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Shots in the Dark: Manhattan in the Post-Sandy Blackout

November 13th, 2012 by Jeff Simmermon

I went out biking and took a bunch of photos in Manhattan a few days after Hurricane Sandy hit. New Yorkers are pretty burnt by all the ongoing coverage, in addition to being shocked and devastated at all the wreckage and destruction. But it’s hard to tell if the rest of the country – or world – is seeing the same things we are.

I haven’t been to Staten Island or the Rockaways yet to help, so I can only document what I saw and felt. When I go there to help out, I’m not going to be waving a damn DSLR around, either.

It’s almost impossible to describe how eerie and dystopian Lower Manhattan felt in the days before the power came back on. This is a shot of Canal Street, between Broadway and Lafayette that I took on my phone:

Canal St. between Broadway and Lafayette

Shortly afterwards, a guy slowly coasted right down the yellow lines on his skateboard. The sound echoed off the shutters.

For those of you that don’t know this block, it’s one of the most constantly crowded streets in Chinatown. Any trucks, buses or cars entering or exiting the LIncoln Tunnel trundles down this block. I once sat in traffic for 90 minutes on this street, traveling one block every 10 minutes or so.

There are usually street vendors slinging hot dogs and chestnuts, African guys trying to sell you knockoff handbags, people selling plastic crap off of tables, guys trying to get you to trade in cash for gold, and then it’s just wall-to-wall tourists coming down to buy all the knockoffs and I (heart) NY shirts by the pound. One time I saw a guy waving a bubble gun around, shooting a stream of bubbles into traffic and shouting “IT’S BUBBLE TIME, DAMMIT!”

The only vehicles on the street the day I was riding around were ambulances, cop cars, and National Guard trucks. A few people scurried from one building to another, and others huddled in long lines to get bottled water dispensed by men in camouflage off of an armored truck.

It felt like a sci-fi disaster movie. Like “Escape From New York,” or “I Am Legend.”

I rode north on Fifth Avenue, past the Flatiron, and suddenly, everything changed. There was an invisible line at 30th Street, and once I crossed it, suddenly New Yorkers were walking around in the streets eating ice cream, talking about “it’s just so hard to date in this city” into their working cell phones. Like somebody had switched the channel in my brain from “I Am Legend” to “Sex and the City” with a less attractive cast.

And even though I had power and heat in my apartment in Brooklyn, and everything in my life is fine – just passing through the eerie disaster area for an hour and entering that bubble made me HATE those people up there, so much.

I ended up in Chinatown at dark. The power was coming on in the Village, but Chinatown was still black. I’ve never seen the city so black and dead, just a soup of darkness. Here are a few shots I took in Chinatown that night. The orange sky is reflected light from the rest of the city – and in several of these, I’m standing on a dark, narrow street and aiming towards an area with electricity:

BK_from_Chinatown

chinatown_dark8

chinatown_dark6

I was standing on a street, shooting photos when the lights came on in Chinatown. Signs and streetlights snapped on fast, racing down the street towards me like a giant electric ghost. Then I heard somebody screaming. At first, I thought they were injured. Then they opened the window and screamed some more – just celebrating that the lights were on. This is a photo I got halfway, as the lights on the street rushed towards me:

chinatown_dark2

I’m from Virginia, and I grew up used to hurricanes. The threat to me wasn’t so much the storm itself – thats going to do what it’s going to do, no stopping that – as it was the other New Yorkers. This city is utterly unprepared for weather like this, and the terror and confusion here was unbelievable. This is the way we’re going to have to live from now on, though. The planet is warming up, and all we can do is document the process.

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