Hieronymus Bosch painted a torture chamber where mutant beasts snacked on human flesh. Dante conjured fire, ice and a devil with three faces. If either man lived in New York City today, he’d know better. Hell is the subway at rush hour.
Or Penn Station almost anytime. If you’re really cursed, the subway disgorges you there, into a constipated labyrinth where all beauty, civility and dreams of punctuality go to die. It’s the designated site of the “summer of hell,” to begin on July 10, when several tracks shut down for repair and New Jersey Transit and Amtrak won’t be able to live up to their current standard of wretchedness. I can’t for the life of me imagine what worse looks like. Will conductors line us up behind the cabooses and have us push our trains to their destinations?
I’m losing faith in New York. I’m losing patience. Last week we got an especially vivid reminder of what an overwhelmed, creaky menace the city’s infrastructure has become: Two cars on an A train in upper Manhattan derailed, injuring about three dozen people.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo subsequently declared a state of emergency for the subway system, pledged $1 billion for improvements and demanded a detailed action plan. I have just one question. What took him so long? Actually, I have another. How much of his sudden zest reflects a possible presidential bid and the need to pretty up an ugly blot on his record?
Never miss a local story.
But it’s not just the subway. On so many days in so many ways, I see evidence of a city in the grip of a communal panic attack.
True story: Some weeks ago, I emerged, downtrodden, from my latest debasement on the subway to encounter a traffic jam near the street where I live. Pointlessly and obnoxiously, a driver in one car honked and honked at the cars ahead. This prompted a passing pedestrian to screech at him to stop. Then someone else began to scream at her for adding to the din. And you wonder why more people are wearing bulky headphones over their ears.
Yeah, yeah, I know: No one’s making us live here. And New York isn’t America. It’s a one-off.
But is that really so? Right now the Big Muddle – I’m sorry, Apple – strikes me as a proxy for the country and a cautionary tale.
It’s certainly where our refusal to confront an aging, inadequate infrastructure has come to such a debilitating head. I know that Cuomo is finally upgrading La Guardia Airport, but that won’t change how torturous it is to travel from Kennedy Airport into Manhattan, an odyssey that can take longer than the flight itself.
I know that the Second Avenue subway extension just opened, but it’s doing little to relieve congestion in other parts of the system. Sometime soon the L train between Brooklyn and Manhattan will go dark for 15 months for repairs. That’s going to be … interesting.
And take a gander at the skylines of downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City. They rise and rise, creating more homes for more people whom the subway can hardly accommodate. Not all of these newcomers are going to ride Citi Bikes to work.
Popularity-wise, American cities are thriving. Millennials want to live in them. So do many retirees. But New York raises the question of how prepared these ever-denser hubs are. It’s dirtier than it should be. Smellier, too, especially in July and August. Its schools struggle. Even its jails are broken, as the plan to close Rikers Island affirms.
Many of us New Yorkers feared that one of our biggest headaches this year would be frequent, disruptive visits from President Donald Trump, but he has chosen to go elsewhere on weekends. Maybe that should tell us something.
Less affluent New Yorkers can’t find housing and are being shoved ever farther from the heart of the city. More affluent New Yorkers find ourselves hemorrhaging money on goods and services with laughably inflated prices.
Someone recently recommended that I try a new restaurant with a menu inspired by the cooking of the chef’s grandmother in Italy. Oh, good, I thought. A homey, accessible place.
Then I looked at the menu online. Just two of the appetizers were under $20. Most of the entrees were well north of $30. This is what Manhattan, circa 2017, does to an aproned matriarch from the old country. It turns her into a $36 fillet of black cod with a hazelnut salsa verde.
It’s not the restaurant’s fault. Manhattan rents are sadistic, and many talented chefs have fled for other cities where they can afford to test their ideas and strut their stuff.
As with restaurants, shops: A recent article in The Times by Steven Kurutz described how the glossy clothing retailers that displaced humbler shops on Bleecker Street in the West Village were subsequently priced out of the market themselves. Bleecker is now “a luxury blightscape” of shuttered storefronts, Kurutz wrote.
So New York is too high-end for even the high end? Talk about the end of days.
As the subways lurch, belch, teeter and break down, the number of black Escalades with tinted windows seems to multiply. They’re symbols of just how refined the microclimates of privilege have become in a country with gross inequalities of wealth.
New York embodies that and more, including a pass-the-buck, kick-the-can approach to governance that mirrors our national dysfunction. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Cuomo feud nastily about who’s responsible for the transportation nightmare. Cuomo seizes credit and deflects blame in accordance with his vanity and ambitions.
In truth the blame lies with a long line of politicians, who tend to want instant results that they can crow about and to avoid painful investments – infrastructure, for example – that won’t bear fruit before the re-election campaign.
They should have modernized the subway’s signal system years ago. They should have granted Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor, his wish for congestion pricing in Manhattan’s center – it would have helped with traffic flow. They should institute such a program now, along with more cameras to nab drivers who stray into, and clog, bus lanes. Smoother bus service could take some stress off the subway.
And what stress there is. The summer of hell follows a spring of hell and won’t forestall an autumn of hell, because Penn Station is infernal apart from repairs, and whatever subway-improvement scheme gets put into motion now won’t usher us into paradise anytime soon.
Our leaders, along with the rest of us, have been hemming, hawing, coasting and quarreling, and here we are, immobile and enraged. I mean New York. I also mean America.