I’d just moved in to the East Village when Hurricane Sandy hit. The blackout seemed to dissect the center of the universe in two. My roommate and I went from being new residents of the East Village to new residents of the area South of Power, otherwise known as SoPo, before our boxes were even unpacked.
I'd spent the past month combing through apartment listings. The ad for our new SoPo apartment would probably have looked something like this:
Looking for a way to leave the hustle and bustle of the big city behind without going too far from home? Got an ex-boyfriend who keeps calling? Creditors waking you up in the middle of the night? New York's hippest neighborhood, SoPo, is completely disconnected from the modern grid. No cell phone service! No Internet! No power! No connection to the outside world whatsoever!!
Unplugged from the grid, we put down our smartphones and spent the week wandering around our new hood without the help of Yelp or Google. Everywhere we went local businesses were a salvation for their neighbors. In the sea of darkness, tiny candles flickering in their windows gathered people together to eat and drink. It was in these establishments that the magic of the blackout unfolded.
Restaurant owners cooked whatever they had on hand by candlight. Staff made the trek from every borough, sometimes on foot, just to serve someone dinner. Patrons at a restaurant in Nolita crossed the invisible border between tables and struck up a conversation. A group of street performers wandered into an East Village cafe to provide entertainment. Neighbors, who'd lived next door for years without exchanging much more than a hello, now swapped stories as they hurled over-ripe melons through the aisles of a makeshift bowling alley in their local market.
Though spirits were high, it was clear this wasn’t something these small businesses would rebound from easily. The minute power went out, food started spoiling in their fridges. Days of uncooked perishables were wasted. Employees who couldn’t get to work lost wages because there simply wasn’t enough money coming in to pay them. Every day the lights were off made it one day harder to turn them back on.
One night, at an Italian restaurant on the Lower East Side, we had an idea. What if we could help these local businesses recoup losses by selling remnants of the blackout?
We spent the rest of the week roaming the streets of Lower Manhattan collecting darkened light bulbs from lamps, chandeliers, and marquee signs. A limited number of them are now for sale at www.SoPoElectric.com. If you’re wondering whether these lamps work, they don’t. They’re not designed to conduct electricity. Instead they commemorate the spirit of SoPo: a neighborhood that came together as a community in darkness. It's our hope that they’ll remind people to keep that bright spirit alive in their own neighborhoods - whether they live in the East Village or Prairie Village, Kansas - by helping local establishments keep the lights on.
Each light bulb is individually numbered and displayed with the name and address of a local business on a base of salvaged Eastern White Pine handcrafted by a local carpenter. All of the proceeds go back to local Lower Manhattan businesses like the Beekman Pub, St. Mark’s Market, or cultural institutions like The Italian American Museum.
About a month ago, I was walking in the West Village when I noticed that Low Country, one of the businesses we collected a light bulb from, was no longer open. There are dozens of possible reasons why. It’s not easy to make it as a small business anywhere, let alone in New York. But, I couldn’t help thinking that without the blackout, Low Country and so many other small businesses like them might have had more of a shot.
In lieu of pies and cookies, Mother Nature welcomed us to the neighborhood by turning our new digs into a dark zone. But our neighbors had other plans. We’d barely lived there a month before they swooped us under their wing. They helped keep the community bright on the so-called “dark side” of Manhattan. I can’t think of a warmer welcome or reason to call it home.
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