Having resided in New York City (primarily Manhattan) for more than two decades, I have lived through (and survived unscathed) a series of crises and natural disasters to the point where I feel almost invincible.
(I am, of course, excluding crises and suffering of a personal nature).
This is why I am less than anxious about the ‘monster’ hurricane named Irene that is scheduled to sweep across the greater Gotham area on Sunday. I also suspect that the decisions by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Mike Bloomberg to shut down mass transit and evacuate people from certain low-lying regions -- both of which are unprecedented events in the city’s history -- might be an over-reaction.
Even though weather forecasters are warning the populace of torrential rains, 100-mph winds and biblical flooding – I remain skeptical that any of this will actually occur.
More to the point, even if they do happen (and to the extent that the doomsdayers are saying), I remain confident that I will not be touched by these calamities.
This may directly reflect the inward clannishness that us Manhattanites have developed as a kind of snobbish armor. That is, we live in our own fantasy-world – an overcrowded, noisy, gritty realm as it is – that seems to exist in a vacuum outside the rest of the nation. Hell, we don’t even acknowledge the outer boroughs (Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten-something) as part of ‘New York.’
As such, we feel like survivors – regardless of what misfortune befalls us. Racial riots, municipal strikes, blizzards, storms, heat waves, terrorist attacks – I (we) have survived them all.
When I arrived in New York in 1989, the city was starting to emerge from at least twenty years of decline and urban decay. The remnants of that lurid recent past were still in evidence – dirty streets, homelessness, racial problems, street crimes. New York was also still reeling from two catastrophic epidemics – AIDS and crack cocaine.
However, as the 1990s progressed, New York was coincidentally becoming a safer, cleaner, prosperous place (admittedly, the cost of living increased as well, along with massive gentrification).
In 1990, New York City recorded more than 2,200 murders – an all-time record. But since that time, killings have declined dramatically.
I’m not sure how or why this happened – some credit it to the heavy-handed policing under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. But I prefer to attribute it to the fact that cities (like some living organisms) move through endless cycles.
Friends of mine who live far outside of New York (and harbor wildly inaccurate images of the city) cannot believe that I have never been mugged, nor have any of my various apartments been broken into.
Yes, I’ve endured some scary and unpleasant moments with seedy characters in the subways and streets, but never have these incidents escalated into violence or tragedy.
And it’s not like I’ve been a hermit – I once had a very active nightlife and often found myself in places where trouble abounded.
Have I just been ‘lucky’? Or maybe it’s just that New York is a much more placid and nurturing city than many critics would accept.
So, let us now review some of the major disasters that have struck my adopted hometown over the past twenty tranquil years.
In the summer of 1991, amidst worsening race relations in the city, a riot broke out in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, between Afro-Caribbeans and Orthodox Jews. Fears flared (helped by tabloid media) that the racial unrest would spread to other parts of this polyglot city.
But… nothing happened. The violence was largely contained in Crown Heights.
In April 1992, Los Angeles erupted in days of riots, looting, burning and killing after four police officers were acquitted in the brutal beating of black motorist Rodney King. There were fears (once again, fanned by tabloid media) that race riots would ignite in other large cities, especially New York.
I recall climbing out of the subway station at 71st St. and Continental Ave. in Forest hills, Queens, and noticed the streets were eerily empty and all the stores closed down in the early evening (likely, in anticipation of civil unrest).
But… nothing happened.
In December 1992, a massive ‘Nor’easter’ struck the mid-Atlantic and led to some flooding on New York’s shoreline. Aside from the discomfort of heavy rains and screaming winds, I was not the least bit inconvenienced.
In February 1993, a bomb planted in the World Trade Center's underground garage by terrorists killed six people and injured more than 1,000 people. I was working in my office about one-half mile away and heard a muffled roar.
In December 1993, the worst nightmare of every commuter occurred – a man named Colin Ferguson shot 25 passengers on the Long Island Rail Road, killing six. Although I sometimes rode on the LIRR out of Penn Station when I lived in Queens, I was nowhere near this tragedy nor have I ever felt fearful on a train.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the most incredible, monumental disaster struck New York – it was like something out of a fantastic, surreal action movie. I worked 15 minutes away from the World Trade Center (a place where I sometimes attended meetings and conferences).
With all due respect to the 2600 people who died when the planes crashed the towers, I didn’t personally know any of them. I vividly recall evacuating my office building and watching the bizarre sight of the Twin Towers burning and collapsing.
However… it didn’t affect me at all, aside from the sorrow I felt for the dead and their families.
The only ‘inconvenience’ the catastrophe caused me was that I had to walk two miles home that day. Although 9-11 led directly to George W. Bush’s war in Afghanistan (and claimed thousands of more lives), to me it was like some surreal movie.
On a personal note, because the terrorists who crashed the airplanes were Arabs, there was a hysteria that people who ‘looked’ Middle Eastern or South Asian (like me) would be subject to abuse, physical attacks or worse.
But nothing of the sort happened to me, In fact, I noticed that in the months after this unprecedented tragedy, New Yorkers became kinder and better-behaved, especially with strangers.
In the hot summer of August 2003, much of the northeast was hit with a power blackout. Once again, I was forced to walk two miles home and endured one night without lights or food. But I viewed it as an adventure – a temporary suspension of the comforts I had long become accustomed to.
Now as I sit here in my apartment on the Upper East Side facing a weekend camped out at home ahead of a huge storm that threatens the entire east coast... I am completely comfortable and fearless.
I sure hope I’m right.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.