going to happen again, I think, would be shortsighted,” he said. “I think we need to anticipate more of these extreme-weather-type situations in the future, and we have to take that into consideration in reforming, modifying, our infrastructure.” – Michelle Higgins
“Some brokers and developers are anticipating new questions and concerns from buyers regarding waterfront property. “I think people will start looking into the zones a building is in, learning if there is backup power or not in the building, is there a history of flooding etc.,” said David J. Maundrell III, the founder of aptsandlofts.com, a New York brokerage that specializes in new-development marketing. Although he doesn’t expect those concerns to hurt prices, he said, “people will be more cautious and ask more and different questions.” – Michelle Higgins
“Group Recruiting Architects and Engineers to Assess Damage: The New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, has reached out to its members to recruit registered architects and professional engineers to help in the daunting challenge of evaluating damage to 35,000 buildings affected by the storm. The chapter is looking both for those who are already certified in damage assessment and for those interested in receiving necessary training through the city Department of Buildings. They are asked to contact the chapter, with their A.I.A. member number, at email@example.com. (The e-mail address stands for “design for risk and reconstruction.”) -David W. Dunlap
“Emergency personnel used inflatable boats on 14th Street in Manhattan on Monday night.” -City Room Blog
Headline: Cuomo Raises Possibility of Building Levee in Harbor “It is something we’re going to have to start thinking about,” Mr. Cuomo said. “the construction of this city did not anticipate these kinds of situations. We are only a few feet above sea level. The flooding in downtown Manhattan was really extraordinary and unlike anything I had seen.” -City Room Blog
Climate change, absent from this year’s presidential contest, has come front and center during this briefing on Hurricane Sandy recovery. Senator Schumer is criticizing politicians who do not discuss the issue of global warming. “I don’t think the federal government has done enough,” he said. “I think there are a group of people in Washington who have denied the truth. I think there is a relationship between these once-in-a-lifetime storms we experience every couple of years and what’s going on in the atmosphere.”
“Climate change is a reality…given the frequency of these extreme weather situations we have had— and I believe it is an increased frequency — for us to sit here today and say this is a once-in-a-generation, and it’s not going to happen again, I think would be short-sighted.” -Editorial
Sandy induced damage at 3525 Broadway, image Dave Bledsoe
Ephemerality/Precarity of Infrastructure and Culture
“I had a great final 60 minutes in Chelsea last Saturday and, consequently, one of the last looks at what would suddenly become, on Tuesday, the old, pre-Sandy Chelsea gallery scene. That day, as I started hearing reports of flooding in the neighborhood, some of the art I had seen on Saturday became increasingly vivid in my mind, as did the weird thought that I might be one of the last people who would ever see it.” -Roberta Smith
“What was once without precedent will now happen for the second time in 14 months: New York City’s transit system is going dark.” – Matt Flegenheimer
“As Consolidated Edison restored power to several parts of all five boroughs of New York on Friday, residents of Manhattan neighborhoods that emerged from the dark suddenly learned the names of the various networks beneath the city streets they usually take for granted.” -Robert Mackey
“In Battery Park before dawn, a darkness unseen since the New York City blackout of 2003 painted every high-rise building the color of a deep bruise.” – City Room Blog
“The chill and gloom in the air of our SoHo loft had made little difference to my daughter (“Daddy, when will I have Facebook?!”), although now, after two days, the desperation in her voice was slowly changing to resignation. This has been the longest period in her teenage life without an Internet connection. I shrugged my shoulders in the candlelight. I myself was as cut off as she was and had no way of knowing.” -Allen Hirsch
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