Swans Commentary » swans.com December 3, 2012  



New York On The Rebound


by Jonah Raskin





(Swans - December 3, 2012)   "The storm's coming," Daniel Craig says in the new, hair-raising James Bond film Skyfall that opened in theaters about ten days after hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast of the United States leaving a trail of disaster in its wake. I saw the film in New York and I wasn't the only one in the theater to think of Sandy when Craig mentions the storm that's brewing. An older African American man made the same connection, and so did a young African American sitting on the other side of me. Craig has a political storm in mind and not a hurricane or a tornado. He's a British spy at war with terrorists, aiming to combat the shit-storm, if you'll pardon the expression, that they mean to unleash on London.

Of course, all storms are political and social. Katrina was. They not only attack land and sea, buildings and homes, they also assault the whole body politic, battering institutions and organizations from the family to fire departments, police departments, and schools. The only way to protect oneself from them is through social action; the only way to repair the harm they do is through concerted organized efforts, too. Individual acts matter, but when a storm the magnitude of Sandy or Katrina hits, it takes all the energy and power of the state to repair the damage to the social fabric. Don't let anyone persuade you that the free market will solve our problems. It won't. The free marketers will look after themselves and watch everyone else drown or be swept out to sea.

I showed up in New York in time for the new Bond picture and in time, too, to watch the city begin to get itself back on its feet again. When I arrived on November 9, 2012, large sections of the city still didn't have power. They were still inaccessible by public transportation. Bridges were out, electrical lines were down, and boardwalks along the ocean smashed into thousands of pieces and turned into toothpicks. Usually, when I arrive at Kennedy I take the "air train," as it's called, to Howard Beach where I change for the "A" train that takes me into Manhattan. But no "A" trains could reach Howard Beach; the bridges were inoperable. I had to take a more circuitous route from the airport to Jamaica Station and then take the "E" train into Manhattan just as the city was waking up and going to work.

My first impression was that New Yorkers were tired and not just ordinary working tired, but tired because the storm had thrown them for a loop. New York needed a good long rest. New York had slowed down to survive. The legendary New York minute was 15 minutes, at the least.

Once I settled into the apartment of friends on Avenue "A," I walked around the neighborhood talking to anyone and everyone who would talk, and while I found that New Yorkers were tired they had bounded back from the storm. They had the same kind of resilience that they showed after the attack on the World Trade Center when rich and poor, black and white, Americans and workers from overseas all died. After Sandy hit New York, some neighborhoods suffered more than others, and some neighborhoods with money and access to power were able to rebound more quickly than poorer neighborhoods denied access to power. But Sandy didn't single out the poor and the dispossessed. It made no distinction when it came to social class, ethnicity, and gender. It was the wrath of nature against the arrogance of humanity.

Yes, I believe that Sandy was in large part the result of climate change. I believe that its power might have been minimized if governments and citizens had taken steps to stop the heating up of the planet, or at least slowed it down. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and scientists across the country share that idea. In fact, scientists have been predicting a storm the magnitude of Sandy for years. "There's a storm coming," they've said, and they meant wind, rain, flooding -- a hurricane.

Centuries ago when the first Europeans came to the New World and began to cut down trees and slaughter animals, American Indians were surprised that nature didn't seek revenge for the injuries. When pioneers and settlers slaughtered the buffalo, diverted streams, built dams and highways, Indians were increasingly puzzled. For thousands of years, they had not messed with nature because they assumed that if they did nature would mess with them. Now, in the twenty-first century, nature has caught up with humanity; nature has no mercy, no heart, no sense of right and wrong. It is simply obeying its own laws, including the law that says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If we continue to trounce the environment, the environment is going to trounce us.

Walking about New York and talking to New Yorkers told me how resilient people are. They bounce back, they go back to work, and they rebuild. I visited a friend with a house near the water had been working for a week to clean the rubble, repair the walls, throw away damaged furniture, wood, and possessions. His neighbors were doing the same thing, and their neighbors were doing the same time, too, from neighborhood to neighborhood. New York is far more resilient than foreign critics have insisted.

Granted, Sandy showed the fragility of New York and its institutions; it revealed the inequalities of race and class. But the response to Sandy has also illuminated what has often been called "the indomitable human spirit." It has shown that individuals and governments can rebuilt after disasters and not only or merely to make a profit. No doubt, banks and insurance companies will cash in on the disaster and that's not right. No one should profit from the suffering of others.

New Yorkers are rebuilding because it's the right thing to do. They're rebuilding because they want homes in which they're protected from the wind, the cold, and the rain -- for the same reasons that our ancestors thousands of years ago moved into caves and built shelters in which they could survive the elements. Sandy has taught New York and perhaps the nation a power lesson; maybe it's time to start listening to nature in the ways that American Indians have been listening for thousands of years.


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About the Author

Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, and For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published December 3, 2012