“Everyone’s talking about the weather,” runs a loose translation of an old German political poster, “except us.” The slogan was used to parody a period railroad ad that trumpeted the Deutsche Bahn’s storm-resistant resilience, but it also attempted a deeper point: that meaningful politics is serious business, above the fray of such trivial, provincial preoccupations as the latest shower, hail, or frost.
In a recent essay at 3 Quarks Daily, Alyssa Pelish takes the other side of the argument. At first, she wonders whether talking about the three-day forecast might really be a sort of code obscuring some underlying purpose — functioning as a form of empathy, for example. Ultimately, she sees an even greater significance in sharing news about the weather: it provides one of the few “universally shared narratives” available to everyone.
It’s true that everyone experiences weather, full stop. But the way we do seems like it might be more effective at fostering individual communities rather than any single, universal one. Think, for example, of a snowstorm, when the collective, Herculean task of removing tons and tons of heavy, disruptive white stuff requires a city’s residents to work together — and, together, to interact with their government — at the most intimate, personal level.
In December, New Yorkers — recently on the verge of being torn apart by such minutia as the color of a bike lane — put on a rare show of unity when Michael Bloomberg’s administration appeared to fumble the response to a major blizzard. The mayor’s failure to declare a snow emergency left subway riders stranded on trains stuck in the snowdrifts, mountains of trash piled up on the sidewalks, entire outer borough neighborhoods unplowed, and, allegedly, caused the deaths of several people who were unable to make it to hospitals as ambulances were forced to crawl through socked-in streets. No one was left satisfied with the response.
And the barbed reaction — possibly the biggest crisis of Bloomberg’s surprisingly smooth political career — didn’t subside. Further criticism was in store when the city appeared to have over-prepared for the next storm. Even when New York seemed to have finally gotten the balance right, both children and their parents appeared dazed that Bloomberg had decided to keep schools open following a major — but deftly handled — storm.
Still, blizzards have a way of making or breaking mayors everywhere. Newark’s Cory Booker earned almost incredulous praise for his efforts to respond to snowbound residents via Twitter after that same epic storm last December. But Chicago mayor Michael Bilandic was famously ousted in the 1970s after a particularly substandard cleanup. And his name was on tips of New Yorkers’ tongues during Bloomberg’s snow-related snafu. All politics are local because local politics don’t occur in isolation from one another.
And New York’s latest large snowfall resonated in unlikely places. Tapping his iPad by candlelight, Dan Hill, who blogs at City of Sound, wrote an epic account of this month’s Brisbane floods. At one point, though, Hill pauses his Brisbane narrative to take note of the striking parallels he found in tweets from a wintry US. “It was bizarre to read various dispatches from snow-bound New York,” he wrote. “As Andrew Blum noted, as he was shoveling snow from Brooklyn sidewalks, it’s a big small world.” Blum’s tweet, for its part, noted Hill’s “Brisbane dispatches ringing in my ear”.
The common thread is probably easier to see now than it was several decades ago, before the internet made local news accessible worldwide and Twitter helped turn personalized empathy instantaneous, but it’s always been there, the product of common experiences. This winter, more northerly — and often more snow-ready — Boston has had fewer snow-related snafus than New York. Its biggest issue has probably been confrontations with longtime residents, who have a custom of becoming fiercely territorial about newly dug-out parking spaces — occasionally even resorting to violence to protect them. Still, there’s a similar sense of frustrated futility in the snow removal operation portrayed this time lapse video taken for the Boston Globe.
Shot last month in Copley Square by photographer Dina Rudick, its cutting emphasizes the ceaseless, repetitive task Boston’s plowmen and shovelers face, an experience that’s likely to be more than familiar to both by their New York counterparts and those bailing out basements or fighting rising rivers in Brisbane. The video is really a still, a snapshot of a storm’s dramatic climax that, for all that it’s often unwelcome, is equally familiar. We know the city will eventually survive, but the clip ends well before the howling wind and mounting precipitation do, making even the attempt to put a dent in the accumulation building up on streets and sidewalks seem all the more impossibly Sisyphean.
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