Food carts and candlelight (Lower Manhattan, November 1, 2012)

Today I biked to work (in Manhattan) for the first time since last week, before the storm hit town. It was the most memorable ride I’ve had since I’ve been here and I wanted to put it out there in the ether, to make sure also that I don’t forget.

It sounds truly awful to wax poetic about seeing the entire lower end of Manhattan pitch black so let me explain myself: there’s nothing nice or beautiful or cool about hundreds of thousands living without power, heat and telephone service. It would be especially lame for me to say that, since I’m sitting in a well-lit apartment now typing away just across the river, barely affected by the whole thing. But what was striking to me was that the city seemed so malleable and adaptable on my commute today – a place where people are set on moving forward despite the setbacks.

Some sights were encouraging, like the hundreds of bikes streaming over the bridges from Brooklyn and Queens and down the arterial avenues. In the morning, there was a group handing out coffee, and in the evening, Second Avenue was flickering with hundreds of tail lights as commuters pedaled themselves home.

It’s nice to know that so many people are willing and able to bike, even if it takes partially suspended subway service to make it happen. Maybe this will encourage more people to do it on a regular basis.

Some sights were  jarring: old women in Chinatown filling large plastic buckets of water at public fountains to carry them up flights of stairs for cooking or cleaning. All of this blocks away from the world’s financial center. First Avenue and Grand with barely any cars to block the way, most shops closed.

In the evening, crossing 34th street and going in a second from the usual bright lights to a dim world, and experiencing the opposite half way over Manhattan Bridge, where the uphill from Canal Street was pitch black and the downhill to Sands Street in Brooklyn was brightly lit.

Then there was the awe-factor. There was the eerie flicker of the flairs lit by traffic control guards on the corners of major intersections as the sun was going down in lower Manhattan. Rows of completely darkened buildings and hundreds shadows milling about on the sidewalks.

But the most memorable thing to me was seeing how the food service industry was dealing with the situation. Most restaurants and groceries of course had to shut their doors, but on many corners portable food carts – some that I had never seen before- had their generators running and were dishing out coffee, kebabs and stir-fries to eager customers.


And every few blocks, there was one bar or local restaurant that had managed somehow, whether through a generator or just with a few old fashioned candles, to keep its doors open for people to eat, read, and sit and talk.

It’s a determined and inventive group of people that can make such an awful situation seem not as awful as you initially thought.


  1. Mary said:

    My daughter lives in Ft. Green, Brooklyn, and has been keeping us up-to-date with the amazing resilience of New Yorkers. Thanks for sharing your pictures, it gives me a better understanding to her words.

  2. melissa said:

    I love, love, love stories like this. One of the most powerful memories I have of our time after hurricane Ike (besides my going slightly insane after 10 days of no a/c in 110-degree heat) is the amazing sense of community that rose up like a powerful wave and swept over the city of Houston. It’s there all along (one of the things I love about this city) but a disaster like that really brought it out into the open. It’s the opposite of what happened with Katrina – New Orleans imploded under the pressure of so much greed and discord, but we picked each other up and kept each other going. I love to see this happening there too–really confirms that it’s a place I wouldn’t mind living someday.

    • sabaladas said:

      Thanks both for your comments and for sharing your stories. @ melissa – I wonder in the case of Katrina though if the scale of the disaster and the lack of resources and moral support available to N.O. made for a bigger collapse. There was so much information flying around twitter, facebook, etc. this time around. I wonder if a larger presence of those media would have changed the response to Katrina, too.

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