When “White Christmas” was written in 1942, Irving Berlin had good reason to yearn for the snows “just like the ones [he] used to know.” Measurements of the white stuff in Manhattan had been slumping since the late 1800s, with the 15-year rolling median of 35.5 inches from 1884 falling to a mere 15.6 inches by the year of the song’s release, and then plunging further, to only 13.4 inches in 1998-99. What has followed is nothing short of a holiday miracle: in the subsequent eighteen years, snowfall has increased in an unprecedented fashion across much of the Northeastern seaboard, with the rolling median at Central Park now reaching 40 inches. With New York City’s median recent snowfalls tripling in a matter of two decades and surpassing totals at the end of the Little Ice Age at the same time that temperatures have continued to warm, it is time for the city’s inhabitants to ask why exactly this is happening, and consider the practical implications that a rapidly-shifting climate will have on real estate.
The statistics get even weirder when considering that mounting snowfall totals come in spite of temperatures that continue to increase in general. The City now regularly contends for its hottest-month-on-record, and while strikingly negative anomalies like February of 2015 still occur, the overall trend is warmer. While this adheres to most climactic predictions, the discord between snowfall and temperatures show that general vague statements about what is coming next fail to describe the more dramatic changes actually occurring on the ground, which are seemingly impossible to predict based on current modeling.
New York City’s NIMBY populations generally fashion themselves among the more liberal members of society at large. However, the politics of preservation are about to run into headwinds that are rapidly worsening, and now, concrete measurements of indisputable changes in local climatology are making it obvious that the 35% increase in atmospheric Carbon Dioxide since the writing of “White Christmas” is increasingly impacting the lives of the Five Boroughs’ inhabitants. If that were not enough, national losses from disasters influenced by climate change or otherwise surpassing $400 billion in 2017, or approximately four percent of the United States’ gross domestic product, with Harvey’s total alone falling just short of $200 billion. It is increasingly clear, now more than ever, that New Yorkers must choose between saving the crumbling past, or preparing for a difficult but potentially salvageable future.
On the surface, the efforts of Jane Jacobs had enduring positive impacts. But climate change will ultimately prove these to have been futile, and it is time for the denizens of the West Village and elsewhere to practice what they preach when it comes to recognizing the impending effects of weather weirding. Worsening impacts have already resulted in an instance where landmark after landmark was inundated by saltwater. What comes next means that a repeal of preservationists’ spider webs of red tape is unavoidable, by politics or by nature, within the next century.
Current estimates project approximately five to six feet of sea level rise by 2100, and a worst-case of over eight feet. With that number yawning to upwards of 20 feet by 2200, it is difficult to conceive of practical impacts worsening within the short-term. But Millennials and Gen X’ers are likely to be subject to noticeable shifts in actual shorelines as the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica continue to collapse. And with events like Sandy already being outranked by catastrophes like Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, the wealthiest Baby Boomers who make it into the 2040s are likely to see their oceanfront property begin to wash away entirely.
Vague dates in the future have been a problem in the debate surrounding climate change, and in 2011, critics pointed to the research of Dr. James Hansen as hyperbole. But one year later, when Breezy Point burned to the ground and the West Side Highway was indeed underwater, the prediction did not seem so laughable.
Ignorance of impending change is a breeding ground for chaos, and in this regard, it seems the local leaders of the Five Boroughs are lodging their heads further in the sand instead of recognizing that those younger than themselves are going to inherit a collection of islands that are sinking both physically and financially. And with weather-weirding already resulting in an actual climate that is increasingly foreign to what it was only twenty years ago, the potential and reality of Black Swan events like Hurricane Sandy have illuminated a system that will fail, and probably soon.
Instead of recognizing the changes that have already occurred and the worsening circumstances in the city’s near-future, efforts have focused on half-baked ideas for hunkering down. For multiple reasons, this tact is not the answer, and will only harm the ability of the Five Boroughs to adequately address oncoming urban distress in full.
The most obvious example is the impending L Train shutdown. Even worse, in the months since that was announced, the general system-wide service across most every line of the MTA has, by all accounts, deteriorated substantially. Even more egregious was a proposal by think-tank elites suggesting the end of 24-hour service. An expose released by the New York Times yesterday further highlights how outrageously offensive the conduct of the MTA and Governor Cuomo have become to the everyday lives of New Yorkers.
The reality on the ground is that the entire subway system is basically falling apart. Sandy’s mark will extend upwards of a decade past its original landfall. And it should seem obvious that temporary shutdowns will do little to mitigate the potential of future events which could inundate even larger percentages of the underground subway system.
As if the deteriorating situation regarding public transit were not bad enough, conversations to build a wall have gone nowhere.
This is where the politics of preservation begin to look particularly foolish. While increasing snowfall totals aren’t inherently dangerous to the blocks of the West Village at their current levels, rapidly rising oceans most certainly are a threat. But building a wall with public dollars around neighborhoods that are mostly composed of privately owned mansions and multi-million-dollar condominiums will create additional problems of inequality, where tax dollars from the city’s most vulnerable are used to subsidize the protection of its wealthiest denizens.
The reality of the upcoming century is that there will have to be massive infrastructure spending to protect the densest coastal real estate from inundations of increasing depth and frequency. The other side of that coin is that much of the urbanized land that will demand protection within Manhattan is currently under-built relative to existing transit infrastructure. Equally important, much of it is occupied by wealthy NIMBYs who scream about preservation and preach about climate change, while failing to realize that in low-lying historic areas, climate change will ultimately cause all efforts to preserve the built environment to be futile, without access to public infrastructure dollars.
Consequently, 2018 is the year New Yorkers must ask themselves whether they want to personally subsidize the wealthy NIMBY fetish for the past through their own tax dollars. Or, we can create a plan for moving forward that addresses the inevitable, and neighborhoods like the West Village can finally take their share of the burden of change affecting all inhabitants of the Five Boroughs.
If public dollars are to be spent on saving the coastline and real estate within whatever sea walls are eventually built, it is morally unacceptable to leave the West Village and similarly well-off bastions of NIMBYism in-stasis when neighborhoods like Coney Island are likely to be left to the waves.
Repositioning the most historically valuable buildings on higher ground is one course of action, and preserving facades is another. But, ultimately, most or all of these neighborhoods will have to be razed. If they are to be protected by publicly-funded seawalls, the blocks of the West Village must be partially or entirely redeveloped with housing that actually matches the potential of existing infrastructure.
While the West Village is the worst example of NIMBYism colliding with climate change, areas like the Lower East Side, Tribeca, and SoHo will also have to be re-thought, if continued human habitation is a goal.
The alternative is a crumbling city where more and more money is spent on maintaining a series of tunnels and empty historic buildings that do nothing to help the vast majority of New Yorkers. Even though sea walls may ultimately be futile in the upcoming centuries, the time bought by wise investments in public infrastructure, both under the city and around it, could be sufficient to allow retrenchment. But this will not be possible with the current urban configuration of many coastal neighborhoods.
A fetish for the past is only partially to blame for the current predicament facing the Five Boroughs. But 2,000 years of evidence shows, ironically, that the only way to preserve non-monumental urban architecture is through natural calamities at the cost of human populations. In fact, the only substantive relics of Rome’s urban legacy are Pompeii and Herculaneum, where inhabitants and structures alike were encased in pyroclastic floes. Saltwater isn’t nearly as structurally forgiving, and in any case, the survival of buildings in both towns came at the cost of their entire citizenry.
Rising snowfall totals are but one unexpected consequence of the changing climate. However, they are concrete evidence that change is indeed occurring. Combined with mounting losses across the rest of the United States, it should be obvious to New Yorkers that the Five Boroughs will be no exception in an environment beset by Harveys, Katrinas, Marias, and Sandys. And if anything has been proven by the storms that have already occurred, it is that an unwillingness to acknowledge worsening change is the cornerstone to failure.