A New Monthly Column of Political Commentary
Over the last several months, while writing about Hudson River Park, the NYU expansion plans, and the demise of our community hospital at St. Vincent’s, I have made some pretty acerbic observations about many of our local politicians, many of whom I believed could have done better. I was in the middle of writing a somewhat apologetic piece for the November issue of WestView when the lights went out after the explosion at Con Edison’s 14th Street plant. Amazingly, the November WestView was published, a few days late, but without a contribution from me. I had a wife and two young kids to watch out for in our dark, cold, candle-filled apartment, and a business to keep going despite the lack of an office, work computer access or a phone, so writing took a back seat. However, I spent the month saying to myself, and George Capsis, that I was going to write about this, and write about that. So I thought that the best way to address my thoughts was to launch a column, which I will call After the Storm. We are always having some sort of storm here in the Village and West Village, so long after Sandy I believe the title will be apropos. Here we go.
Requiem for Ineffective Leadership Part 3 (And Some Praise Too)
Our community was hit pretty hard by Hurricane Sandy. While we were not hit as hard as other parts of NYC, the damage here was not minor. Some pretty horrible things happened during the dark of night. The morning after the storm, trees in Hudson River Park showed water marks over 10 ft. above the ground and one could see that water had gone over 6 ft. above street level on buildings facing West Street. Folks that live between West and Washington Streets saw their building lobbies submerged. Those with ground floor apartments saw destruction as bad as almost anywhere in the City. Between 25 and 30 apartments in West Village houses were destroyed. In addition, we all were without power or phones. For many buildings, this meant no heat, and in high rises like 299 West 12th, 302 West 12th, and 61 Jane Streets, it meant that seniors had no elevators to take down or up. We didn’t have subways when they first came back and the only public transit out of the neighborhood was buses with absurdly long lines, which stopped running after dark.
I have a phone connection on my laptop, so I was able to go online and try to obtain some edifying news. I found some announcements from State Senator Dan Squadron and more from former Community Board 1 Chair Julie Menin, who is running for Borough President. They were organizing folks to bring food and water to seniors trapped on higher floors in darkened, powerless buildings. My wife, kids, and I were getting cold, but we could walk in and out of our home, and had gas and hot water. Then I received word on Tuesday that one of my closest friends, John Kest, one of the City’s top community organizers, had lost his daughter to a falling tree during the storm. I hugged my younger kids hard that night and checked in with my emancipated ones, and wondered harder about why things were moving so slowly and why we weren’t being rallied by any of our political leaders, especially our Mayor, to join the effort to make things better. A part of me longed for Rudy, post 9-11.
It wasn’t hard to feel abandoned south of 14th Street. By Friday, almost everyone on my block had left for somewhere. The streets were empty, even during the day. Due to the lack of gas, the food trucks, which could have provided some support, weren’t anywhere to be seen; neither were many of our political leaders. I received a call from the President of the West Village Houses Tenants Association begging me to help raise some attention from Christine Quinn’s office, to request that FEMA come over to West Village Houses. Assembly Member Deborah Glick, who lives on Bank Street, packed up her cats and left the City. State Senator Tom Duane? His apartment didn’t lose power. He had ZERO presence south of 14th Street; I only hope his office did more for the residents of the NYCHA buildings west of 9th Avenue, which were flooded and without power. We saw Christine Quinn at the Mayor’s largely uninformative press briefings and maybe she can be forgiven because she is running for Mayor for not being around, but it would have been nice for her to rally the spirits of folks in her own district.
Once the lights went on, and most (not all of us) got our heat back, we didn’t hear much more. Some local politicos, like Julie Menin, continued to organize people to help in the East Village/Lower East Side (where the East River overflowed all the way to 1st Avenue), the Red Hook, then Staten Island. Yetta Kurland worked hard with a coalition to get aid to the Rockaways, and bless her soul, she did it without one appearance on TV. However, for the most part, our political leaders did not lead, they did not inform, they did not make us feel like we were being taken care of and they did not inspire.
Pier 40 and Hudson River Park
At least at press time, it looks like Hurricane Sandy, and the financial and infrastructure headaches it has caused, has pushed Hudson River Park finances off of the immediate agenda of the Legislature. It appears now, that the Legislature will not even meet again this year, as was initially planned.
The entire length of Hudson River Park was under water. There was buckling mainly at Pier 25, just north of Chambers Street/Stuyvesant High School, and the park continues to have electrical problems which affect night time lighting. Pier 40 flooded on the street level and the playing field surface was destroyed. A number of cars were damaged in the flood, principally those parked on the west side of the Pier.
I for one don’t believe that this event was a “death knell” for Pier 40 (and by extension, the Hudson River Park Trust). In fact, the success at Battery Park City, where flooding of residences was minimal and power stayed on during and after the storm, shows that a well thought out project can overcome the exigencies at least of a 14 ft. surge. The discussion about adding public infrastructure to protect against future surges should include commitment of infrastructure money to protect public parks on the water, and even the creation of marsh land between various piers which might offset some of the sea rise. Even the housing proposal being floated by the youth sports leagues can work if built properly, with entries well above sea level, protected electrical panels, surge barriers, and heating plants at the top of the building, rather than below.
Bye Bye Mayor Stringer, Hello Comptroller Stringer
One post-Sandy casualty is the Mayoral campaign of Borough-President Scott Stringer. Although he has raised many millions of dollars, he was barely getting any name recognition in the polls; these polls have established Council Speaker Quinn as the person to beat. So Scott, who is term limited, decided to run for City Comptroller. In this race he is up against Council Member Dan Garodnick, from the Upper East Side, who has also cracked the million dollar contribution mark. Scott is a capable, creative guy, not shy about letting the powers that be know where he stands, but also supportive of compromise. Some think he went too far in negotiating deals about NYU and Columbia. Garodnick is also an affable, creative guy. It will be an exciting race.
Obama Wins. West Villagers Help
I will expound more on Barack Obama’s win at another time. He won, in large part, because his staff ran a brilliant ground campaign. They took the data they had been collecting about supporters since 2008, and made sure that everyone who supported Barack in “swing” states voted. I walked through the streets of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania several times with lists of folks who were not being persuaded, but who I was assigned to get “I Pledge to Vote” cards from – a card where they wrote a cell phone number and an email address. There were a lot of Villagers who worked hard on this effort. A particular shout out should go to Tony and Nadine Hoffman, who helped organize busloads of folks every Saturday to go to Pennsylvania. They themselves spent the last week before the election in Ohio, even after Sandy hit. Corey Johnson, our other declared City Council candidate, went to Virginia. Good work everyone. Now let’s see if we can get some storm relief money for the Lower West Side of Manhattan.
*Arthur Z. Schwartz is the State Democratic Committee member for the Village. SoHo and Tribeca, the Co-chair of the Parks and Waterfront Committee of Community Board 2, and the President of the Public Interest law firm Advocates for Justice. The views he expresses are his own. He is also General Counsel of WestView News.