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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.