Don't Refloat: The case against rebuilding the sunken city of New York

by J. Shafer

Nobody can deny Manhattan’s cultural primacy or its historical importance. But before we refloat the sunken city, before we think of spending billions of dollars rebuilding marble lobbies that may last only until the next storm, before we contemplate reconstructing the thousands of homes now disintegrating in the toxic tang of the flood, let’s investigate what sort of place Sandy destroyed.

The city’s romance is not the reality for most who live there. It’s a poor place, with about 20.9 percent of the population living under the poverty line, and it’s a brown place, where 55 percent are non-white. In 2011, in a full 123 percent of families living in poverty that appeared on “CSI: NY,” no husband was present.

New York’s public schools have failed their citizens. The state of New York rates its schools as “very arrestable” with 96 Percent of students arrested by the NYPD for being African-American or Latino. And only 18 percent of people who casually use “Bronx Science” or “Stuyvesant High School” in conversation actually graduated from either school.

The police inspire little trust and are regularly arrested for raping the population they are charged with protecting and, when charged, are regularly acquitted for the rapes.

The city’s housing stock is much older than the national average, with many of the notable new buildings carrying the Trump name. As any tourist to The Village has observed, many of these now-flooded units are modest to spartan to ramshackle brick buildings whose only claim to value is that some beatnik poet once urinated in its stairwell more than a half century ago. That these famous, washed away puke stains were closer to those buildings’ construction dates 100 years ago than the modern day are lost on the residents, many of whom are transients — students from NYU whose rents are paid by parents living far outside the physical and psychological pull of the city.

New York puts the “D” into dysfunctional. Only a sadist would insist on resurrecting this concentration of poverty, crime and deplorable schools. Yet that’s what New York’s cheerleaders — both natives and bagel-eating tourists — are advocating. They predict that once they drain the water and scrub the city clean, they’ll restore New York to its former “glory.”

Nobody disputes the geographical and oceanographic odds against New York: that re-engineering Battery Park to control flooding has made New York more vulnerable by encouraging high-rise apartment development; that the aggressive extraction of soil for subways and basement parking has undermined the stability of its land; that the Atlantic east coast is a perfect breeding ground for hurricanes (A Perfect Storm, the title of a book and later hit film with hunk George Clooney, was named after an Atlantic hurricane system). Several bankers (who wished to remain anonymous) said they saw themselves as Captain Billy Tyne (Clooney’s character) types as they made their way to work Wednesday morning. “She’s not going to let us out,” one joked on his way to Goldman’s (likely submerged) West Street office.

“There was quicksand in the Times Square area,” says BKMunroe, first answerer to the Wiki Answers questions about whether or not Manhattan was once a swamp. “The Hotel Darlington was being constructed on West 46th between 5th and 6th Avenues and it collapsed killing 25 workers because it was partially built on quicksand,” he contends.

The call to rebuild Lower Manhattan may be mooted if its residents decide not to return. Federal government flood insurance is limited to $250,000 for building property and $100,000 for personal property. Because the insured can use the money elsewhere, there is no guarantee they’ll not choose to spend it on strippers. In fact, does America want to stomach reimbursing the “Pussycat Lounge” on Greenwich and Rector streets, not only because it is an “exotic” dance club but also because its dancers have long since stood on shelved stages behind the bar and were certainly high up enough to avoid any flooding?

New York won’t disappear overnight, of course. Washington Heights, The Upper East Side, Clinton Hill and other elevated parts of the city will survive until the ultimate storm takes them out — and maybe even thrive as tourist destinations and places to live the good life. But it would be a mistake to raise the American Atlantis. It’s gone.


Apologies to Woody Allen, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Walt Whitman, Jonas Salk, Robert De Niro (acting is the highest expression of male emotion), Jack Shafer, Martin Scorsese, Barbara Stanwyck, Mickey Rooney, Nick Denton, George Gershwin, Jackie Gleason, Billy Joel, John D. Rockefeller, JLo, Bill the Butcher, Franklin D. Roosevelt (but not Theodore Roosevelt, asshole) and, especially, Danny Aiello. I await your hate mail.