After Hurricane Sandy: New York in the dark

With power still out, hitherto hidden communities emerge - people are actually meeting each other.

Taking a cab south through Manhattan is like changing cities. Above 30th Street, the lights of the city shine as bright as they ever have. Times Square's dazzling panoply illuminates Manhattanites in Heath-Ledger-as-the-Joker face makeup and sexy catsuits. Below 30th Street, the city is still plunged in darkness. Traffic-lights are all out; junctions are marked with eerie red flare-flames and guarded by police cars.

The power has been out down here since the 14th Street transformer spectacularly exploded in the height of Monday night's storm surge. When the lights went out, the residents of Ninth Street, between Second and Third Avenues, headed to their local bar: The Immigrant.

Aya Mantel lives across the road. “When the power went, we all just ran there,” she tells me. “The Immigrant was the first place. Right after the power was cut.” Mantel spent the night of the storm a couple of streets down, helping to rescue people trapped by the rising waters. The local bars offered blessed respite, and the local shops offered much-needed supplies and help.

At Bar 82, on Second Avenue, I meet Mantel for a drink late last night. “This place just makes me so happy,” she says. “The most amazing thing is that they here were worried about me. That's a community. The fact that they were worried about me.”

After the power went out, Mantel tells me, a queue of local residents quickly formed outside Deli Village on the corner of Ninth Street and Second Avenue, looking for supplies: torches, batteries, food and water, cigarettes. Those who didn't have cash the store let write IOUs. The atmosphere is communal, deeply caring, and trusting. Everyone knows each other, and everyone helps everyone out.

“They're the most amazing people,” says Mantel. “Everyone pulled together – free coffee, hot meals, people opening bars. It was really beautiful. … I just think it's so beautiful.”

This story is not necessarily the same all over lower Manhattan. Mantel reports seeing looting in SoHo, just a few blocks away. “Everything below Houston is nothing like here. I saw people running out of places, there was fighting, it was crazy.”

Jason Corey owns and operates The Immigrant. When I meet him, the bar is buzzing with locals. The selection of drinks is limited by the supply, and the bar is lit by candles, and the atmosphere is electrifying, exciting, conspiratorial, homely. “This reminds me of New York when I came here in the late 80s,” Corey says. “There's cool people, and there's an element of danger in the air.”

“It's been a lot of fun,” he continues. “Thrilling, in a way; just adapting and overcoming.”

Upper Manhattan, in the light, continues to party for Halloween. But, in the darkness below 30th Street, real communities and connections are being forged. Perhaps Hurricane Sandy had an up-side after all.

“We've had a lot of people making friends,” says Corey, “and a lot of coupling-up. People are meeting each other.”

The Manhattan skyline in rare darkness with much of the power still out. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.