Downtown in the dark


By Jane Flanagan

For some it evoked feelings of 9/11.

“Back during the blackout in 1977 I had a party. I was the only one in my building with a gas stove and people came over to eat beans and drink beer. It was fun. But this time all I wanted to do was flee,” said Susan Sonz, a 20-year Tribeca resident.

Sonz’s experience was, no doubt, true for many Lower Manhattan residents. When Downtown phones, televisions and computers went dead at 4:11 p.m. Thursday afternoon, it was hard to know what to think. Then the word came. It was a widespread power outage, NOT terrorism.

Still, watching hordes of office workers stream onto the street and commuters line up three deep along the esplanade for ferries, some, like Sonz, couldn’t help but feel nervous.

“After 9/11, I’m not the person I used to be. I just get this feeling. It all freaks me out,” said Sonz.

For others, the blackout was a quintessential New York experience. At Independence Plaza, the welfare of seniors living in rent-stabilized apartments 30 stories up, dictated life on Greenwich St. that night.

Among the seniors sitting on benches outside Independence Plaza at 5 p.m. on Thursday night was Ann Sorensen, 80, who has lived on the 26th floor of 40 Harrison St. for 27 years. When asked where she was going to spend the night, she said she didn’t know. “I can’t call my son. I have high blood pressure and if I walk up I’ll have a heart attack.”

Elsie Aiello, 90, who lives on the 17th floor, said, “I’m going to spend the night on the bench. Maybe the angels will hoist me up.” Her health aide, Grace Charles, lives in Brooklyn. When asked what her plans were, she said, “As long as I know Elsie is taken care of, then I’ll try to get home.”

“We didn’t want to leave the seniors sitting alone on the benches outside. So we pretended to be hippies for the night and hung out on the street,” said Diane Lapson, vice president of the Independence Plaza Tenants Association.

Many of the seniors, unable to walk even two flights, lived on high floors, some 30 stories up. While I.P.N. management opened two apartments on the fourth floor for them, some, either because they couldn’t climb even four flights or because of the cooler air, remained on the benches.

Lapson, along with former Councilperson Kathryn Freed and other able-bodied I.P.N. tenants, kept watch. The volunteers were relieved to see they had plenty of company, as young police recruits were out in force checking on every store, Lapson said.

While management provided a water cooler, getting a meal was not that easy. Many of the food stores, either fearing liability for spoiled food or looting, closed their doors. Some, like Food Emporium, remained open, but had lines out the door.

Some restaurants managed to stay open, making due with what they had. Yaffa’s at the corner of Greenwich and Harrison Sts., barbequed chicken that night and gave it away free. Tribeca Studio Deli gave away free ice cream. The Reade Street Pub had a generator, making it just about the only place for non-stop cold beer.

“They were mobbed,” said Freed.

The evening, however, was not without its discord. Conflicting needs at Washington Market Park resulted in harsh words Thursday afternoon shortly after 5 p.m., when maintenance workers argued with a group of local residents.

The residents, eager to escape their apartments, or unable to get to them, sought refuge in the park. The two maintenance workers on duty lived far out in Brooklyn and were anxious to get on the road, according to Sonz, who also manages the park.

One of the workers, who has a young child, started to get upset, said Sonz. He was anxious to get home, she said.

“He somehow got through to me on my cell phone. He told me he didn’t know what to do. So I told him to ask everyone to leave and lock the park.”

A number of residents were very angry, feeling they were being kicked out of their community park, a public one, just when they needed it most. They also felt that the maintenance worker was unduly antagonistic, some saying he used curse words.

Sonz said she has never known her employee — who, she said, was very upset over the difficult encounter with the residents — to use bad language. But, regardless, Sonz said she personally should receive the blame.

“If people are going to blame anyone, they should blame me. I ordered the park closed. It was a bad decision, and I regret it. We just never left it unattended before.”

The Fire Department arrived about an hour later, cut the locks and reopened the park.

Sonz would normally have been at the park herself that afternoon. But because of another blood pressure-raising event, she wasn’t. Sonz lives in north Tribeca near where seven manhole covers exploded on Wednesday afternoon. After the loud explosion and the lingering black smoke she arranged for her son to sleep Uptown Wednesday night. On Thursday afternoon, she was driving Uptown to get him when the blackout happened.

“I picked him up and kept going,” she said. “I learned something after 9/11. The fight or flight response? I’m a flee-er.”