I was in New York when Hurricane Sandy landed, but I saw nothing of it.
No, I’m not blind. I just happened to be in Upper Manhattan, which was almost entirely spared by the storm.
Little has been reported about this since, understandably, the focus was on the devastation. But New York was spectacularly divided in two. Lower Manhattan, below 39th Street, was severely hit and went dark. Thousands of residents lost their power, and the streets were covered with debris.
In Upper Manhattan, however, life went on as usual. We had spent the previous weekend as guests at a friend’s apartment, on 63rd Street near First Avenue. On Sunday night, when our return flight to Montreal was cancelled, we reappeared on her doorstep, this time as refugees.
On the morning after the storm, it was business as usual on First Avenue. The only traces of Sandy were a few fallen branches and broken store canopies.
I must admit I was a bit disappointed. With much trepidation, we had made provisions of bottled water, batteries, candles, and food that could be cooked on the gas top if electricity were cut off. A journalist likes to be where the action is, and I was expecting some kind of dramatic experience.
But instead, trapped for seven days in our golden prison (there was no practical way of getting back to Montreal), we just resumed our tourist activities, albeit with a twinge of guilt, considering the intense misery that was affecting people everywhere else.
Of course, all New Yorkers, wherever they lived, were hugely inconvenienced by the subway shutdown and the closing of bridges and tunnels, a painful reminder that Manhattan is an island that can be easily cut off from the rest of the world.
Still, within two days of the storm, the buses were running again and taxis were roaming the streets. Large department stores, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim had all reopened, although with slightly reduced staff. Times Square was crowded. At the Rockefeller Center, NBC crews were setting up the scene for an outdoor broadcast of the presidential election. In Upper Manhattan, the only sign of tragedy was the now famous half-broken crane still dangling in the sky near Carnegie Hall.
Was Sandy a vicious right-wing storm intent on punishing the 47 per cent who, according to Mitt Romney, don’t pay taxes? The clear-cut division between Upper and Lower Manhattan reflected, but only up to a point, the social divide between rich and poor. Upper Manhattan is indeed home to the richest New Yorkers, while Lower Manhattan has a history of housing the poorer citizens.
But away from Central Park, Upper Manhattan is made up of many very modest neighbourhoods – including Harlem – while many areas in Lower Manhattan are either trendy or newly gentrified, with beautiful brownstones and luxurious condo towers.
Several days after the storm came yet another scourge – but this one was a social leveller. A severe shortage of gasoline affected all parts of Manhattan. On Friday, the streets were eerily empty. The airports had reopened, but there was no way to get there. On Saturday, we managed to find a taxi, but we were among the happy few: LaGuardia Airport was deserted and, unbelievably, it took only 15 minutes to get there, since there were no cars on the road.