“Apocalypse NY,” a Daily News headline declared last week. Hurricane Sandy’s devastation was centered on the New York metropolitan area, including the New Jersey suburbs. Across many states, millions suffered from the storm, and the whole nation grasped its historic scale. But New York City itself defined the catastrophe. Photos of a vast deathscape in fire-ravaged Breezy Point, where most of a hundred homes were destroyed, emerged as the storm’s iconic image. “We watched the whole place go up in flames,” a survivor said. “It was hell night. It was the devil’s night.” Later — an eerie silence. “I’m feeling scared . . . ” a dislodged Manhattan third-grader said. “New York’s not supposed to be this quiet.”
The high-tide flooding of low-lying southern sections of Manhattan seemed to vindicate one of the most contested images of Al Gore’s 2006 global warming film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Sea waters gushed through Wall Street, making impotent islands of the globe’s most powerful financial institutions. Once again, the fragility of electronic structures on which the world’s economy depends was laid bare — this time by the furies of natural forces that have been abused by that economy. Hurricane Sandy surely scored the high-water mark of climate-change denial.
While the storm is not to be compared to the trauma of 9/11, the fact that the World Trade Center area was inundated, and the Ground Zero commemoration site assaulted, reminded the nation of its bond with this place. In an eerie after-image of 2001, thousands of harried pedestrians were seen striding across Brooklyn Bridge — although heading into Manhattan, not out — because the city’s stalwart subway system was crippled as never before.
Nor is Sandy to be equated with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, yet that trauma, too, was echoed last week. The sight of an 80 ton crane swinging loose at a height of 1,000 feet, atop what will be New York’s most lavish condominium building (the penthouse alone slated to cost more than $100 million), underscored a new universality of risk. Because of dangers posed to 57th Street, the shows did not go on at Carnegie Hall. If the most indomitable city in America can be knocked back like this, who can feel invulnerable?
New York is our urban paradigm. In the American imagination, it has been the catch basin for the problems of big-city life (crime, failing schools, troubled public housing, racial divide). In Batman movies, “Gotham” (a nickname for New York since Washington Irving) is a frightening dystopia. Dennis O’Neil, writer of Batman comics, defined Gotham as “Manhattan below 14th Street at 11 past midnight on the coldest night in November” — which is precisely where and almost when Sandy did its worst.
In the 1981 sci-fi film “Escape From New York,” Manhattan had been turned into a massive prison. In Ronald Reagan’s day and the years that followed, the Republican Party cast itself against the negative foil of imagined urban decay — as exemplified by lawless New York, an enemy camp in the culture war.
But urban decay is yesterday’s news. The renaissance of many American cities is one of the great triumphs of the last generation, nowhere more so than in New York, with its legions of creative, artful, neighborly people, many of whom live and work in areas hardest hit last week. “There is only one force more powerful than a storm like this,” an organizer in Red Hook said, “and that’s the power of people coming together to help.” Government, too: Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, in particular, instilled confidence. Once more, first responders emerged as beloved figures of the common good. The praise that federal relief efforts, personally presided over by President Obama, drew from the usually partisan Christie — “the election will take care of itself,” he said — showed there is more to politics than gridlock.
“Apocalypse” means “unveiling.” Sandy reveals that, despite the pastoral myth, cities are the true heartland of America now; in cities, the nation’s great problems will be solved. Yet Sandy also reveals that no city, or even state, can solve those problems alone. And the largest unveiling, on election eve, is that it took a storm’s raw fury to transform the meaning of politics.