What a ruin it will make

wes house

Photo: Maureen Drennan

Photo: Maureen Drennan

What a ruin it will make!
— H.G. Wells, catching first sight of Manhattan’s skyline.
Over the next ten years—come hell or high water—I fully expect Lower Manhattan to grow!
— Mayor Bloomberg on the city's continued support for waterfront real estate projects

Dutch photographer Iwan Baan’s haunting aerial photo of lower Manhattan could well be the precursor to a future climate dystopia: an instantly recognizable metropolis half-submerged in a darkness unknown to sleepless cities and locked between an eerily still Hudson and an incandescent uptown. Unpleasantly magnetic, here is a place upheld in the global imaginary as the unconquerable bastion of dreams, suddenly drowned by the Hudson and the shadows of uptown. If the quintessential skyline excites the urban soul, here is an image that begs the question – what’s happening down there, amidst all that darkness? And how did it come to this? 

I was stuck with two friends in a blacked-out high-rise when city officials announced the Village Halloween Parade had been cancelled. But as far as we were concerned, the city was already replete with visual spectacles of urban macabre: a glass-encased carousel surrounded by rising waters in Dumbo, driverless cars careening down inundated streets in the East Village, emergency supplies filling candle-lit bodegas in the Lower East Side, art galleries drowning in Chelsea, and a wooden slate covering a broken window overwritten with “Hurricane Party Inside" near Union Square. To the schadenfreude of Wall Street’s former Occupiers, a flooded market took literal form downtown as the New York Stock Exchange declared its doors closed for the first time in decades.

This wasn’t my first encounter with a natural disaster, but it was my first experience on the bad end of a city’s social calculus. We had been warned on numerous occasions and in countless reports that New York’s geographic position creates obvious vulnerabilities that leave it exposed to the intensifying weather patterns caused by climate change. Sitting on an indentation in the Atlantic coastline (a “bight,” geographers call it), New York City easily becomes a receptacle for flooding waters for a storm surge in its bay. 

The general birth and procession of an Atlantic-style hurricane follows that of any typhoon prodigy hoping to establish its place in history: brew in the Caribbean, ravage the Antilles, spin counterclockwise (as seen from space) up the eastern coast, and – if strong enough – make it to the Big Apple. If you can make it here, you can flood anywhere along the way! This was the case for 2011’s Hurricane Irene, the first typhoon to make landfall on the United States since Hurricane Ike in 2008. It wrought destruction in the tropics and weakened during its trip north, dissolving into a promise of return that Sandy came to fulfil with an unexpected bravado. 

One of the most astounding things was confronting how New York City succumbs to a hurricane. Look at a map and pay careful attention to the pathways that bring water from the ocean into the city. If the typhoon prodigy reaches full maturity and decides to strut its stuff all the way to Time Square, it will first shove a large part of the Atlantic Ocean through the Narrows separating Staten Island from Brooklyn. Meanwhile, the Hudson will drain from the north while more of the Atlantic is thrusted through the East River all the way up to Hell Gate. And so New York City is flooded from all possible directions simultaneously. And water, always following the path of least resistance, has no choice but to rise. 

Exposed areas near the coast will always bear this brunt the hardest. Red Hook, the Navy Yard, Rockaway Park, Brighton and all the other coastal edges of Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan, Staten Island, and New Jersey are the first victims. Little is left untouched. And like any other serious injury to a limb, the whole body of the city is affected. When its veins – the subways running 600 miles of track through 472 stations across four boroughs – are clogged with the Atlantic, it becomes impossible for its residents to commute to work, shop for food, run basic errands, seek medical assistance, or see family and loved ones. When a nerve on the Lower East Side – a Con-Ed power station providing power to 750,000 people – explodes from a four-foot storm surge, half the city is submerged into a darkness that lasts for days. 

But New York’s beating heart – the people themselves – prove the most resilient in the face of both catastrophic weather and the city government’s neglect and apathy towards lower class communities facing it. Overnight, the Red Hook Initiative (RHI), a local youth empowerment organization, transformed into a community hub for those left destitute by the storm. RHI provided power, water, food, emergency supplies, and a space to decompress from the wreckage brought by Sandy days before FEMA and the Red Cross arrived on the scene. This was to the greatest benefit to residents in public housing, who were left with no refuge when their homes, without functioning elevators, electricity, and boilers, were shut down by the New York City Housing Authority. Later referred to as Occupy Sandy and pooling from many of the same anti-capitalist networks, volunteers, and activists that inspired the name, RHI signaled the “nature” of this disaster. Not only had New York City given in at last to the unlucky geography of its bight, but successive local governments and corporate interest had also segregated the city into enclaves of safety and resource, with communities of color and the poor predictably getting the short end of the stick. When nature hits, the extent of the disaster is largely dependent on the structures of inequality that shape the city. 

Take a walk along any waterfront neighborhood—Meat-Packing, Navy Yard, Dumbo, West Side Highway, Hudson Yard—and you’ll get a taste of Mayor Bloomberg’s shortsighted and compulsive penchant for coastal real-estate development and his priorities for the city’s development. This isn’t to say that no green initiatives have been ushered into the city. They have. And compared to other comparable cities across the United States, New York City might even have something to brag about when it comes to “greenness.” But when the federal government and many state houses are run by climate-change deniers who put Orwellian gag orders on what scientists are trying to tell us, the bar for bragging is seen only for how low it has become.

Although Bloomberg’s “hell or high water” development quote certainly bears little resemblance to the climate change denialism of Donald Trump, it’s certainly no more helpful to those who experienced Sandy’s backhand. With his delusional David-and-Goliath mentality, he challenges sea level rise with the throw of a stone, though in this case the stone resembles coastal condominiums and austerity cuts to public spending on budget issues like improved infrastructure for the poor. What his mentality and that of deniers do have in common is that they’ve both been planetarily hoodwinked. The butt of earth’s glacial wisecrack. The height of terrestrial tomfoolery. As one theorist puts it: “the planet seems to have been toying with humanity by allowing it to assume that it was free to shape its own destiny.”

So are we doomed? With hurricane season just underway, and with all its geographic fuckery, do we even stay in New York City? What kind of idiot would call this place a home, a place the earth has destined to flood with an inevitable strong-enough storm? Why not toss in the towel? When, if at all, do we give up on the home? Do we wait until it’s as eerie and unrecognizable as Baan’s photo depicts, a city made prone to crisis by officials whose priorities are elsewhere?

Luckily evolution has bequeathed to humans a mental blind spot (aporia, the Greeks called it) to prevent us from worrying in paralytic fear about inevitable disasters like as sickness or death. A sort of “not-seeing” that helps us get through the day but also makes disaster seem improbable or unlikely: a convenient supplement to the New York state of mind. The possibility of your home setting ablaze always exists, but you are rarely seized by regular thoughts of its potential realization. Then again, aporia can disastrously backfire. Residents of Grenfell towers in London, whose homes were recently engulfed by a ravenous inferno, were themselves unable to succumb to aporia – they were keenly aware of their building’s serious structural issues and had brought its deficiencies to the attention of local government officials. Had residents neglected to think about and consistently act on risk their home and lives faced, it would have been easy to spin the tragedy as “natural disaster” in which a pillar of fire fell from the sky to consume the belongings, memories, and lives of these poor immigrant undesirables rather than the elemental lynching it truly was. 

Fantasies of escape or a preemptive exodus from high-risk zones present an option that is only rhetorically appealing, appearing to mimic the fight or flight reflex with foresight. Economic hardship and lack of social mobility have already flooded homes, creating landslides that detach people from the products of their labor and sparking infernos that consume dreams of transcending precarity. But we don’t need to rely on metaphors to understand how lives and homes can be fatally confront the anthropocene. By now it’s known that climate change’s slow, facilitated violence poisons water, pollutes air, and literally changes the earth beneath us. Thinking about leaving must lead us to the obvious and pressing next question: where to?

It doesn’t take much foresight to see the political storm approaching the bay, threatening to flood city from all sides. From an aerial view, it may look like we’re mortally fucked and condemned to a present shrouded by the shadows of past mistakes both personal and political. If we are to continue calling New York City home, we would do well to zoom in and see how the city’s heart continues to beat despite the appearance of defeat. A wise old man once put forth that we make our own history, but not under circumstances of our own choosing. It would suffice to replace “history” with “home” and recall the scenes from Occupy Sandy and other stories from the storm that show the determination of local communities to work as active agents for their homes, supplanting failed electrical lines with networks of a people’s power, and darkness and alienation with the light and comfort of communalism.