12.11.12 | Transblog
It is a day for patience in New York City. Be patient with the other drivers. Be patient on you way to work. Be patient with you kids even if you cant take being locked up with them any longer.
- Pat Kiernan, NY1’s Morning Anchor, October 30th, 2012
Having spent much of my undergraduate time studying the natural sciences when I began to read Emergence by Steven Johnson I could not help but think about evolution and biological systems, emergent structures such as snowflakes and hurricanes. I do not remember the details of what makes a particular structure emergent, just the theory that a pattern such as a massive cyclone or sand dune formations can occur as a result of the actions of multiple entities. Johnson takes a slightly different route and discusses the emergent behavior of ant colonies, then cities, and finally software.
In the days following Hurricane Sandy I tried to see if I could understand Johnson’s theories about emergence and how relevant they were to New York City. Johnson discusses behaviors that take certain windows of time to emerge. I found myself relating the emergent structure and behavior of the hurricane to Johnson’s theories. I began to take notes on the days I ventured outside that week to experience the hurricane and its aftermath first hand.
Day 1: Trees are Scary
On the day of Hurricane Sandy reached the New York, in the late afternoon my brother Noah and I ventured outside in our rain gear to see the storm. The wind was strong enough to shake the trees and blow newspaper boxes down. Leaves, garbage and paper covered the street but the potential for damage looked nothing like what we were used to at parents’ home in Atlantic coast of Florida. The small young pine trees on our street bent in the wind. They were the third set that had been planted in two years, the others dying most likely because of premature planting. The trees’ small yellow tags indicting their species and that they are part of MillionTreeNYC fluttered in the wind. (In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg and Bette Midler announced their city initiative to plant one million trees in New York City by 2017. They are at around 650,000 and counting.)
As Noah and I walk around the neighborhood young trees lines many of the smaller streets. Much older trees line the avenues of Washington Heights. In the wind their expanding canopies resemble billowing sails. Their limbs creak and wane. Noah quickly points out that they are a danger. Even a small branch can ruin the rest of our day. We walk to the river to see the George Washington Bridge and view of the Englewood Cliffs in New Jersey. Large boats are anchored in the center of the river, presumably avoiding the dangers of the bay fifteen miles south. We walk in the street to avoid passing beneath the trees. We see more and more fallen limbs. Heading to the bodega we pass the synagogue on 185th street. A massive oak tree has twisted off at its base. The fifty foot tree lies exploded in pieces on the sidewalk, its limbs inches from three surrounding cars. We walk quickly to the bodega and then home.
Day 3: Natives Know Best
Having been inside for two days and after watching The Day After Tomorrow at 9am (our sixth disaster movie) we decide to bike downtown to see the city. The trip to lower Manhattan is no more difficult than it was a week before. The day is clear and still. We spend until two o’clock delivering water to shelters (unsuccessfully because their is no system in place to receive donations), visiting friends without electricity and running errands. We bike further downtown. The scenes of flooded downtown on the television the day before had reminded me of the low elevation of Tribeca, Battery Park, and the Financial District. When I was in elementary school we took field trips to the historic buildings around the South Street Seaport. I remember learning about the early settlers buying the land for the New Amsterdam settlement from the native inhabitants of Manhattan for goods that amounted to $24 – a bit of history that is most likely inaccurate for any number of reasons. At the time lower manhattan was not inhabited. It in fact it was a wetland used mainly for fishing and gathering shellfish. The entirety of the bay at the time was low lying, unprotected from the elements and lacked fresh water and game. Judging from the storm surge and high winds during Hurricane Sandy these conditions have not changed much in the last 400 years.
Day 5, Morning: Gas is Gold
Having visited family in Queens four days after the storm I needed to bike home and get back normal everyday life. It was a 27 mile ride home, not far enough to wait in the endless lines for the subway. Despite the occasional downed tree knocking out a block’s power (power lines are above ground in most Queens) the borough appeared fairly unscathed by the storm. It was not until I passed the first few gas stations that I realized what the next wave of Sandy aftermath was. Station after station was taped off and each lot had a police officer standing guard. On Hillside Avenue a line of cars ten blocks long sat on the shoulder. Some were wood-chippers and sanitation trucks, vehicles that probably needed fuel more than others. The line was seemingly endless. Another began at the gas station in the other direction, this one consisted of pedestrians carrying plastic red cans. Two police officers mediated an argument at the pump. I was far from Manhattan. Many people here needed cars, many worked or lived in Long Island. Still, there was a level of anxiety and hostility amongst people I did not expect and a dependency to fuel so near the city.
Day 5, Afternoon: Limping on One Foot
Nearing the end of my ride home I chose to bike through Central Park, assuming it would be vacant because of the canceled marathon. I was wrong. Thousands of runners circled through the park for an informal run. Though many of the runners chose to channel funds towards hurricane relief I could not help but feel a bit uneasy looking at groups of people run between industrial generators and stockpiles of bottled water. Near the west exit of the park I saw a protestor holding up a sign that read ‘resilience is not limping on one foot.’
I guess I can say the short term behaviors I witnessed in New York City as a result of Hurricane Sandy are emergent. And the structures and infrastructures – whether a month or hundreds of years old – that people rely on are emergent. However, as a fellow student James Frankis writes “one could call everything from rain to the Big Bang emergent.” Johnson uses a very old theory (Wikipedia cites Aristotle) about the development of systems and structures paired with fun examples (Silk Traders in Florence, Giant Ant Cities, and Political Scandal) to argue for high-levels of systemic sophistication and organization. The details and abilities of these systems are mapped out in Emergence like the mechanics of an expensive watch. Johnson neglects to discuss the power of emergence as a damaging phenomena or the fact that ignorance – although possibly useful to the worker ant – can be dangerous. Not only does Johnson’s bird’s eye view of the thriving system neglect the damage done at the ground level, it hands maintenance and responsibility over to no one. I think the most valuable lesson from observing our own ‘emergent’ behavior may be to learn from the collective mistakes of that behavior.