When Things Fall Apart in New YorkPosted: August 20, 2011
Is there anything so ridiculous-looking as workers standing around idly, wearing hardhats? How exactly are they at risk of hurting themselves?
I bring this up because it was a pretty common sight during the week-plus I just spent without gas and hot water due to a big water main break in Harlem, leaving thousands of my neighbors without service as well. Needless to say, the initial estimate of a same-day restoration of service was a tad too optimistic. My service just came back a few hours ago, but the local utility Consolidated Edison is still estimating that some people may be out until as late as Wednesday.
My purpose here really isn’t to whine about a week-plus of cold showers. The broader issue that worries me is what this sort of incident says about the continued viability of my hometown New York as a place to live. I’m seriously concerned based on not just the water-main break but several similar failures that seem to be piling up.
Earlier this summer, a heat weave caused a water-treatment plant to give out, causing raw sewage to pour into the Hudson River. Now we’re hearing that less dramatic, but chronic, leaks into the river may be a bigger problem than we realize.
Reaching back a few years, there was a doozie of a blackout in Queens the memory of which still causes skittishness among residents there every time the temperature starts to rise.
In a few weeks, we’ll hear a lot of chest-thumping about the “re-opening” of Ground Zero, but that will be empty boasting. It will have taken a decade just to open the memorial portion of the site — a relatively modest feat that should’ve happened much sooner — and the rest of the office complex still isn’t finished.
And then there’s the transit system, which is truly the nervous system of the city. It’s falling apart. Below is a shot I took at my neighborhood stop at 145th Street. This is the bulletin board explaining service disruptions on certain lines — basically every one in the system.
Keep in mind, if you’re one of the many visitors who find the basic design of our transit system kinda complicated, every colored bullet point on these flyers represents some variation in the normal working arrangement that we’re having to deal with as locals, whether it’s a skipped stop or a re-routed train or whatever. This stuff screws us up too; we’re now pretty much as confused as you are. Riding this system is becoming a crapshoot.
I say this as someone who has spent more than two-thirds of my life in New York. The missing part is in the middle, about a decade from just before high school right through college, when my family moved away in large part because the city was becoming dysfunctional and crime-ridden. This was the ’80s and early ’90s, which were preceded by a big fiscal crisis for the city. I’m worried as ever that we’re headed back in that direction.
The local political and business leadership the last few years has adamantly talked the talk about not repeating the mistakes of the bad years. They’ve also gotten pretty good at disclosing when services aren’t working, as you can see from some of the information I mentioned above. But none of that is the same as actually making things work, which is ultimately all that counts.