As the snow settles from the Blizzard of 2015, that wasn’t (at least in New York, New England is another story) it’s becoming clear that Monday night’s historic shutdown of the New York City Subway system had less to do with public safety than Governor Andrew Cuomo’s power-hungry ego.
There is some comfort in this revelation. New York has had its fair share of megalomaniac political leaders; they are a familiar beast to the citizens of Gotham. You may recall Giuliani announced he was divorcing his wife during a press conference, before bothering to announce it to her.
Of course, there is a big difference between a marital dispute lived out on the public stage and the shutdown of a subway system that shuttles 4.3 million people daily.
Whether or not the subway needed to be shut down for a snowstorm, even one potentially this big, is deeply debatable (the MTA has a detailed system in plan to deal with heavy snow). Not debatable is the fact that it has never happened before, even in snowstorms that were in actuality as nearly as big as the one we were supposed to get.
Far more suspect is how the announcement was made and, afterward, how it was covered. In addition to not looping in the mayor of New York — right, De Blasio found out about the subway shutdown when we all did — Cuomo seemed to toss it off to the press as an afterthought, as though he was announcing the closure of an off ramp on a highway and not the main mode of transportation for millions of people, many of whom don’t have other options. Road closures make sense, halting the buses makes sense (during the 2010 Christmas storm, many stalled passengers were stuck on the streets) but the subway system? “It is, um, the entire system,” said Cuomo. Um, indeed.
That same nonchalance, and underlying glee over the drama of the decision was apparent in nearly all of the coverage that followed. Weather events, especially potentially historic ones bearing down on the nation’s biggest city and central media hub, generate the sort of compact, all-caps headlines that politicians, cable news, and social media live for (I know, because for many years this was my bread and butter). It is, to risk the pun, a perfect storm of the sort of mania that drives clicks, retweets and ratings; even Don Lemon in his ridiculous Blizzardmobile did well from this.
Here’s who didn’t do well: The many people who depend on the subway as their only means of transportation. These are generally not the people who are manning their Twitter feeds with carefully-coiffed 140-character comments, or benefitting from the New York Times removal of their paywall for 24 hours so people could access all their fun storm graphics. Nor are they necessarily those in the habit of keeping up with the news on an hourly basis to stay informed of the governor’s capricious transportation decision. These are also not the people with access to Uber apps, or the ability to pay a cab to get them back to East New York, which is where one family was trying to get to when their train ended service at Jay St. six miles from their destination leaving a 61-year-old grandmother to push her five-year-old grandson home in a shopping cart six miles home in the snow.
Generally speaking, these are also not the people gleeful for a day off because oftentimes if you are dependent on the subway to get you home after 11PM on a Monday night — as anyone who has worked an off-hours job can probably tell you — it’s likely because you’re a shift worker and don’t benefit from paid time off. Or from benefits at all, for that matter. As a result of the subway shutdown, and in anticipation of stranded workers, many stores remained closed yesterday, closed to business and closed to employees. You don’t work, you don’t get paid. I waited tables for much of my twenties and on the rare occasion we had to close — be it from blackouts, or weather, or even 9/11 — it was simply money out of pocket. When the MTA went on strike for two days in 2005 I didn’t not go to work, I simply walked there and back from my home in Crown Heights, in the snow, in the middle of the night. I had only myself to support at the time, not a family as many people do, but I needed that money, even if I had to trek five miles each way to get it.
The people most affected by this shutdown live in the areas of Brooklyn so many of the people I saw being tweeted, and retweeted in the circle jerk that is New York (and subsequently national media) pass through in the summer on their way to the Rockaways. Or in the parts of Queens and the Bronx that most people opining it was better for Cuomo to be “cautious” would likely have a hard time finding on a map. The sort of wages you make in the service industry, or as contract health care worker, or in a chain store, are generally not the sort that can support easily-accessible living.
There is a certain privilege involved in being both gleeful about a citywide shutdown of this sort, and unquestioning about why a decision so drastic was made in the first place. Often it is rooted in ignorance more than anything. Manhattan has always been a mecca of a certain amount of wealth, but in recent years the island itself has been awash in it. Swaths of Fifth Ave remain dark because the multi-million dollar apartments are simply part-time residences of their owners. Brooklyn has been reduced in perception to a borough that’s comprised of elite bearded people producing artisanal fare, instead of a huge, diverse place where nearly a quarter of the population lives on or near the poverty line. There is no longer anything even resembling a middle class in Manhattan; the people who live there now, the ones posting the “magical” pictures of the city in the snow (and to be sure it was magical, and post away!) can either afford the seven figures it now takes to support a family, or are young enough to think sharing an apartment with five people is fun and worthy of a Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter. The stories that came out of this storm were the stories of people who were able to tell it for themselves — in highly repostable, retweetable, clippable, giffable ways. In an SEO world — which is where even our politicians live now — the payback to look beyond is limited.
Meanwhile, the travel ban, which also hit at 11pm, carried with it a penalty for contravention. But was there a penalty for employers who insisted their shift workers stay on until or past 11pm? Recall that when these decisions were made, New Yorkers were already well into their workday. Sure there was an emergency blast on our phones — thank you — but without that critical information, how many people were caught in limbo? Likely not any of the people Cuomo was considering when he announced the closure.
Mass transit in New York is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. (One that we pay for in our taxes in addition to fares.) The lack of it paralyzes the city — every worst-case scenario terrorist attack theory involves the subways being shut down. But this was not an attack. It was a “potential” weather event, and one that the city is set to deal with. The seeming casualness with which this decision was made, and received, suggests a limited understanding of how much of the residents of this city live — and that is nearly as alarming as the potential storm was itself.