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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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