After the first huge snow storm on December 26, my family was asking two questions: a) where are the damn snowplows in our Brooklyn neighborhood?; and b) why is Manhattan clear? Smells like a class issue here.
I was born and raised in this neighborhood, which saw white flight in the 70s, the crack epidemic of the 80s, the influx of other West Indian immigrants making us Brooklyn’s “Little Caribbean” by the 1990s — oh, and don’t forget the Crown Heights riots in 1991. We were familiar with neglect to our buildings, roads, and schools, so the unplowed street after that snow storm dropped 20 inches was no shocker. What was surprising was that we were unpaved for so long.
On the third day after the storm, we called a friend of my brother who works with the sanitation department to find out what the deal was. “Son, when are you gonna plow my street?,” my brother asked in jest. His friend said he had just worked a 24-hour shift clearing streets in Manhattan and “other” (read: gentrified) parts of Brooklyn.
Turns out Mayor Bloomberg did not declare a snow emergency, so fewer snow plows were deployed. The streets were filled with abandoned vehicles, including city buses, which made plowing impossible. But what irritated us the most is that plows were sent from all five boroughs to Manhattan. So the tourists were able to get to the M&Ms store, but the workers who sell the candy and mop the floor couldn’t get to their jobs because the live in the outer boroughs. Of course they can’t afford to live in “the city.”
When people asked why the plowing didn’t happen, a rumor circulated that sanitation workers purposely slowed down to protest impending budget cuts and demotions in their department. Witnesses said they saw sanitation trucks drive through the neighborhoods where City Council members live without putting their plows down. But if this did occur, it was only a few garage depots acting independently, not something widespread or planned by the union. Those making the accusations called union members “Union Thugs” — very dehumanizing, anti-union…and classist.
The rumor seemed like a way to deflect the criticism about the Manhattan-centric plowing. Within 48 hours, no longer was the local news focusing on the “Manhattan First” approach; instead they were tracking down unionized sanitation workers to see who could be caught on camera sleeping in their truck or drinking on the job. It was insidious-frustrated workers in every sector were losing money because they were stranded in their boroughs; they had no one to advocate for them and no one to complain to; so the news told us to look towards our local unions if we wanted to find the culprit.
Workers fighting for better benefits were pitted against neighborhood residents in need of better services. Communities in NYC often buy into the argument that unions are greedy. We don’t understand that their fight is our fight. Those that keep us divided also keep us distracted, persuaded to look at one another as the enemy.