New York City is incredibly diverse. If you’ve only seen the city on television or in (modern) film you might not have a full appreciation of its variations. You’d have every reason to believe that it’s a playground of opulence for its many residents. You may think that a woman who earn 5 cents a word buys $600 shoes, and everyone leaves their lovely high rise place of work in a black car. If you visit New York, either through a tunnel every weekend, or with the family every Christmas, you might think this is a city of bright lights and cobble stoned streets. Small parts of it are. But most of it is simply neighborhoods. New York City is comprised of five boroughs, Manhattan being the smallest of them all. On the island of Manhattan there is a different neighborhood every 10 blocks or so. Public housing high rises stand across the street from modern multi-million dollar condominiums. Check cashing stores are three blocks from $15 million Central Park view penthouses.
Ordinarily there is a simmering discomfort with this stark economic diversity. It (naturally) starts to boil when resources become even more scarce. Unemployment and economic strain exacerbates the tension and a disaster shines a bright spotlight on the strain. It seems clear a week after Hurricane Sandy that many people in public housing are now homeless. (Current estimates are that between 20-40,000 people are homeless and they are predominantly residents of public housing.) There are people left in the dark who rely on government aid under normal circumstances. EBT cards (aka food stamps) don’t work without power. School lunches don’t get served when there’s no school. Much of the worst destruction in New York City was in waterfront communities. With few exceptions these communities are working class. Several of them, Staten Island being in the lead, are home to NYC police officers and firefighters. These are not vacation homes and communities that were lost.
As schools begin to reopen this week we will see more of this disparity of neighborhoods. Children are being shuttled to schools that can reopen. New bus drivers are learning new routes. Some schools will open while also serving as shelters (and it’s too daunting to consider all the ways that can go wrong.) Special needs children may not have access to their services. Many children will have experienced trauma and might have a long road of instability in front of them.
There is some chaos that is universal. This week many of us may wait in line for gasoline or to vote. If we pay close attention to what frightening concepts scarcity, chaos and vulnerability are we might just have a tiny sense of what is being experienced by hundreds of thousands of people.