In Washington Square Park, light writers make the most of the dark / Photo: Alex Fortney

On the eve of Halloween, I ventured across the East River to cycle through the eerily dark and silent streets of lower Manhattan. With Sandy’s storm surge freshly receded and my sister a refugee on my futon in Bed Stuy, we hopped on bikes and rode into the Financial District to gather clothes and valuables from her apartment one block from the South Street Seaport.

This week, the internet has been abuzz with articles on the relief efforts, the role of climate and ecology in the storm’s severity, and the stark illustration of how a NYC that commutes by car is a NYC in constant gridlock.

While I’ve been very conscious of all of that, what I noticed most on the ground was how social behavior has adapted to this nearly disparate nighttime landscape of the city below 34th Street.  There are no traffic lights, no street lights; there just aren’t any lights at all. For the most part, streets signs and traffic control devices are simply meaningless or invisible. Save for the few with traffic cops, intersections play host to a bizarre dance between cross and opposing traffic. Intuition prevails: minor streets stop for major streets; cars stop for bikes; everyone is stopping for pedestrians. The natural order of transport, untamed.

With no moon and with the light pollution uptown blocked out by the midrises and highrises inbetween, electric light has become an important part of human interaction. Stirring in the shadows of one’s peripheral vision is at once routine and unsettling. We quickly fell in step with the apparent norm when approaching others: each party shines a light at the other, makes an immediate judgement that the strangers are twilight wanders like themselves, and passes by, cordially cautious. It all feels rehearsed and official, as if we all did it in elementary school libraries right after practicing stop-drop-and-roll.

After crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, the incredible darkness was all consuming. Then suddenly, the awe and anxiety terminated by the tower of City Hall, lit like the surface of a star, as though we were astronauts reaching the point of orbit where the sun suddenly bursts forth from Earth’s horizon. Our ride up Broadway was quiet. It is only when we reached the rear entrance to my sister’s building that we began our interactions, talking with the staff loading a truck with the piles of garbage bags filled with 32 floors’ worth of rotting refrigerator contents, and squeezing past other tenants in the fire stairs, meagerly lit by a single glow stick. Out of necessity or fear, everyone simply deferred to trust, assuming others had legitimate reasons to be there, and that no one was up to mischief or criminality.

The NYSE building, presumably lit by generator / Photo: David Nelson

The Financial District was the darkest of all, perhaps reflecting it mostly daytime population. The reds and blues of cop cars and the Stock Exchange’s up-lit columns cut through the darkness. Those columns had attracted a few handfuls of twenty-somethings and I wondered if they had anything to do with Occupy.

Once I had my sister were safely back in Brooklyn, my girlfriend and I rode back into the city, this time to venture uptown. Chinatown, Little Italy, and NoHo were perhaps where the de facto traffic pattern was most pronounced, when crossing the big streets of Canal, Delancey, and Houston.

We were now taking the familiar route of my afternoon commute. In the hard-hit East Village, we passed by a few resilient restaurants and bars operating by candlelight. Glow sticks and LEDs were accessories with purpose here, a part of individuals’ advertised identities. My favorite example was a flamboyant individual who wore a large medallion blinking with orange, green and purple lights. On Saint Mark’s Place between 1st and Avenue A, we found ourselves in the midst of a crowd. As soon as we were about twenty feet away, someone off in the shadows pressed play. We were comically startled. A dozen people started dancing to the harmonies of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrel.  There vehemence of the lyrics seemed particularly apropos, given the situation: “Ain’t no river wide enough,” the radio blared.  We headed towards the Williamsburg Bridge. It was nearly 2am; time to go home.

Reflecting on the sights and sounds of the evening on the chilly climb up the bridge, I was struck by adaptability and endurance of the urban experience. People were defining new norms for social interaction, on the fly. Behavior toward key aspects of city life–individuality, mobility–were adapting to extreme conditions. And, as it turns out, even in the dark, people are still fundamentally attracted to people.

How Downtown Adapts to the Darkness was last modified: November 2nd, 2012 by David M Nelson