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Eye on the News

Matthew Hennessey
The Unplowable City
New York’s rookie mayor gets a tough lesson in the politics of snow removal.
24 January 2014
Photo by HorsePunchKid

They say that being mayor of New York City is the second-hardest job in America, but it may not even be the hardest job in New York City (that “honor” possibly belongs to the manager of the Yankees). Except, that is, when it snows. Then being mayor is not only the hardest job in America; it’s also the worst.

Big Apple mayor Bill de Blasio, in office just three weeks, learned the lesson the hard way during this week’s snowstorm. Forecasters gave ample warning that the large storm—presciently named Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions—was bearing down on the Northeast and would bring up to a foot of snow, 30-mile-per-hour winds, and single-digit temperatures. In line with predictions, snow started falling in the city early Tuesday morning. It snarled the evening commute across the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, stopping only in the wee hours on Wednesday.

When residents of Manhattan’s Upper East Side awoke on Wednesday morning, they noticed that something wasn’t right. The streets of the city’s wealthiest neighborhood appeared not to have been plowed. New York City Councilman Dan Garodnick, whose district includes parts of the Upper East Side, began tweeting photos of unplowed streets and intersections: a FedEx truck stuck on Madison Avenue; an accident on 77th Street; pedestrians high-stepping through slush and snow banks on Park Avenue. Garodnick’s angry constituents alleged that Mayor de Blasio, the crusading class warrior, had deliberately redirected plows elsewhere in retaliation for the neighborhood’s support of Republican Joe Lhota, de Blasio’s opponent in November’s election. They noted that the downtown streets of de Blasio’s home borough of Brooklyn seemed well tended by the Department of Sanitation, the city agency responsible for snow removal. “He is trying to get us back,” one Upper East Sider told the New York Post. “We need Mayor Bloomberg back!” said another.

But the departed Bloomberg is surely relieved to have passed on responsibility for plowing 6,000 miles of city streets. When a blizzard dumped four feet of snow on the city the day after Christmas, 2010, Bloomberg was lambasted for failing to declare an emergency and encouraging New Yorkers instead to go out and see a Broadway show. Bloomberg’s critics claimed the billionaire mayor gave the streets of Manhattan special treatment while ignoring the lowly outer boroughs. Indignant bloggers posted photos of immaculately plowed East 79th Street—where Bloomberg lived just steps from Central Park in a five-story townhouse—alongside pictures of snow-choked streets in the far corners of Brooklyn’s working-class Sheepshead Bay.

Three days after the 2010 storm, some neighborhoods in Queens and Staten Island still hadn’t been plowed, leading some to draw a parallel with the granddaddy of all New York snowfus—Mayor John Lindsay’s inept and penny-pinching response to the 1969 storm that killed 42 and buried the popular Republican’s national political ambitions. Bloomberg dug himself out of his snow hole with an apology, but not before the emergence of a potential scandal: some alleged that the sluggish pace of snow clearance in the outer-borough neighborhoods was part of an orchestrated slowdown by sanitation workers looking to embarrass the mayor and send him a message about budget cuts.

In part to insulate the mayor from criticism during future storms, the Bloomberg administration outfitted the city’s plows and salt spreaders with GPS tracking devices. In 2012, the Department of Sanitation debuted PlowNYC, an online mapping tool meant to help residents track which blocks have been plowed and when. But a Queens Chronicle analysis of a storm earlier this year revealed glitches with the site. Some streets were marked as plowed but, according to residents, hadn’t been.

During this week’s storm, the PlowNYC map appeared to support residents’ claims that the Upper East Side had not been plowed well into Tuesday evening. At a press conference, city sanitation commissioner John Doherty denied it, lamely telling reporters, “One of the problems was that the salt spreader in that area, the GPS system was not working.” De Blasio also pushed back against the allegation that he was retaliating against the Upper East Side—“I think people need to be mindful when they hurl those charges”—but quickly changed his tune after visiting the neighborhood and speaking with residents. “I determined more could have been done to serve the Upper East Side,” he said. Almost immediately afterward, plows started rolling through the neighborhood. Councilman Garodnick didn’t miss a beat, tweeting a photo of what he called an “armada of @nycsanitation plows heading up Madison Avenue.”

New York City is a densely populated, heavily trafficked, 320-square-mile metropolis. The municipal authorities simply cannot plow every street in the five boroughs all at once. As Bloomberg said in 2010, “Will somebody find a street I missed? Maybe. Will somebody find a street where people shovel their car out and then say we didn’t plow it? That always happens.” True enough, but New Yorkers won’t cut public officials any slack if they think politics are trumping public safety. Bill de Blasio seems to understand how dangerous a snowstorm can be for a mayor in New York City. A few more weeks of winter and he may wish he was manager of the Yankees instead.

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