Notes from Snowmageddon
It so happens I experienced Snowmageddon (or Blizzardissimus, as I prefer) in New York City. We live in Texas, but two of our kids are making their way in the hurly-burly of the Big Apple. They rent an apartment together in a working-class neighborhood, in Brooklyn (Bedford-Stuyvesant, or Bed-Stuy) and commute to Manhattan for work. The neighborhood is historically and (still) predominantly black.
Where Washington D.C. city officials have been apologizing for the performance of city services in the wake of the Blizzard, in New York, as far as we could see, the city services did pretty well. Of course, the tourist core of Manhattan got the most intense treatment at the beginning, as it began snowing late on Friday evening. But even as of Saturday afternoon, with about half of the eventual twenty-eight inches on the ground, the city snow plows were out in force in “our” working-class section of Brooklyn.
Yet in the end, Snowmageddon 2016 was only a tenth of an inch shy of the record snowfall for New York, and even with a zillion sanitation crews, there was no way to deal with all the white stuff. Front stoops were mounded over. Parked cars became white humps. Sidewalks disappeared.
But here is what happened at "our" corner. Early on Saturday, people issued onto their stoops with snow shovels, buttoning their heavy coats, jumping into the work. First the stoops, then the sidewalks, then the beginnings of digging out their cars. Most of the shovelers I saw were young, but many were older, some much older. Almost all male. Most of these people were taking care of their property: their front stoop, their car, etc. Or making their sidewalk safe. The business owners (corner market, liquor store, etc.) had people out pretty much constantly to clear the access to their stores. But very little of the total work going on was being done by the city snow scrapers or the store owners. It was being done by these individuals from the neighborhood.
Traffic continued until about mid-day on Saturday, and as cars began to get stalled at the intersection, the action moved to the streets. Many a stuck vehicle was dug out and pushed along by ordinary neighborhood guys. On Sunday, the buses started again, and there were more problems, since there was only so much space to shovel and scrape the snow into. The “crews” jumped in with their snow shovels, dug the buses out, and sent them on their way. At one point, a stalled car blocked the narrow ice path, and five buses waited while a “crew” of about six guys dug and pushed and dug. Success at last! With some satisfying snow mitt high-fiving to follow. I even saw guys pushing a city snow-grader when it got stuck in a snowdrift!
Again, these were just guys from the neighborhood. Apparently just taking care of their neighborhood. I happened to see a truck get stuck in a big snow bank, and people walked out of their houses from all sides to get the left rear tires dug out.
Late on Sunday, I saw many of these men “going home,” some of them walking off into the sunset; they had not limited their work to their own block. One of the shovelers said he had been out since five in the morning. Another one said with great satisfaction, “I’m ready to go home and watch football and SIT!”
I don’t want to over interpret these events I witnessed. I know that all this was an urban moment, and that big weather events and other shared adversities tend to bring people together. But none of this effort seemed to be seen as extraordinary. Non-shovelers were at times watching and chatting on the sidewalk, and I didn’t hear anyone speaking as if this spontaneous effort was anything unusual. I think the people in this neighborhood—and, I don’t know, maybe many more like it--just take care of their neighborhood.
No doubt there were plenty of New York neighborhoods where this kind of thing didn’t (and doesn’t) happen at all. Undoubtedly the architecture of the three-story row apartments gives fairly fast access to the streets. It may be a combination of conditions that created this picture. The area is rough—some typical drug activity is evident--but dotted with churches. Maybe the churches help explain a more intensive sense of community there.
But however I analyze the situation, I come up thinking that what I saw in Bed-Stuy represents a genuine spontaneous order, driven by individuals, by protection of property, by individual pride, by a sense of protecting those less able from the icy paths, and by multiple bonds of many kinds. I am sure that shared history, shared experience, family relationships, business relationships, church ties, and many other bonds contributed. All kinds of bonds... except the artificial political glue of the state, which in the end comes down to indoctrination, legal plunder, and violence. Goodness knows this neighborhood has seen its share of the latter. Plenty of all three, when you get right down to it.
Maybe I am stretching things, but it I think it was an almost magical expression of the organic community resulting from natural human proclivities and individual bonds. For me, it was a moving experience.
Hunt Tooley is chairman of the department of history at Austin College.