Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
A snowman in Hell’s Kitchen is a litmus test for post-storm friendliness.
A group of neighbors gathered on 9th Avenue and 50th Street in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood bravely staved off the inevitable Saturday night, protecting a particularly squat and strangely-hatted snowman from the flat, broad blade of an incoming plow.
Gothamist says that a Department of Sanitation worker was moved by the sudden surge of neighborly spirit. (Also, it could be that s/he wisely avoided careening into a crowd of rowdy and irrational New Yorkers who valued their brief minutes’ work packing snow over the recovery of the city’s transportation system.)
But in the post-Jonas glow, it seems as if the first option—a kindly sanitation worker bestowing a little more life upon the doomed—is more likely, doesn’t it? Isn’t everyone just nicer during and after a storm?
There is actually scientific research to support this theory. A 1998 study looks at the short- and long-term effects of a major ice storm in the northeastern New York community of Potsdam. The storm completely totaled the area’s electrical grid and left many homes without power for two weeks in the dead of winter. The sociologist Stephen Sweet compared a survey on community perceptions administered three years prior to the storm to one administered just one month after it. After the storm, Potsdam residents saw their town as a more caring, friendlier, and more interesting place. But perceptions of Potsdam quickly returned to normal.
“When structure changes out of its normal form, behaviors shift and new types of social relations quickly emerge,” Sweet writes. (Think: snowmen in Hell’s Kitchen; plows kindly swerving to avoid them.) “However, once structure returns to its customary form, perception of social relations shift back in accordance with the familiar,” the sociologist concludes. (Read: as the snow melts, New Yorkers will return to being buttheads.)
Other research suggests that the degree of post-storm kindness is entirely dependent on the preexisting cohesion of the urban community. In 2013, the sociologist Eric Klinenberg took a close look at a deadly 1995 Chicago heatwave, which killed 739 people. Sadly and unsurprisingly, the neighborhoods that lost the most people were black and poor. But they were also markedly less socially cohered. The Englewood area, where the most people died, was one that had lost 50 percent of its population between 1960 and 1990.
Auburn Gresham, a neighborhood that lost far fewer residents, had experienced almost no population loss during that time period. “The residents walked to diners and grocery stores,” Kinenberg wrote of this community in The New Yorker. He continued:
“They knew their neighbors. They participated in block clubs and church groups. ...[D]uring the severe heat waves that are likely to hit Chicago and other cities in the near future, living in a neighborhood like Auburn Gresham is the rough equivalent of having a working air-conditioner in each room.”
In other words: Disaster preparedness helps, but whether a city can ride out a crisis also depends on interpersonal relationships. "Social cohesion is a critical component of building resilience," Judith Rodin, the head of the Rockefeller Foundation and former president of the University of Pennsylvania, told The Atlantic last year. "You can look at communities that are literally adjacent and see a difference. Resilience is about building these capacities before the storm, before the shocks, before the stresses."
Following the lead of the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, it is popular to bemoan the “new” American phenomenon of “bowling alone”—of taking too little time to meet and greet and even love thy neighbor. But there is great potential in storms like Jonas: opportunities to get to know, strengthen bonds with, and step to the aid of the the people next door. These tempests are the canaries in the coal mine of community resilience. Hell’s Kitchen built a snowman, and then it saved it, and that’s one way we know that Hell’s Kitchen is doing okay.
But the fuzzy snowstorm feeling can only last so long. The snowman lived another day, but a Reddit commenter said it was gone by the morrow.