New York City's snow has turned into the kind of icy chunks that make for stinging snowballs. Mayor Bill de Blasio may be dreaming about hurling a few at his new constituents.
Some are bellyaching about an alleged "botched" snow removal earlier this week, when Sanitation Department snowplows weren't quick or effective enough, especially on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
"Bloomberg isn't mayor anymore," one woman shopping for groceries on Tuesday night at an upscale market groused to the New York Times. "So I guess the Upper East Side isn't getting plowed anymore. Maybe he is doing Brooklyn and Queens."
"Mayor de Blasio, two words: 'John Lindsay,'" added NBC weatherman Al Roker. He was referring to the former mayor, whose administration was faulted for not responding quickly enough to a 1969 blizzard that killed 42 people, half of them in Queens.
No matter where you live, as long as it snows, everyone has an opinion about how well the streets are plowed. It's easy to gauge success: You look out at your street, and then the street next to yours. If there is more white stuff on yours, you're getting screwed. And in the absence of real pestilence, storms are our modern-day missions. The second a snowflake lands, TV newscasts go into wall-to-wall snow coverage.
Snow removal is also an immediate test of the competency of elected officials, hence the rush for politicians to appear before the cameras in jeans and official windbreakers, reading all the stats about plows dispatched, tons of salt spread, and overtime hours accrued. When President Obama met with mayors Thursday, he opened with this piece of advice: "Make sure you are shovelling the snow," according to a pool report.
Some places even equip plows with GPS, so we can compare neighborhood cleanups. That's precisely what happened on the Upper East Side — an online map showed it getting the short end of the snowplow.
Here's the thing, though. According to the Sanitation Department, the GPS system on one of the salt spreaders malfunctioned, giving the impression one neighborhood — an affluent area that de Blasio lost in last year's election — was deliberately left to suffocate under snow. It is true that plows couldn't make rounds quick enough. That's because the snowstorm exacerbated the typical New York evening rush. And the NYPD pulled traffic agents because it was too dangerous to leave them out.
No deaths are attributed to this storm. Some people fell because it was slippery. Unplowed streets looked slushy.
This was an inconvenience, not Stalingrad.
Still, some in the press made it seem like de Blasio was meting out snow judgment from a bunker deep below his Park Slope row house: plows for streets where fellow socialists recycle their cooking oil; zippo for those who read the Wall Street Journal. (Funny, I didn't hear grumbling about snowy streets from those other places that voted for Joe Lhota, de Blasio's opponent in November.)
And the kvetching wasn't limited to those who thought their streets weren't squeaky snow-free. Some moaned that the mayor didn't close schools, because it was too cold. (It was about 13 degrees on Wednesday.)
De Blasio isn't telling people to knock it off. While not admitting fault, he says more could have been done on the Upper East Side.
"When I see that we're not performing up to the standard that we should on behalf of our people, I'm going to correct it right away," he told reporters at an unrelated event in Washington, D.C., Thursday.
That seems like a stab at defusing a story, meritless or not. Unlike his predecessor Michael Bloomberg, this mayor is willing to eat some crow. (Don't be surprised if he lets go of the current sanitation commissioner, a Bloomberg holdover.)
Bloomberg was also the one who put GPS systems in snowplows and salt spreaders; the 108th mayor loved data. But with snowplow GPS, there's an implication that clearing a storm is as simple as tracing a line across every street. Fighting back a storm isn't simply a matter of manpower. It's a combination of science, art, and luck. The storm arrived earlier than expected Tuesday. But in case you didn't notice, it's complicated when snowplows have to jockey for tight space with cars.
While de Blasio is being diplomatic, let me fill in the blanks of what could be his thought bubble: Have we all gone soft?
There's talk storms now are fiercer and more frequent than before. But this caterwauling seems to fit into a troubling trend. People want perfection, at zero cost, with no sacrifice. Are flaps like these just another chance for people across the world to again look at us with bemusement?
Josh Robin is a political reporter and anchor for NY1, New York City's all-news station. He can be reached on Twitter @joshrobin.
Contact Josh Robin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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