Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hey, Mom, I Won’t Be Home Tonight: The Parks Are So Dangerous They Say They Can't Let Me Out And I Have To Spend The Night In Them

Parks Department employees telling two of a whole string of bicyclists that they can't leave the park because it would be too dangerous to let them enter the park 
Admitted, after a superstorm of the magnitude of Hurricane Sandy there is a lot for everyone to do, dealing with and making sense of, things afterward.  By and large I think our government and emergency workers are doing their very best and acquitting themselves well.  I am sure that most everyone is earnestly doing the things they think they ought to do and I’ll endorse this as a time for us all to pull together.  But that doesn’t mean that when you see something supremely silly it should be off-limits to comment on it.

Coming down the Manhattan’s West Side bike route along the river today I saw New York City Parks Department workers at 59th Street cordoning off a section of that route because it was “a park” and they were therefore not going to allow people to cross their erected cordon and enter.  They were doing this despite the fact that the section of park they were closing off was heavily occupied and the bike traffic coming through the park along the bike route, arriving from the north (and already in the "park"), was much higher then usual, maybe five or more bikes every minute.

The Parks Department workers were busy more impressively fortifying parts of the cordoned off entrance with more tape and some newly arriving wire fencing.  The bikers arriving in a steady stream at the still not very effective barrier were being halted and told that they could not cross any of the tape demarcations being set up.  The bikers were told that the park was being closed because those were the orders the Parks Department employees had received (because the park was theoretically dangerous) and therefore the bikers, would not be permitted to pass through or go around the tape demarcations of the barricaded entrance in order to leave it.  When the bikers asked what they should do (most of them were impatient) they were told to go find another entrance/exit to leave the theoretically dangerous park.  The workers suggested that bikers should leave the park the same way they had arrived.  But, as was pointed out, if park workers were closing off egress around the entire perimeter of the theoretically dangerous park that wasn’t going to be a possibility.

Other people enjoying the park on the hill in the background- Click to enlarge
Since I had originally come down from the north I knew that the boundaries of the park were probably still as entirely porous as they had been shortly before: You could find your way into the park confronting no barrier at all or, other places, entrances of the park showed tattered shreds of tape evidencing that at one time during the Sunday/Monday storm the park had been declared off limits. These vestigial pieces of history were being ignored by women pushing baby carriages and all sorts of other New Yorkers, which is why the park was so chock full. Nevertheless, all these citizens would wind up being locked in the park for night if the Parks Department succeeded in delivering enough wire and manpower to secure the perimeter.

The good news was that this was Thursday afternoon and, just hours before, Mayor Bloomberg had announced at an afternoon press conference that as of Saturday morning he deemed that the danger in the parks would be over proclaiming that all the New Yorkers who had been cooped up for a week could then come out and play communally in the parks as the weekend arrived.

I don’t mean to disparage the legitimate danger of trees or of parks, especially when they get subjected to any kind of storm, but none of this makes sense.  Obviously, what would have made sense is for the Parks Department workers to allow people to go past the barriers to leave the “dangerous” park while telling them they were not welcome to return until Saturday AM.
Was the heavily visited park dangerous this afternoon ?  Arguably It was maybe slightly dangerous but if there was danger it would have been from a tree and it’s a fairly new park so almost all the trees are of the smaller variety.  There were so many bikers on the bike route going through it for an important reason: With so much mass transit out of commission in the city due to the storm biking was very likely the most attractive and efficient transportation alternative there was.  The West Side bike path along the river was especially attractive for biking because the electricity being out in lower Manhattan meant that traffic lights were out.  The riverside bike path makes it possible to avoid dealing with all but a few traffic lights.  Yes, it's true that traffic lights were working up north at 59th Street but once you’ve embarked on such a good route is one then inclined to detour, heading out into car traffic?  Riding through the park may have been the safer thing to do.

The fact is the likelihood of any serious risk in the park (and similarly walking much of the rest of the city in general) was pretty minimal and well worth taking.  By announcing that the city parks were closed, the city may hope to avoid legal liability if anything happens in this space of time.  Will the parks suddenly be significantly safer as of Saturday morning?  Not likely.  Another approach to avoiding city liability way would be for the city to caution people that there are dangers and that the city can’t assure that the parks are safe as might normally be hoped.

No doubt, when big storms hit it is important for everyone to stay conscious that storms change the environment rearranging, the typical equation with respect to danger, but when things get tipped who knows exactly where or what the danger will be.  I have tried to be conscious walking all the city streets this week: A weakened tree or masonry could fall on any city street.  Telling the public at his press conference that the parks are dangerous so that they should not yet go out into them, Bloomberg offered as a confirming illustration an incident of two children who died in the days following the storm when, staying home and not venturing outside, a tree fell on their home.  (That unfortunate incident happened in North Salem, New York.)  Suggestions tendered in retrospect are never truly helpful, but perhaps venturing outside to assess the situation might have altered fate’s course in that instance.  It's horrible to think, but you never know.

The mayor has sometimes addressed New Yorkers during this crisis as if they are absolutely incapable of being responsible for themselves.  At one press conference he advised New Yorkers not to take the initiative to deal with downed trees and tree limbs on their own: To “leave it to the professionals.”  Do we, by living in the city, become incompetent to deal with matters of nature?  I’ve spent a lot of my life in rural environments and the idea people there would be advised never to pick up a chain saw or clear their own land of limbs and branches seems absurd.  Isn’t it enough to remind New Yorkers that trees can be heavy (as the Mayor actually said) and tell them that if they have not dealt with such things before don’t assume they know as much as they need to know to take on these tasks?  (Obviously, stay away from any downed electric wires if you are in an area of the city where electric wires are above the ground.)  But at the same time certainly a lot of New Yorkers know enough to competently take on some of these tasks! 

Must everything be handled with corporatist nicety by personnel trained and certified and working for some large organization to whom an exclusive franchise has been handed over?

I went out after the height of the storm when the winds were down to seventeen miles an hour, though gusting occasionally higher.  By that time the storm was nowhere near as bad as many storms we regularly experience.  The police, shooing me away with a recorded announcement, didn’t want me to view the East  River from the foot of Remsen Street (a perch of high vantage) “because it was not safe.”  But I was not under a tree or anything that could fall on me and there was little wind.  I had hoped to get a good picture for Noticing New York of the not yet receded storm surge waters still in Brooklyn Bridge Park.  Why?   Because seeing is believing and without images and pictorial evidence we may not believe in global warming.  If we all have to go indoors whenever nature is being nature, and come out only a week later when the authorities have cleaned up afterwards we may even cease believing in nature altogether.

Park patrons ignoring the yellow tape and barricades to keep them out
As it was, I went through much of New York today and New Yorkers were consistently ignoring police tapes and filling the city’s parks.  In doing so they were not only getting out for sorely needed respite in a time of stress, they were also informing themselves about their city’s relationship with nature and the harbor waters that surround it.
Strollers in the park
City Hall Park, one Park that was locked safe and secure, with Bloomberg's City Hall in background
Entrance to Brooklyn Heights Promenade: Brooklynites broke through replaced yellow tape so many times you can no longer count the remaining scraps
So much has been said about Bloomberg’s paternalistic approach to the citizens of New York that I am hardly adding anything to note it too.  I myself have interventionist tendencies and am known to make it a point when I find friends and acquaintances smoking to tell them that they really need to consider how bad bad it is for them and that my cousin, a smoker, died of lung cancer at thirty-five leaving behind her two young sons.  I also wish that people would limit the volumes of sugared soft drinks they consume, believing that it is one of the worst things they can do to themselves.  I am therefore naturally sympathetic to the idea of making large bottles of the stuff illegal even if I have qualms about whether I think that is a good idea.

My own paternalistic urges aside, in some cases, like with these Parks Department workers who decided they must trap New Yorkers in a New York park because it would have been too unsafe to allow them to enter in the first place, Bloomberg’s paternalism simply provides examples of Bloomberg’s inferior judgement being substituted for our own: I am thinking of another case in point that arose during this hurricane crisis. At the same time Bloomberg was instructing that New Yorkers should all stay out of the city parks until Saturday morning he was telling the populace that would listen that he thought it would be a great idea, despite the hurricane crisis, for everyone, including himself, to figure out how to make it to the Knicks vs. Nets night basketball game that was supposed to have inaugurated the basketball season at the “Barclays” Center yesterday.  The game was called off when people realized what bad judgment that would involve and that, besides, the police probably have better things to do.

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