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Why Queens Went Dark

Power (Outage) to the People

by MICKEY Z.

I slept on my fire escape one night last week but it wasn’t due to martial strife or a daredevil spirit. Rather, the sight of yours truly three flights up sporting boxer shorts and a death grip on the bars came courtesy of Con Edison (with a nod to Mayor Bloomberg).

The lights first dimmed on Monday, July 17-smack dab in the middle of a classic NYC heat wave. Over the next few days, as Con Ed dangerously underestimated the number of people affected, my neighborhood of Astoria joined Long Island City, Sunnyside, and Woodside in blackout mode. Veteran New Yorkers know the drill: flashlights, candles, food rotting in the fridge, neighbors sitting on the stoop swapping "where were you when the lights went out?" tales. But this was more than just supply and demand.

According to the New York Times, "the electrical network for the area of Queens where 100,000 people endured a lengthy blackout had the most failures of any of the 57 underground networks in New York City for the last two years." Those failures numbered 71 in 2005 and 60 in 2004. By comparison, Manhattan’s Upper East Side experienced 40 failures last year.

It isn’t hard to imagine Bloomberg reacting with a little more fervor if zip code 10021 lost its juice. Astoria, on the other hand, was left literally and figuratively in the dark. Theories abounded but no one really knew what was going on or when it would end. Fire engine sirens sounded all through the night, darkened traffic lights made every intersection an adventure, manhole covers popped like champagne corks, but most disturbing were the smoking and burning power lines. This I had never seen. The thick black cables strung from wooden pole to wooden pole smoldered, smoked, and burst into flames as frightened residents looked on. News outlets, lulled by Con Ed’s undercount, focused instead on those without power due to a storm in well-heeled Westchester.

The New York Times also explained that several failures in the network "involved components that were 30 to 60 years old … One cable, which failed six times last year, had a 67-year-old component." This got me thinking about Astoria’s sudden influx of yuppies. Starbuck’s, one-bedroom apartments going for $1500 a month, yoga classes, a community garden-my humble neighborhood is officially hip. So hip that my wife, Michele, wants me to get a t-shirt made up that reads: "Born in Astoria" so no one mistakes my shaved head as a feeble attempt at modish credentials. But, I digress.

Astoria’s gentrification has resulted in the tearing down of houses to be replaced by small apartment buildings. Thus, a slice of real estate that may have once housed an aging widow is now home for a dozen or so of the upwardly mobile…each with two air conditioners, two computers, two televisions, and a microwave oven. It doesn’t require genius to imagine this trend impact a 67-year-old component. But then again, no one has ever mistaken power companies or politicians for Chomsky or Einstein.

Power has, for the most part, been restored in Astoria and the surrounding burgs. Small businesses are desperately trying to recoup losses and, as they say, life is returning to "normal." But if normal means we continue trusting those in power to do the right thing, maybe we need a new normal. If it means overusing electricity (which is generated by the burning of fossil fuels), taking for granted that lights will go on when we hit a switch, or maintaining our awed trust in technology, I’d say "normal" may be the real problem. If the Queens blackout can help us discover a more enlightened perspective, Con Ed and Mayor Bloomberg just may have done us a favor.

MICKEY Z. is the author of several books, most recently 50 American Revolutions You’re Not Supposed to Know (Disinformation Books). He can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net.