"The sudden realisation that most New Yorkers live on islands": how the city responded to Winter Storm Juno

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. Image: Getty.

In New York City, the weather is political. It’s a town where people live stacked on top of one another, reliant on public services and mass transit. And in a dense region where multiple state, city, and interstate government agencies are forced to work together in tight quarters, a big storm is obviously a logistical nightmare. But these days, here in the City that Never Sleeps Because Everyone’s Too Busy Complaining, the weather is usually somebody’s fault.

Over the weekend, hype began for “Winter Storm Juno” – I’m putting this in quotes because it’s still really unclear to me why they’re naming our winter storms now – which promised to blanket most of the northeastern United States with up to 30 inches and, at the storm’s peak, gale-force winds and white-out conditions.

Snow is not an anomaly in New York City: we get several feet per year, though that’s significantly less than the rest of the state. (I was raised four hours north, in a place that is eligible for the “Golden Snowball Award”; this is scant consolation for living in a frozen wasteland eight months of the year.) Snow in the city is magical for about an hour, but then the plows come through, and massive piles of it turn a dull grey and create mystery pools of icy slush that you’ll invariably step in three to four times a day.

Yuck. Image: Getty.

And yet, the hype. The media must take its share of the responsibility: it was their dire storm preparation warnings that led to images like these on Sunday evening, or these Monday afternoon, as the snow was beginning to fall. There were a lot of not-actually-ironic jokes about a run on kale. (To be extra prepared, I bought kale and chard.)

But local government officials played their part, too. Mayor Bill de Blasio used language so hyperbolic (“My message to all New Yorkers is prepare for something worse than we have seen before…”) that the Onion published an article titled, “NYC Mayor: ‘Reconcile Yourselves With Your God, For All Will Perish In The Tempest.’” He also advised us that food delivery drivers were not “emergency vehicles”, a warning that was not heeded, according to a Times article that reads surprisingly like the Onion itself. (I suppose it’s good to have a record of the jerks who ordered take-out in a blizzard?)

But the most drastic decision was made by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who announced on Monday afternoon that the entire Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) transit system would be shut: commuter rails, buses, and, most surprisingly, the subway, the first time ever for a snowstorm. There would be a travel ban on the roads as well, effectively bringing the entire city to a standstill.

Reports revealed later that the decision was a unilateral one: de Blasio was only given half an hour’s notice before Cuomo went on the air to announce the closures, and the MTA, who’d said they were planning on running partial service to push snow along the tracks, were undercut as well. (Many commentators were quick to point out that the underground subway was partly built in response to an actual New York blizzard of 1888. That time round, hundreds died and the elevated infrastructure of the Gilded Age city was rendered useless by the storm.)

Shutting the subway is a dramatic move for New Yorkers with fresh memories of two hurricanes; in both cases, the system was closed in advance of the oncoming storm. Irene, in September of 2011, mostly bypassed the area, and the trains were up and running the next day; Sandy, in October of 2012, caused 43 deaths in New York City alone, most of them by drowning, and flooded every tunnel that crosses under the East River.

After Sandy, the system was down for a full, somewhat traumatic, week. When the subways are closed for cataclysmic storms, there’s a sudden realisation that residents of four out of the five New York City boroughs live on islands; we take that 24-hour transit, under and across our rivers, for granted on a daily basis. For me and many others, the post-Sandy week consisted of several hours walking each way to work, across bridges and through the sort of terrifying post-apocalyptic hellscape that is Manhattan in a blackout. No one wanted to do that again – at least, not in a blizzard.

But somewhere around 11 pm Monday evening, we all seemed to collectively notice that the snow, which had been falling pretty aggressively a few hours earlier, had stopped. We awoke to a measly eight inches. Clearing the roads overnight meant the snowplows were able to make quick work of the storm, and the trains were turned back on with little fanfare.

Businesses that had preemptively declared a snow day were rushing to get workers and customers in, though essentially everyone I know continued to “work” from home. Early estimates suggest that the subway closure cost the city $200m in economic activity.

A near-deserted subway station on Monday. Image: Getty.

All in all, the city of New York appeared unimpressed with the abundance of caution. “You can’t Monday morning quarterback* on something like the weather,” the mayor said, but that clearly wasn’t about to stop anyone. Complaints flew across social media on Tuesday morning, as mildly inconvenienced New Yorkers demanded to know how the authorities could have predicted the weather so wrongly. (Never mind that points east, out on Long Island and up through Boston and eastern New England, were pummeled with feet of snow.)

A meteorologist from the National Weather Service even took to Twitter to apologise for screwing up. “You made a lot of tough decisions expecting us to get it right, and we didn’t,” Gary Szatkowski wrote. “Once again, I’m sorry.”

Swirling amid all this were the sort of local politics that really drive home that this was a New York storm. It came complete with a kind of power jockeying between the mayor and the governor (they were less eager to take blame than they had been to take charge). There was also a suggestion that the blustery warnings were meant to distract the public from the current crisis in the state government: the arrest of New York state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver on federal corruption charges. Like both De Blasio and Cuomo, Silver is a Democrat.

Were we better safe than sorry? Not having personally lost $200m in economic activity, I’d be inclined to say yes. In our last major blizzard, just after Christmas in 2010, passengers were stranded on the A train for ten hours; in Brooklyn, a woman died when an ambulance couldn’t drive down her snowy street. (Politics again: the snow wasn’t cleared quickly because of a work slowdown by the sanitation workers; Mayor Michael Bloomberg rightly took flak for the fallout.) New Yorkers did the same scoffing after Irene – imagine “Is that all you got?” in a broad New York accent – but then, Sandy took many doubtful people by surprise.

So, public opinion will likely remain split on de Blasio’s handling of the storm. Who’d have thought that the most lasting effect of the Great Blizzard of 2015 would be on a politician’s poll numbers?

*That, for the non-Americans reading, means retrospectively judging the plays in Sunday night football matches. Don't say we never teach you anything.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.