Last night, ESPN The Magazine's Chris Jones wrote a column arguing that this past weekend's New York City Marathon should not have been canceled, despite the fallout from Hurricane Sandy.
There were three basic points: first, that the marathon would have been good for runners—and the world that was watching, Jones claimed in a Twitter exchange—in the same way that dragging petulant children to the Anne Frank Museum might shame them into social consciousness. This breaks down somewhat in that, instead of an educational museum about the horrors of the past, Jones is speaking of an ongoing tragedy whose victims almost uniformly insisted that the marathon be canceled.
Second: To further that educational goal, Jones, addressing himself to Mayor Bloomberg, tells the mayor that he ought to have changed the marathon's course such that it would have gone past the sites of the hurricane's worst damage, in Staten Island, in Breezy Point, through the Lower East Side, and past the exploding transformer on 14th Street in Manhattan. Excising the Bronx portion of the race and simply running from Staten Island to Breezy Point, then to the (rather arbitrarily chosen) exploding transformer and finishing in Central Park would make the normally 26.2-mile marathon 45 miles long, assuming they let the newly enlightened marathoners take the Belt Parkway.
Third: That hurricanes and marathons are analogous in that both "remind us how good we have it every minute we don't spend thinking about how fragile we are and everything we've built is," and thus, that the two logically go together. That point won't be addressed here beyond noting that those who were reminded by Hurricane Sandy how good they have it were likely reminded shortly thereafter how good others don't, no marathon necessary.
But Jones's geographically impossible neverland of joggable destructo-tourism offers an opportunity to look at where the race really would have gone. For a writer who loves to preach the importance of reporting, he makes assumptions about the distribution of the destruction that betray an ignorance about the actual contours of the damage on the ground. Though the areas he mentions are certainly in terrible shape, the normal course would have brought the marathoners in contact with plenty of hurt. Here's what they'd have been running through and away from on Sunday:
The marathon course starts in Staten Island, the Ninth Ward of Hurricane Sandy. Pace Jones, you wouldn't have had to alter the course much at all to get the marathoners close to "that Staten Island marsh where those two poor lost boys were found in their wet clothes": The starting line is Fort Wadsworth, one and a half miles from where Connor Moore, 4, and Brandon Moore, 2 were found drowned after a storm surge on Monday evening swept the children out of their mother's arms as the family attempted to flee to Brooklyn. Staten Island, with 19 fatalities so far, accounted for nearly half of New York City's death toll. On Friday, reporters in the borough wrote, "Garbage is piling up, a stench hangs in the air and mud-caked mattresses and couches line the streets." Animal New York's Bucky Turco braved Staten Island that night; a resident told him, "It's like the end of the world out here," and the site's pictures back it up. New York Roadrunners, the organization responsible for the NYC Marathon, had "been in touch" with the owner of a Staten Island hotel—at that point housing pro bono those who were flooded, without power, or both—about "possibly kicking some people out so the marathon runners [could] come and stay" at the hotel. (The owner, Richard Nicotra of the Hilton Garden Inn, refused.) Fort Wadsworth itself wasn't spared: The Coast Guard station there was completely underwater on Monday.
Leaving the island, marathoners would have passed over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (closed to all but emergency personnel until late Friday, which made volunteer efforts even more difficult) for the first leg of their race. Apart from traveling over water, the bridge is Staten Island's only route to any other borough in New York. The Verrazano would have been "effectively shut down" if the race had gone forward.
The Verrazano would have delivered runners to Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, the site of a National Guard base that was inconveniently missing some of its guardsmen this week, stranded elsewhere in the city while public transportation was shut down.
The course then veers left into Bay Ridge, where runners would have spent the next five-and-a-half miles jogging through the center of the New York City gas crisis. On Wednesday, a Gulf station in Bay Ridge ran out of gas eight times faster than usual; on Thursday, a gas line in Sunset Park stretched for 22 blocks. Another tipster told Gothamist on Thursday that a line in Sunset Park was "10 blocks long in two lanes of Fourth Avenue, with road flares and cops galore.Brooklyn is out of gas." (Emphasis in original.) On Saturday, a cop working a fuel line in Crown Heights, east of the path, admitted he and his colleagues had "lost control" of the waiting crowd, and that those with refilled cans were selling them to the back of the line for up to $200.
This stretch would have taken runners through Park Slope, where the funeral was held for Jacob Vogelman and Jessie Streich-Kest, both 24. They died during the storm after being hit by a falling tree.
Next, a sharp right through Fort Greene, a left to cut through Williamsburg, and an exit from Brooklyn through Greenpoint and over the Pulaski Bridge. Here again, runners need not have strayed from the normal route to consider Sandy's wrath; they would have been running through the area where many Fort Greene homeless feared for their lives as Sandy bore down, near where they were packed into makeshift, already overcrowded shelters. Peggy Ndubisi, a 51-year old homeless woman, rode out the storm under a public bathroom awning in Fort Greene Park and on Wednesday "could barely walk." Like the rest of Brooklyn, Greenpoint has been the site of long waits for gas—there, fights broke out along the lines. Pictures of Greenpoint from Monday night show cars floating down streets like unmanned boats, and a stretch of studios at 99 Commercial street in Greenpoint (described here as an "integral part" of the New York art world) was flooded, ruining years of work. That studio is two minutes west (walking) of the Pulaski Bridge.
Off the Pulaski, into Long Island City and Hunter's Point, a brief stopover in Queens, a borough that features, as Jones mentions, the surreal destruction of Breezy Point, a tour of which on Saturday caused a public official to marvel, "It's like civilization has come undone." Western Queens, on the marathon route, wasn't spared: Long Island City, Astoria, and Hunts Point all flooded in places; much of Long Island City was in Zone A and therefore evacuated; parts of Astoria were left without power; and LaGuardia airport was literally full of water. Some residents of Long Island City said their flooded cars had been burglarized, and on Saturday, lines for gas in Astoria looked like this.
Marathoners would have left Queens over the
Queensboro Bridge, above Roosevelt Island, landing on East 59th street in Manhattan. Roosevelt Island, alone in the middle of the East River, was cut off from Manhattan during the storm; a mother stuck there couldn't contact those caring for her three-week old daughter, who at that time was being evacuated from an NYU hospital's neonatal intensive care unit due to power failure. The marathoners' arrival in Manhattan would have been the beginning of a stretch of just over three miles of relatively unaffected territory. Relatively. Falling trees crushed cars in Upper Manhattan, lives were disrupted by transit service changes, and windows were blown in by howling gales. There were jokes about a brewing Manhattan civil war between the island's upper and lower halves, but the strain felt in powerless Lower Manhattan was real.
After jogging up Manhattan's east side, a brief U-turn in Mott Haven in the South Bronx. Runners would have taken a sharp left (then another sharp left) a half mile before encountering P.S. 5, on Jackson Avenue, where an emergency shelter was home for about 30 people during the storm, including a couple with a small child. Sandy left 50,000 in the Bronx without power, and as a Deadspin writer here and there can attest, some remain without electricity well after the storm's exit (and well after when the marathon would have come and gone). There have been three-hour gas lines in the Bronx as well—sometimes with no gas at the front.
Then the runners would have jogged back down on Manhattan's east side, wrapping up in a Central Park that on Saturday was still closed in places to all but cleanup workers.
So the marathon was scrubbed, even at the cost of a moral parable for sportswriters. On Sunday morning, more than 10,000 New Yorkers woke up in Red Cross shelters and now, on Tuesday, the city's Board of Elections is scrambling—and not necessarily succeeding—to ensure that New York still gets to participate in democracy like the rest of the country.
If Hurricane Sandy feels, as Jones wrote last night, "like old news," that's because you are not paying attention, and if you are not paying attention, the lack of a marathon is probably not to blame. Jones makes a mistake of perspective: Right now, nobody cares about what recreational runners have or haven't learned, or how they're feeling, or whether they or the public in general is "forgetful and whiny and mean." Mostly, people right now care whether residents of disaster areas are warm and fed and alive. With a few exceptions, the runners themselves did not make the same mistake.
Top image by Jim Cooke. Source photos via Getty and Shutterstock. Map via.