I arrived in New York just a few days after Hurricane Sandy decimated the East Coast. She was a wicked wind that caused the death of over 100 individuals and incomprehensible damage to countless more. Her scene playing out as a tragic act in the cycle of life, showing us that yet again one of the scariest things in this world isn’t really us, but rather our planet, which we merely occupy for a short while in the whole scheme of things. My heart goes out to those who lost anything or anyone during the event and I wish that they receive all the help and healing that they need.
The original intention of my visit to New York was to document how the art scene had faired after the hurricane, but as I walked from the safety of Columbus Circle into the abyss of destruction, art was the last thing on my mind. So, my new intention is to give you a glimpse of New York just as I experienced it, walking from the center of Manhattan down to the Lower East Side and back again. And yes, there is still a healthy amount of art thrown in there, including a gallery open in the dark and graffiti spread throughout the city’s streets.
With all that in mind, the structure of this piece is not set up like a traditional article and is instead put together in the form of chapters, with each set of photographs correlating to the chapter directly beneath them.
It took three hours to get from the airport to my hotel room and besides the traffic everything seemed to be in perfect order. All the power was on, people were bustling, and there wasn’t anything broken besides maybe a couple of unseen hearts. In fact, the only signs of Hurricane Sandy I could see came from the same TV shows I had been watching before I left Los Angeles.
But, just as I was beginning to think that everything on the news had been grossly exaggerated, I looked out my window and saw that the topside of a crane was facing straight down instead of parallel to the ground. Then, by happenstance, the newscaster on my television and I locked eyes as he spoke about how the hurricane had knocked over such a device that was precisely located at the same place as the one I could see in front of me. It’s strange how these synchronicities work out.
I felt as though I should’ve been afraid of the towering monstrosity’s potential for destruction, but I wasn’t because it was still far enough away to make it not seem real. And hell, I always feel safe until something bad happens anyways. Otherwise, I’d be living in constant fear and neuroticism.
The crane’s metallic head dangled above Mid-City like some kind of industrial King Kong and the NYPD quarantined off its perimeter to keep citizens safe. The shutdown meant that steel gates blocked off all pedestrian and motorist traffic in the surrounding area, allowing only the curious an opportunity to get close enough to take a picture and then be on their way. Or, if you couldn’t get tickets to see Tatz Nishi’s sold-out exhibit “Discovering Columbus” where the artist built a living room around a statue that’s nearly 100ft up off the ground, you could always witness the more threating installation of the dangling crane a few blocks away.
And while the crane was nearly as scary as the price tag on the now mythical Jeff Koons sculpture that’s eerily similar in shape [see LA Times], my journey really began the following day when I embarked on an adventure to the Lower East Side that would change my life forever.
Because most of the subway lines heading South were closed due to the hurricane, I would have to walk over 60 blocks to get to the Lower East Side from my hotel room. Knowing this, I laced up my best walking boots, layered on some jackets, and took my first steps into the clear blue 45-degree day headed in the wrong direction. However, I wasn’t made aware of my faulty route until I stumbled upon an odd set of rubber gloves lying in the middle of the sidewalk. I don’t know why, but they made me feel unsettled enough to give up my mannish pride for a sense of direction and whip out the map on my iPhone.
The new set of coordinates directed me through Times Square, which I thought would’ve surely been hit hard by the winds, but instead was in seemingly perfect order just as the area by my hotel had been. The billboards were flashing and people were out hustling tickets to Broadway musicals with those ridiculous wooden boards across their chests. I also passed by thousands of runners in skintight uniforms who had come in from all over the world to compete in the NYC Marathon, which sadly got postponed due to the city’s need to recuperate after the catastrophe.
I continued onto Broadway Street, which is kind of like Olympic or Pico in LA because it traverses a long stretch across most of the city, and block after block continued to look the same as it always did on my previous visits. This all remained true until I reached Madison Square Park, which is positioned about midway between my hotel and my destination of the Lower East Side. As an art lover, it’s a place in Manhattan that always has at least one giant sculpture on display by someone contemporary and cutting edge. But, more importantly as a food lover it’s the home of Shake Shack, which argumentatively has one of the best burgers in the city.
Unfortunately, when I arrived to the park it was only 10am, so I was still an hour too early to grab a bite to eat.
In my depression I stared at Leo Villareal’s ”Buckyball” sculpture for a couple of minutes, which was only about 100ft away from Shake Shack before I continued on. But as I would soon find out, there was no real reason to be depressed about missing a meal there, since it wouldn’t open later that day anyways. Nor, for that matter, would hundreds of other delicious eateries in the lower boroughs.
For whatever reason, when I reached the next intersection I felt cold. Not cold as in my body’s temperature, but cold as in the feeling of being surrounded by death. It was like all the bubbling energy that New York is normally filled with was gone and as soon as I felt it I looked up to see that the crosswalk signs weren’t lit and neither were the traffic lights.
There was no blinking hand to tell me whether it was safe to cross the street or not and after a long debate with myself I decided that that my vantage point spread far enough to see that no cars were coming. It was then that I walked across the road to a completely different world. One void of electricity, water, and people.
After my crossing, New York City looked like the scene in 28 Days Later when Cillian Murphy’s character wakes up after a long sleep to discover that he may be the last person left in London. Cars are abandoned in the middle of the road and there’s the same coldness I described above surrounding him. The only exception being that I wasn’t wearing a medical smock like Cillian and it was New York, instead of London.
And by this point too, my commitment to the journey I was embarking on had set in and the only way back would be by foot. If I got tired, I couldn’t take the subway home because all the stations were closed and it also would’ve been next to impossible to hail a cab due to the city’s shortage of gasoline. That’s right, most of the gas stations were either out of power, empty, or so overrun with people trying to fill up their vehicles and generators that it could take up to three hours to get to the front of line.
The film I Am Legend also came to my mind after the crossing, especially whenever I walked past the city’s subway entrances, which were roped off with caution tape. I feared that zombies were lurking down beyond where I could see and were feasting upon the bodies of people that were normally overcrowding the streets. I know it’s irrational, but whatever, I continued walking anyways and realized that the likelihood of my favorite stores being open was probably less than 0%.
Door after door looked exactly the same. There was a paper sign hanging in the window that said, “we’re closed” in varying degrees of elegance. I mean there was even a whole batch of flyers around informing everyone that Pickle Day had been postponed — and let’s be utterly candid with each other; that’s when you know it’s bad.
I began to contemplate the obvious: that if all these businesses were closed, their employees would be out of work. And if their employees were out of work, they couldn’t get paid. And if they couldn’t get paid, how were they going to afford rent or food? And even if they could afford food, how were they going to get it, since all the grocery stores around them were closed?
But grocery stores, by no means, were the only things shut down by the hurricane. Parks where trees had fallen due to the winds and even whole apartment complexes were also caught up in the mix. And even if someone’s apartment building were still open, they wouldn’t have the essential luxuries of power or water for the next 5 days.
This meant that not only did people have to stock up on candles, flashlights, and food, but they also had to get crafty when it came to using the toilet, since the only way to make it work was to do their business and then pour a whopping amount of bottled water in the bowl in order to have it flush down. Not to forget, that they also needed even more bottled water to wash their hands with, unless they wanted to walk at least 20 blocks to get to someplace with a working faucet, laundry machine, or shower. So, I could only hope that the woman I saw on the street gathering water from a fire hydrant was using it for these purposes and not for drinking, since I’m pretty sure that can’t be too good for you.
It was hard to imagine that this was still New York City I was in and not a Third World country. Especially, considering that it’s one our American economic epicenters and it was now without water or power for nearly a quarter of a month.
My friends who lived in the effected areas told me that most of their landlords were being lenient on their rent owed for the month due to the devastation, but I can’t imagine that everyone else nearby faced the same fortunate circumstance. And with the economy already being as bad as it is I sensed that people living paycheck-to-paycheck, like most of us younglings do, must be in truly dire straights right now. It’s all something I would witness firsthand later on in my adventure.
Amongst the countless ‘closed” signs lining the street were also a few rebel holdouts doing anything to keep their doors open even if the lights weren’t on. Mainly, they included operations like convenience stores and bars. After all, alcohol always seems to be a top-seller in times of depression and everyone deserves something to eat and drink, regardless of its quality.
However, nothing compared to the efforts of a restaurant on Bond Street, which like a true disciple of Prometheus was in the process of igniting a fire to keep their grills running and their business burning. I’m not sure if they were part of the restaurant named Mile End or simply next door, but they seemed like the last people left on Earth nonetheless and the black and white sign summed up about every post-apocalyptic vision I could think of into a single phrase. Especially, since my initial thought when I saw them out of the corner of my eye was that they were a ragtag bunch of radicals lighting a fire in the middle of the street.
Two men tended to the flames while the rest of the restaurant’s employees were gathered inside for their staff meeting. I didn’t want to disturb them, so I just hovered about silently taking pictures of what was going on. Also, I figured they weren’t open yet otherwise I definitely would’ve gotten something to nosh on. After all, I hadn’t eaten breakfast and it was now close to 11am.
There was something very American about the scene surrounding the fire. It was gung-ho and cowboy-like of them to essentially throw their fists up in the air and yell through their actions “you have knocked us down, but we’re going to get back up, and we’re going to heal our wounds.” So, while most of the businesses on their block had given up, they not only kept going, but they also inspired everyone who walked past them. I, for one, included.
Luckily, the restaurant with the fire wasn’t open yet because my favorite deli in the world, Katz’s, happened to be and If you’ve never been, it’s the mecca of all things great in the world of Jewish American deli’s. I mean, the mere thought of their pastrami sandwich triggers a sensory recall in my brain that can only be described as a foodgasm filled with scents of fat, rye, and egg cream soda. And yes, it’s also the same restaurant where Meg Ryan faked an orgasm for Billy Crystal in the classic film, When Harry Met Sally.
A group of police officers were standing outside between the entrances to both Katz’s and Russ & Daughters, which also happened to be open, but I can’t stand fish so I always just walk past it anyways. They must have had generators keeping their storage and heat units running, but there were still no lights on inside. So, besides an open door, Katz’s had their new slogan of ‘No Power, No Problem’ taped to the window as well as the strobes of flickering candlelight shining out into the street to signify that they were still alive. I walked in and received my paper stub like always. You see, the way you order food at Katz’s is to take a paper stub given to you when you enter and bring it to the deli counter where you order. One of the butchers then checks off what you get on the back of the stub and when you’re finished you take it with you to the cash register where you have to pay the bill in cash. So, it was exactly the same as every other one of my visits to Katz’s had been, except for the fact that the entire place was lit by candlelight instead of halogen bulbs.
I was second in line to get food, when I felt a slap on my shoulder.
“Aren’t you amazed that this place is open? I was about ready to hurt somebody if it wasn’t.” – said a female postal worker as she rubbed my shoulder and proceeded to cut me in line.
I thought it was funny, so I didn’t mind.
“Help me out honey and give me some extra turkey,” she said to the butcher
An awesome dialogue then developed between the woman and the man making her a turkey sandwich. They chatted about how hard they were working and how their commutes into Manhattan from Brooklyn were getting to be more and more difficult with all the new traffic from the closure of the subway system. Plus, the city had just enacted a rule stating that you had to have 3 or more people in your car with you or else you’d be turned around at the bridge leading into the city as an effort to lessen the strains of traffic.
“How do you get across?”
“Baby, I have to pick up everyone that works here with me or else nobody would come in”
Their talk continued, but I began to lose interest as my mind drifted towards the thought that I was about to eat a delicious meal.
It was my turn to order.
“Can I get a half sandwich?”
“Man…don’t be cheap”
“Fine, a full pastrami!”
I whopped that double fistful of meat down in about 30 seconds and then just sat around observing everything going on around me. Fuck, my stomach was in heaven, I had officially made it to the Lower East Side, and yet I still had the whole way back to go.
By this point, you’re still probably asking yourself, Daniel, where is all the juicy stuff, like pictures of homes split in two and trash littered across the city? And the only thing that I can tell you is that I didn’t really see any of it. From the news it looked like New Jersey and Staten Island were hit the worst, but in Manhattan there were just a bunch of small fallen trees. Also, I’m pretty sure that by the time I arrived, most of the heavy duty clearing of floodwater and destruction had already taken place.
That being said, the most work I saw being done was happening in public parks. Although, due to coverings I wasn’t actually able to see much action other than a ton of parked construction vehicles and a man slicing into a giant log with a chainsaw. There were also a couple fallen branches in residential areas, which were in the process of being removed.
Something else that was interesting was that the whole time I was in the zone without power, I felt quite safe during the daytime. There were cops present at all the major intersections and New York City Police cars would race through the roads at constant intervals with their sirens blaring. I mean, I definitely wouldn’t have ventured down to the Lower East Side during nighttime because that could have been pretty unsafe with all the streetlights being out and all. However, there weren’t too many reports of additional crimes during the aftermath of Sandy, so I wouldn’t have had really anything to worry about.
I’m also not sure if it’s because of the awesome police presence or the fact that people respect each other more in NYC than they would in LA, but I didn’t see any places that were broken into. Maybe I expect the worst of people, but I could definitely imagine that if this sort of thing were to happen in Los Angeles, we would see a lot of broken windows from people looting every place they could think of. There wasn’t too much new street art either, which you think would be everywhere considering that it was the perfect playground for someone to do graffiti in since they could be under the veil of total darkness for almost a full 12 hours. Hell, there was even a Krink pop-up store attached to The Hole Gallery, but it was closed just like everything else.
It made me wonder if 9/11 had made everyone more conscious in New York about placing a value on helping each other, rather than reeking personal havoc. I even brought it up at dinner with some locals who thought it must’ve had something to do with it too.
I nearly abandoned all hope to see any art during my trip to New York, when all of a sudden I came across one gallery open in the dark named La MaMa. Their doors were closed, so my initial reaction was to just walk past it even though they also had an OPEN sign up on the window. My logic being that someone must’ve forgotten to take it down from before the hurricane hit. However, my curiosity scratched at my logic enough to force me into turning back and walking inside, where a world of fantastic paintings by Brad Greenwood unveiled itself.
Brad and his partner also happened to be at the desk, so I introduced myself and handed them both one of my funny business cards that say “Hi, I’m Daniel” like I always do when I walk into a gallery. They kindly responded by asking if I would like a flashlight to view the works with, but there was still enough light to see everything. So, it was fine without one.
After the heartache of walking around a contemporary ghost town for most of day, I didn’t want to spoil the jovial mood of discovering an artistic treasure by mentioning the hurricane or anything else depressing like that with the guys. Instead, I just let myself get excited by all the wonderful characters in the paintings and how they transported me away from the emotional mess of the situation outside. And what a great escape it was.
Almost every painting had an allegorical tie to the world of plays, which was especially fitting for the gallery considering how La MaMa began as a venue for experimental performances. Unfortunately, I don’t have the knowledge of the theater and its writers to be able to draw any connections between the men with dog heads and devil horns in royal garb to the characters from the sonnets they represent. But I still really liked the way the work looked nonetheless. Especially, since Brad uses every kind of medium he can find, including crayons, acrylic, and so on.
I must admit, that like the fire earlier on in the day, the fact that this exhibit was open when so many others weren’t also tugged at my heart strings simply because it showcased the perseverance of the human spirit in troubled times.
Of course, no art-related trip to New York would be complete without checking out its street art. After all, if Katz’s is the mecca of Jewish American delis, then New York [at least at one time] is the mecca of American street art. It’s produced everyone from Basquiat to KAWS and was the central hub of Geoffrey Deitch’s activities with Deitch Projects before he became the director of MOCA.
I spotted a few pieces by artists I knew, but most of the tags and wheat-pastes were totally unknown to me. And since there’s a recent trend of artists not putting their names next to their work, I can’t really tell you who they are either. For example, there was one artist putting up these incredible tiny sculptures of doors around the city and I didn’t realize until I was editing my photos that they actually had placed QR codes in each piece. The codes just happened to be so small that I couldn’t see them under normal circumstances and even after resizing the pictures I still can’t get my phone to scan them successfully.
As far as famous artists go, I got to capture a rare Kenny Scharf piece painted on a metallic grate that’s usually not visible during the day as well as rainbow tile by Space Invader and a trio of black and white WK Interact works. But probably the most unexpected of all was stumbling upon the duo of How & Nosm painting a wall on Houston Street [pronounced How-Stun], which superstars like Kenny Scharf and Retna have painted in the recent past.
By the time I arrived, the twins seemed to be deep in the process of painting and were utilizing both a mixture of spray paint and small brushes for the detail work. I’m also pretty sure that they had just started the piece only a few hours before I got there, since it was still in its infancy and was lacking an entire center section. But judging by how fast they were paintings, it would all be done in a couple days.
There was also a most peculiar site if you were facing How & Nosm’s mural and looked immediately to your left. It was a coffin placed on a stand in the middle of an abandoned lot. And after some research I discovered an article stating that it had been there since at least March of this year, which was long before Hurricane Sandy hit. However, it’s odd to think that the coffin didn’t topple over during the heavy winds, especially since it makes for a totally new commentary on the state of things in the city. Regardless, I just wanted to get the hell out of there because seeing a coffin next to a couple of Germans painting a mural is about the scariest thing I can think of considering I’m just a little Jewish kid from Los Angeles.
As I made my way back to the hotel, I noticed that food trucks had lined the streets around Union Square Park and were providing free meals to those affected by Hurricane Sandy. It was heart wrenching to see all these people in line who were essentially the same as you and I. So, beyond any of my other encounters throughout the day, this experience was by far the most shocking to see. I mean, normally when I witness a line of people waiting to get free food it’s because they are homeless, except everyone in this line actually had a place to live and for the most part standard jobs like all of us.
Most trucks also provided power strips, which allowed people to plug their cell phones into to charge their batteries. Most of these stations even had more people waiting to use them than the ones that were purely serving food. I know that I for one would be camped out early for such a feature, since so much of what I do involves my iPhone, including sending and receiving emails, surfing the web, and dealing with a barrage of phone calls every minute. And I didn’t think about it until after I started writing this, but thank God for mobile technologies like 4G because there was absolutely zero Wi-Fi in the surrounding area (unless someone happened to have their modem set up to a solar panel) and as crazy as it sounds, a world without the Internet seems like a world in absolute ruins.
All of this made me wonder if I was even remotely prepared for a natural disaster. I mean, I have some canned food and water at home, but do I have enough? How much do I need? A week’s worth? A month’s worth? A year’s worth? And do I have materials like first-aid kits and flashlights and utility knives to help me out too?
Let’s not kid ourselves. The threat of a major earthquake in Los Angeles is inevitable. So, it’s best to start stocking up on supplies, especially since LA is way more spread out than New York. It may actually take us longer than 60 blocks to get to somewhere with running water and electricity. I mean, just imagine if you lived in downtown LA and the next available place to get power was in the center of Hollywood. That would be one hell of a long walk and an even harder bike ride if all the streets were uneven due to the ground swelling up and shattering the concrete.
Before I get to the end of my adventure, I wanted to highlight a place named Fishs Eddy and its interactive art campaign. They invited locals to write short letters to Hurricane Sandy on Post-it notes as a method of creative catharsis and by the time I arrived there must have been at least 1000 pieces taped to the window. The letters read as diversely as the people who make up the city, from the aggressive like “Sandy Blows!” to the heartfelt, like “Sandy, we are still standing. You can’t knock us down.”
In a strange way, the BYOPIN’s [bring your own Post-it notes] on the glass windows of Fishs Eddy’s mimicked a physical Facebook wall. And since Facebook is an essential part of contemporary life now, it must’ve brought great joy to everyone who had lost access to the social hub. I mean, there may have only been several people staring at the notes with me, but that was still the most amount of people I had encountered all day besides where everyone was gathered to get free food.
However, the thing that I found most profound about the wall was that people were using it to discuss their political views. Don’t get me wrong, it made topical sense for these kinds of thoughts to be part of the experience since Election Day was only a week away. But I found it fairly distasteful to see the blasts targeted towards the Republican party. Especially, since I think in troubled times we all need to bond together and think of how we’re going to help each other out, rather than vilify one side and make the other a hero. I don’t know, it’s just kind of strange how most people surrounding the arts will ignorantly target the Right as some kind of enemy and defend the Left, regardless of whose in office or how good or bad a job they’ve done.
But that’s just my two cents as one of those Americans who doesn’t vote anyways.
The first sign that I had made it back to where power was restored was when I saw a huge crowd of New Yorkers surrounding a 7/11. They were all ready and willing to wait for the next hour and a half to try their luck at the NY lottery as well as grab a hot cup of coffee. And who could blame them after all that they had just been through.
I kept walking North into the life of New York and as I took each step a little bit of color returned to my face. I began to feel warm again, even though the air was frigid and my legs were tired from the long journey. But I nearly broke down into the washes of agony when I walked by a homeless man with a sign that said, “I’ve lived without electricity or running water for 6 years. Don’t worry New Yorkers, you’ll be ok.”
I needed to just get back to total action after that, so I b-lined it to 5th Avenue where the fancy department stores were in full effect and it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas as workers raised themselves up in cherry pickers to decorate lights in the trees. It was like the disaster in the Southern part of the city had never happened. Tourists were shopping, vendors were selling hot dogs, and everyone was in the same race to nowhere that they’d been in their entire lives.
I assembled a pow-wow with some friends at a pizza joint by my hotel and we shared our stories of Hurricane Sandy. Myself, an outsider in a city I was exploring, and the others, locals who have to deal with it every day. The key word being deal, because that’s all we really do in the places we choose to live in. We deal with the things that we can control, like our jobs. And we deal with the things that we can’t control, like the weather. We deal with the best of times and we deal with the worst of times. And no matter what, we make it through because we have something powerful within each and every one of us, a sense of being human.