August 14, 2003
Notes from Robert Ivy, AIA, Editor-in-chief
The lights went out in a blink, a fritz,
a drone-down, and there we sat, powerless. Unlike the traumatic
explosions that had erupted and hastened our escape two years
earlier, August 14's shut-down resembled more whimper than
It still raised immediate doubts. What
had been the source of the power failure? A corrupt
computer virus, one of us proposed, or a fire at the 14th
Street station. Someone reported smoke downtown. All
we could tell was that all power, save battery, had vanished,
leaving us sitting nine floors above Pennsylvania Station
in the half-dark, stuck by the radio.
Better up than outside, where, over several
hours, tens of thousands of stranded New Yorkers paced, waiting
for their trains, looking at their watches, filling Seventh
Avenue until it choked down to a trickle. Most people
sat, hunkered in the 90 degree heat. We were better
off waiting it out where we sat, enjoying the remnants of
conditioned air, which slowly waned and soured like ripe cheese
as time passed.
By eight pm, our crew had dwindled to
a dozen or soNew Jersey or Long Island moms and dads,
Greenwich execs, and mewith night drawing on. All
of the Architectural Record staff had headed home or out into
the city, to live out the night. The memories of after-dark
rampages from earlier times meant finding shelter for us all,
since the radio promised hours more of darkness, perhaps as
late as dawn.
The land-lines worked (though cellphones
did not), allowing my wife Holly and I to keep up through
the unfolding afternoon and evening. She determined
early on to remain at work. So after scavenging for
food and pillows, she and three fellow workers spent the night
above lower Fifth Avenue, safely out of harm's way, until
her own trek across the bridge on Friday. Thank goodness
she had worn sandals.
I scavenged through our post-9/11 emergency
pack, an oft-ridiculed orange bag of tricks issued by security.
Throwing over my shoulder the tissue-thin foil blanket pack
(it was hot), the paper face mask (I had no intentions of
cleaning the attic), and abandoning the police whistle (better
for calling the dog), I grabbed at the flashlight. Thank
God for something practical in that pack!
So I struck out finally for my own home,
after offering spare beds and sofas in my apartment, just
as the remainder of the staff heard the announcement to vacate
2 Penn Plaza. Then came the angst: down the exit
stairs lay security, but also the unknowable. Once the
doors closed, there was no way back. Who knew what we
might find as the hours clicked ahead?
Outside, Penn Plaza had turned into a
teeming sea, roiling like Cairo, but after four hours, most
had found a perch, covering every step or ramp, chatting with
neighbors or strangers. Wading through, I made the break
and headed toward Broadway and Brooklyn. Random snatches
along the way: smiles and ice cream dispensed for free
at the St. Francis mission around the corner, the odor of
pizza from gas-fired ovens along the way, and entrepreneurs
hawking bottled water and soft drinks, outdoor tables overflowing
with beer and cheers at the bars. The afternoon seemed more
"school's out" than tragedy.
Then I saw her. At Sixth Avenue,
sitting propped up against a storefront like a long-lost alcoholic,
her feet out and heels splayed like a rag-doll, a well-dressed
matron, a shopper at Macy's perhaps, someone's grandmother,
slumped and pondering what to do. Perspiration already clouded
her coppery hair in a corona. She frowned, facing the
setting sun. Where would she sleep that night? Was she
safe out on the evening streets? A moment straight out
of the Isaac Bashevis Singer short story.
Down Broadway, the downtown momentum
increased, away from Manhattan and toward home, the pace quickened
by the double-time phalanx of police cadets headed toward
police headquarters at an orderly clip. It would be
a big night for the patrols. An undercover cop waved us through
the backed up traffic and onto the bridge. Wheras two
years ago we had scrambled on our own, through the honking
cars and over the handrails up onto the pedestrian walkway,
this time the city had opened the inbound automobile lane
to the tens of thousands of us bound for home.
Once on the bridge, the mood lifted further.
A mom waved at her younger kids, running along the footbridge
above. No apocolyptic cloud accompanied our escape.
Instead, the lavender twilight intensified as we trooped
across the bridge, shrouding the familiar stone towers in
gathering dark. All the moment lacked was a riff by
jazzman John Coltrane as a coda.
Instead of Coltrane, we got the politician.
"Welcome to Brooklyn, the greatest borough!" wailed
councilman Marty Markowitz into the megaphone. I leaped
the fence right past him and bolted down the stairs, where
I found the borough plunged into deep darkness. Ahead,
the restaurant Noodle Pudding, its doors opened wide, glowed
with what seemed a thousand candles; otherwise, my trusty
flashlight cut a path toward home.
That night, to escape the heat, I slept
outside, like earlier New Yorkers, out on our deck, beneath
constellations hanging over the city. On my back, I
witnessed the full arc of a shooting star, which looped over
the St. George hotel. Then the full moon rose, washing
me in moonshine, and rendering me visible and vulnerable to
the neighboring apartments. Suddenly, the adventure
waned, and I tumbled inside, warmer but removed from view.
Daylight brought information. While the
scope of this calamity stretched across states and cities
leaving millions stranded (what happened to that lady on the
street?), few apparently had raged or lost control. The
city's polity had held. The next morning, convinced
that we had learned something through earlier adversity, I
drank my coffee, wondering at the fragility of the virtual
modern life. What we had lost, after all, was something that
no one had ever seen.
Read Robert Ivy's first escape
from New York.