Sandy Cripples The East Coast

11.02.12

Tourists in New York Flock to See Damage Wrought by Sandy

The dangling crane. A Chelsea building with its front ripped away. Sightseers in New York City are forsaking the Statue of Liberty and Central Park in favor of the effects of Frankenstorm.

Forget the Statue of Liberty or Central Park. New York’s new most photographed sights are the remnants of damage wrought by the Sandy superstorm Monday night. With traditional attractions closed and others difficult to get to without full subway service, tourists have turned remaining evidence of the notorious Frankenstorm into photo ops.

Floodwaters have receded, but fallen trees, shuttered stores and locals huddled around improvised cellphone charging stations can still be found as evidence of the storm’s destructive wake throughout lower Manhattan days afterwards. And there are even bigger draws—the true disaster sites like the crane precariously dangling above 57th Street, and the exposed apartment building in Chelsea missing its entire façade.

Steven Johnson, a tour guide for Gray Line, which resumed service Thursday, was loading passengers into the open-air bus in Times Square. Passengers had asked about the nearby dangling crane earlier in the day, so he tweaked the bus route to stop there for people to take pictures. “It happens to be right around the corner from our route anyway,” he said. “So that was a nice little interesting thing for people to see.”

When the top of a massive, 90-story crane snapped in Midtown on Monday night, Edvin and Michael Paul, a father and son visiting from Sweden, were right below it. Michael screamed, and the two ran down the street with other frantic passersby. Thursday afternoon, at 57th Street and 6th Avenue, they stood alongside dozens gathered to get a few more photos of the building.

Police barricades kept onlookers off the street, but the distance didn’t prevent an endless stream of tourists from snapping pictures of themselves and the precariously hanging crane. Edvin already had a ton, which he’d posted on Facebook to show incredulous friends and family back home. The street was packed—in the course of a half hour, dozens of people stopped to stare and get a photo of the wreckage. “You’ve gotta be kidding me, people! Get a life,” one woman mumbled in typically gruff New Yorker fashion as she pushed through the crowd.

Posing for pictures a few feet away was a woman from Spain who said she had come to the area just for a picture with the crane behind her. Nearby, two journalists from Colombia documented the scene and said they planned to head downtown tomorrow just to see “the situation and behavior after the storm.” One, Alejandra Quintero, had been on 14th Street when the Con Edison transformer exploded, effectively cutting off power for thousands. She spent two days without electricity or running water, but “life goes on,” she said, shrugging.

A couple getting off the Gray Line tour bus had just flown in from Mexico City on Wednesday night, missing the stormy conditions. The wife shook her head about her husband’s enthusiasm for the storm. He was disappointed he’d missed the storm, and said he would have liked to have been downtown in the midst of it. “I was hoping we’d get here in time. I’m kind of a storm chaser.” The two were supposed to sing with a choir at Carnegie Hall that week, but their show was canceled because of the dangerous crane nearby.

One German man who had already seen the crane wasn’t as enthusiastic. “I think there are more interesting things to see in New York than the damage,” he said with a hint of disdain as he climbed aboard the bus.

For the downtown portion of his tour, Johnson, the guide, was getting inventive under the conditions. “I suspect about three-fourths of this tour is going to be showing people where some damage is and where Con Edison crews are working. I think that’s what people are interested in.” The bus started pulling out. “I’m going to do the best I can … but it’s gonna be a challenge.”

One stop probably will be in Chelsea, at 14th Street and 8th Avenue. As the sun began to set Thursday, a dozen people were gathered across the street from an apartment building whose front had been ripped away by the storm. Inside, a bed and other furniture could be seen in the four exposed rooms, like a dollhouse displaying its innards. Of those snapping pictures, almost all were locals who had paused to gawk at the strange sight. “It’s the new Highline,” a city worker on a bike joked. She had just been surveying the areas closest to the water, and said the damage wasn’t as bad as she’d expected.

“I suspect about three-fourths of this tour is going to be showing people where some damage is and where Con Edison crews are working.”

At the intersection of electricity and darkness, in a Chase bank on Third Avenue and 40th Street, groups of people formed circles around electrical outlets overburdened by cellphone and laptop chargers. Inside they served coffee and gave out lollipops, while outside, pedestrians paused to snap photos of the unusual campout. Jake Sherman, a film producer for DSW, had walked 35 minutes each way to the bank since his power went off in the East Village on Monday night. He was working his 9-to-5 job from the floor. He joked that this was the way the bank was getting the public to warm up to it after the financial crisis. Asked about the tourists gawking at the electrically impoverished locals, he wasn’t disgruntled. “I think they’re also coming in to charge their phones. They’re in the same boat,” he said.

For a few days this week, New Yorkers and tourists came together as witnesses to a disaster of historic proportions. In the aftermath, each side played gawker and gawkee as the city begins to repair itself: charging phones side by side at a makeshift station, regaling each other with “What did you do during Sandy?” stories, and squeezing next to each other in shared taxis. Soon enough New Yorkers will return to their daily routines and the tour buses will resume their normal routes. “People are just really trying to get work done, charge their phones, get on with their lives,” Sherman said.

At Newark International Airport, Malina Wiebe, a 23-year-old from Portland, Ore., was waiting to fly home, three days late, after her first visit to New York. She spent half of her visit stuck in Brooklyn, waiting out the storm. Apart from some downed trees, her area wasn’t badly affected, and in the end, she found it to be an adventure. “It brings you closer to the city to have this experience, and definitely made me connect with New York,” she says. She empathized with what the New Yorkers were going through, though her friends back on the West Coast didn’t seem to understand the storm’s severity, Wiebe said. She plans to come back as soon as she can.