A Year After Sandy, New York’s Inequality Is Still Growing

Bill de Blasio, the soon-to-be-mayor of New York, made the rich-poor gap the core of his campaign. He faces a city still torn in two by the aftermath of the hurricane.
Reuters

When Hurricane Sandy engulfed New York a year ago, David Del Valle helped me instead of his mother. Del Valle’s choice was not voluntary.

For the last 10 years, the 48-year-old New Yorker has worked as a doorman at the hotel where my wife, daughter and I stayed after being ordered to evacuate our apartment in lower Manhattan. Eager to hold on to his job, Del Valle stayed at work but worried about his mother—who lives on the city’s Lower East Side, which lost electricity and flooded.

His mother was fine and soon after the storm, I wrote about how Sandy exposed the city’s vast economic inequality. While the better off moved to hotels or simply fled, Del Valle was one of the city’s army of doormen, cooks, maintenance workers and maids who stayed on the job during the storm and had to leave their loved ones to fend for themselves.

“Divides between the rich and the poor are nothing new in New York,” I wrote last year, “but the storm brought them vividly to the surface. There were residents like me who could invest all of their time and energy into protecting their families. And there were New Yorkers who could not.”

In a small sign of how deeply the issue of inequality resonated among Americans, that column went viral and was the most popular piece I wrote last year. In a far larger and more important sign, New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio — who has made easing the city’s inequality the core message of his campaign — is expected to be elected in a landslide next week, potentially by the largest margin in decades.

When I went back to the hotel this week and asked Del Valle if he thought inequality had eased, or de Blasio could help, he shrugged.

“For the average Joe Shmoe it probably is the same,” he said, referring to inequality. “But I’m so busy trying to take care of my things that I don’t know.”

He told me a few stories about last year. Cutting in front of other guests waiting for taxis, one guest had paid a driver $200 to take her from the hotel to her home on the Upper East Side. A family from overseas paid another driver $800 to take them to Boston.

A doorman, who asked not to be named, blamed the finance industry for the city’s excesses, but predicted de Blasio would be powerless to change them.

“Wall Street is the problem,” the doorman said.

A hugely unscientific and myopic poll of working-class New Yorkers—a half dozen hotel workers who helped my family a year ago—produced similar responses. They all expressed deep cynicism about the possibility for change, and an even deeper cynicism about American politicians—including de Blasio and his fellow Democrats.

“I don’t believe in nobody, I don’t care about politics,” said one garage attendant, who had slept in a car the night of the hurricane as his sister weathered the storm in New Jersey. “I have to work because I want to eat. That’s all I believe.”

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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