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 freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.