Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

11.02.12

Staten Island v. New York City Marathon

New York is running the marathon despite extensive suffering in the outer boroughs. Why?

I have been wracking my brain trying to justify Mayor Bloomberg's decision to allow the New York Marathon to run on Sunday.  Generators that could be powering devastated houses are going to be used to power tents for race officials and the media.  New Yorkers who need a place to stay will be turfed out of scarce hotel rooms in order to make room for runners, reporters, and tourists come to watch the race. Trucks that could be delivering relief supplies to Staten Island are instead currently being used to set up crowd barriers; there will also, of course, be police and ambulance service diverted to manning the race route.  

And oh, that route.  The starting line is Staten Island, the area of New York hardest hit by the storm.  Many Staten Islanders are homeless after what was reportedly a 20-foot wall of water swept across outlying areas of the island.  My facebook feed contains desperate queries about how one might get cash to Staten Island to help out suddenly homeless colleagues and friends.  On the news, I've seen reports of looting, as devastated residents seek out food and other supplies that were destroyed by the storm.  Staten Islanders are already complaining--not entirely unfairly--that the City has prioritized getting Manhattan up and running over getting relief to people who have lost everything.  Republicans are already dourly pointing out that Staten Island is the only area of the city that routinely votes for the GOP.

There's only one bridge connecting Staten Island to the city; that bridge will presumably be shut down in at least one direction while the marathon is run.  Given the disruption the area has experienced, this seems frankly insane.  "If they take one first responder from Staten Island to cover this marathon, I will scream," tweeted  Councilman James Oddo said on his Twitter account, and it's hard to blame him.  

The route will then impact other bridges and roads; outsiders may love the New York City marathon, but the reaction of those of us who aren't distance runners was usually a long groan.  26 miles of road have to be cleared for a road race, at a time when the subways aren't running and commutes are being compared to the Bataan death march.

But opening it in Staten Island seems particularly crazy.  Mayor Bloomberg, champion of soda taxes and menu labelling, has opened himself up to the charge that he is prioritizing Stuff White People Like over the basic needs of those working class mouth breathers in New York's smallest borough.  He can't possibly be unaware that the political optics are terrible: diverting scarce resources away from helping devastated working class New Yorkers, so that they can put on a recreational event that caters mostly to the affluent.

So why would he do this?  Sure, it's sad to disappoint people who've trained hard for this marathon, but it seems even sadder to disappoint families who have no home.  Would the city lose much revenue?  Do marathoners represent a particularly powerful bloc vote?  

No, I'm afraid I'm still stonkered.  There seems to be no upside to this that's even remotely worth the downside.  There must be some reason to run the marathon.  But I can't imagine what it is.