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New York’s Past and Future in the Wake of Sandy

by Katia Savchuk

Eric Darton has spent his life chronicling the history and culture of his birthplace, New York City. He is the author of "Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York's World Trade Center," the novel "Free City" and many other works of literature and nonfiction. In an article in The Indypendent last month, Darton explored the implications of post-Sandy debates over protecting New York from rising sea levels. Polis interviewed him about how the storm has shifted public debate and the city's changing relationship with its coastline.

How do you think the move to protect New York City from future storms will affect its economic and social landscape?

That depends on what the move — or moves — are, and who makes them. There's a profound disconnect in the city's collective narrative-making process and urban political dynamic. On one hand, the vast majority of folks are going about their lives, perhaps with a heightened awareness of the power of nature to affect the city's functioning and a realization that we are going to have to "do something." On the other hand, Sandy's gift to the political leadership has been a new mode of asserting not only its authority, but its reason for existing. In short, the tide has brought them an amazing opportunity to look leaderly. Virtually every elected official is at pains to propose a multibillion-dollar engineering solution to the threat of flooding in the future. They will be competing fiercely to see who can come up with the highest pricetag and the grooviest technology.

Sandy has made infrastructure — in this case mega-infrastructure — sexy again. It's stolen the thunder from big real estate. We've even come to cherish the subways and marvel at how delicate yet robust they are. One looks at the public structures around one as though we are meeting old friends after a long exile abroad.

The transition came fast, but I don't think it's a flash in the pan. This shift in focus — from the head-in-the-clouds, sky's-the-limit mode to questions of how this place actually functions — may have a grounding influence on our social life.

How this more rooted sense plays out longterm is anyone's guess. There's a story that, while in China, Nixon asked Zhou Enlai what he thought the impact of the French Revolution had been, and Zhou replied, "Too soon to tell."

That said, one doesn't need a crystal ball or a deep historical perspective to see that a debate has opened over who gets protected, what it costs to protect them and who pays. This debate has the potential to become an open political struggle because it will inevitably lead to a rationalization of resources. New York is looking at rezoning itself, both conceptually and materially, along lines it has never had to deal with before. A lot of privilege and wealth is at stake, and there's a potential contest over who and what are actually essential.

You have written that the value of neighborhoods should be based on more than dollars and cents when setting priorities for a flood barrier system. What should determine which neighborhoods are protected from flooding at the expense of others?

My argument is not sentiment-based. I don't think I'm alone in seeing New York City as an organism in which social life and nature are inextricably bound. From there, it becomes possible to look at the economics of the city more broadly.

If Sandy had a silver lining, it was an invitation to do the math differently about what's valuable in the city and how it contributes to the whole. It also gave us an opportunity to re-evaluate the really tremendous resources of the city — demographically and geographically — and ask ourselves how best to organize these.

It is both absurd and dangerous to base our plans for dealing with storm flooding and rising sea levels on the notion that the finance and insurance industries in Lower Manhattan must be preserved at all costs. I think this argument — a version of "too big to fail" — will underlie, if only by implication, much of the discussions about which areas to protect from encroachment by the sea.

It is more interesting to ask how the city can adapt to unpredictable climate events while developing more generative, diverse and self-sustaining economic modes. If we use Sandy as an excuse to drill ourselves deeper into being an economic monoculture, we might as well hang it up as an urban civilization right now.

Generations, even centuries, of planning and governance by elites — compounded by the tendency to think hyper-individualistically and speculatively — has left us without any mechanism for collecting the wisdom of our inhabitants in a meaningful way. This is the fundamental infrastructure we're lacking.

I don't have a ready formula for how to determine which areas of the city should be kept dry and which swallowed by the sea. I want to be involved in a genuine discussion with my fellow New Yorkers about what this city is and what we should be building (or demolishing), given what we know about present circumstances and probable future conditions.

How has New York's relationship with its coastline changed over time?

Within my sixty-something-year lifespan in New York, our perceptions of the coastline have shifted from wild, to domesticated, to wild again. In a George Bellows painting called "River Rats," from around 1905, kids frolic in the water at the base of a looming muddy precipice that looks to be the Manhattan bank of the Harlem River. One of his lithographs, "Splinter Beach," shows young boys diving off the disintegrating bulkheads beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. When I was young, our idea of exhilarating play was to plunge off the rocks near Spuyten Duyvil. It used to give us and the Circle Line spectators a thrill. Later it thrilled me when I watched it from the Circle Line.

Think of "On the Waterfront." Think of the "Dead End Kids," and the movie's tag line: "Every street in New York ends in a river." I remember catching fish and eels in the Hudson in the 1950s, but not being crazy enough to eat what I'd caught. Once upon a time, not so long ago, Red Hook was not about posh lobster, groovy art, Fairway and Ikea. In fact, a lot of it still isn't. But it all went for a swim.

Yes, wild and dangerous was the deal. The docks were rough places and longshoremen were tough guys. One of them, though, flirted with my mother when the two of us went over to see the ocean liner Stockholm in her midtown berth, days after she sliced in half and sank another ship, the Andrea Doria, off Nantucket in 1956. The majority of the Stockholm's brilliant white bow had been vertically sheared away to reveal a dark and cavernous cross-section, a jumble of twisted steelwork dimly visible within. The ship, I knew, was going to be repaired, but I could not imagine her whole again; for this and myriad other reasons, I was aware that the ocean and the waterfront were places of risk.

The removal of New York's port to Newark/Elizabeth, New Jersey, as part of a massive redevelopment of Lower Manhattan in the late 1950s, changed the city's game in fundamental ways. It didn't take us long to forget we'd been a maritime culture for centuries, and apart from a few working piers and ever-declining industrial uses, our waterways and the shores adjoining them became available as manicured playgrounds — at least in concept. When biking or jogging along the riverfront esplanades today, it is hard to believe that these leisurely paths once formed part of a working harbor.

A hinge moment in this transition occurred in the early 1960s, when the Port Authority billed the World Trade Center — upon whose excavated landfill Battery Park City and the World Financial Center now sit — as "The Vertical Port." The WTC Plaza was styled after Piazza San Marco, and tower columns referenced the arches of a palazzo on the Grand Canal. In the financial district one can still see bollards linked by chains demarcating the plaza of an office tower — a gesture that ties the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) industries, if only ironically, to the long epoch of our Great Port.

Now we're looking at our margins differently: they are risky again, and at risk. The measure of land value too has changed, from "How close to the water?" to "How high above it?" The horizontal has flipped 90 degrees. And, paradoxically for a city that fetishizes its skyline, some of the most luxurious vertical structures near the water have become the least viable for longterm habitation.

The metaphor has met the material and reset our sense of spatiality, safety and the role of the elements. In one moment the name Water Street seemed quaint, and in the next it described actual wetness. Hudson Street is blocks from the Hudson, so it seemed almost an arbitrary naming until the river claimed it; I was tempted to try to swim to New Jersey from the new, however temporary, shoreline.

Did Superstorm Sandy change the course of your work? If so, in what direction?

Without being flippant, I'd say it has deepened my work. Sandy affirmed my sense of the impossibility of parsing the city's physical environment from the social. The price of dealing with these as separate entities, or, worse yet, attempting to ignore one at the expense of the other, is to end up precisely where we are now. I believe that one cannot be held responsible for what one is genuinely unaware of. But with awareness comes the potential basis for action and an obligation not to sweep what one now realizes under the rug.

Sandy aroused in me a desire to learn much more about the complex waterways around and about the place that sustains me, and which I endeavor to sustain. Much of my work lies in taking the pulses of the city over time and having conversations with others about the nature of New York's dynamics and its fundamental energies, and how these might be balanced toward the welfare of its constituents. The surge certainly splashed our doors of perception, to borrow from Blake, and it is possible it went a long way toward cleansing them.

The human suffering that resulted from the storm motivated me to more urgently and publicly pose the question I've been asking since I began researching "Divided We Stand." That question was and remains: If we are no longer the Great Port, then what are we doing here? That is, what are New York's standing legs?

It seems to me that we'd be well-advised to consider this kind of question collectively. Any real discussion might sharpen our thinking, and hence our decision-making, when it comes to the strategic and practical management of our relationship with the sea.

How would you recommend preparing New York City for the threats associated with climate change?

First off, we should not see the enormous concentration of people, resources and investment around the shores of our waterways as a static thing. When we were the Great Port, our fate was much more tied to geography. The livelihoods of millions depended on particular things being in particular places — nailed metaphorically, and sometimes actually, into the bedrock.

Then, we had to be invested in a certain kind of planning, mostly top-down, and concerned therefore with zoning, because basic functionality seemed impossible without it. This is no longer the case, and our former mode of existence may no longer be available — at any price. We can be, and must become, a much more ductile, changeable city. This has big implications, but it begins with small, crucial shifts in how we imagine ourselves and our needs, as well as in the ways we negotiate the real and perceived balance between what and how we produce, and what and how we consume.

It may turn out, after honest and thoroughgoing deliberation, that a wise and practical course lies in finding sufficient billions to build one or several storm surge barriers that would presumably protect much of the city's low-lying areas from flood waters. But putting our chips on a nature-busting mega-project will almost certainly divert our energies away from adapting and transforming our city's internal structures. At best we'll have bought a bit of time to go on doing our old, ever more delirious dance.

I am wary of shifting obsessions, from security against terrorists to security against tides, which divert attention from finding out how to live in a lucid, self-sustaining, equitable and dignified way with the changes that have transpired and those to come. In short, I question reflexive, fear-based responses to having taken a hit.

One can sit down and think of a thousand ways that New Yorkers could be better positioned to deal with disaster. Two people can think of 10 thousand, and 10 thousand can think of them all. It's a matter of having the political will to have this discussion and carry it through into our social practices as a city.

One strategy would be to use Sandy as a way to re-establish our relationship with the sea and become, in some measure, a maritime culture again. Significant economic activity could result from this, especially if it extends into engineering and producing locally and greenly, and, wherever possible, collectively or co-operatively, actual things the world needs. We have a smart enough population and work ethic to spare.

How would you characterize the relationship between your recent article on storm preparation and your previous writing on New York?

In my previous writings, particularly "Divided We Stand," I explored how New York transformed with the de-portation of its port and the exponential growth of the FIRE sector. For a couple of decades, as FIRE turned to bonfire, the city boomed on in the blindest way, cruising for a take-down. How, I asked, even more urgently after 9/11, can we begin to unwind our position as a monoculture? Sandy's arrival reintroduced that question in geographic terms — it became clear that the financial district was by no means an environmentally securitized Green Zone.

Almost immediately, some folks leaped to the conclusion that making FiDi (the Financial District) proof against the elements had to be accomplished at all cost. But I stalled at that premise. Wall Street does not need to be located on Wall Street and, in fact, much of it isn't any more. And the thought came to me that, from a standpoint of pure economic function, this part of Lower Manhattan is not innately more important than anywhere else. A century before, New York had grown a whole new central business district uptown on higher ground, within close reach of many bridges and tunnels, and directly connected by rail with Long Island, the west and points north.

But astounding amounts of dough are tied up in FiDi real estate and public works. The economic function of the area, therefore, does not lie in the wealth it produces but rather reflects its symbolic value — it serves, in essence, as its own derivative — and thus buttresses New York's grand speculative ensemble as a whole. That's the sacred bull in such need of protection, and for which no sacrifice is deemed too great.

So, in a wholly unanticipated way — at least not one anticipated by me — Sandy exposed exactly how daft our strategy as a city has been: pouring untold resources into incredibly tenuous financial schemes and mad downtown hole-diggings, bathtub-buildings and tower-rearings, nakedly piratic abuses of eminent domain. All this at the expense of constructing a sane, feet-on-the-ground city — one capable of operating in its own best interest and sustaining the basic welfare of its inhabitants.

The flood showed how really precarious our situation is, particularly given the widespread perception of New York as a fortunate place, a muscular, wealth-charmed city, a mythic zone where movement tends perpetually upward. See? Knock down our towers and we'll build bigger ones.

Given what's at stake, it's clear that whatever engineering we use to keep the water from flowing in will be predicated on a desperate attempt to keep investment from flowing out.

You have created a living archive of the World Trade Center before and after 9/11, expanding upon your research for "Divided We Stand." Can archiving be more than remembering, paying tribute to and reflecting upon the past? If so, how might we integrate it into policy decisions and public discourse?

Archiving seems a central element of recognizing oneself as belonging to a polity. It provides us with a forensic record of who we were when, and what we believed ourselves to be about. If the various archives of our city came to serve as an active ingredient in our collective decision-making, we might be able to stand, if only for a moment, outside our mythologies, perhaps long enough to recognize who we are and what we need. Given enough practice, we might begin to argue what needs to be argued, and by doing so, form ourselves into a true public, made up of sovereign individuals.

Credits: Photos by Eric Darton.

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