"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.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.