The recent revival of “Evacuation Day” – November 25, 1783, the day British military forces left New York City at the end of the Revolution – is a reminder of New York City’s resilience. The city had been occupied for several years but soon after the British left and New Yorkers got control of their city, it began a recovery and remarkable upward trajectory.
“Resilience” is an often-used term these days. Andrew Zoli and Annmarie Healy’s 2012 book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back summarized recent scholarship and help popularize the term.
Governor Andrew Cuomo often emphasizes that New Yorkers are exceptionally energetic, innovative, determined, and resilient. “At every difficult moment in our nation’s history, New York has emerged as…the progressive leader in the nation,” he explained in his 2011 State of the State address. “In New York, we may have big problems, but we confront them with big solutions.”
Resilience was one of the historical themes that emerged in the research for my forthcoming book, The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History. The book covers 16 key events in state history. Resilience is an underlying message in several of them. The final chapter, “New York’s Resilience,” focuses on the Fire Department of the City of New York before, during, and after 9/11.
The chapter covers the heroic work of the Department on that day but the emphasis is on the process of rebuilding the department, strengthening its morale, and shifting its focus toward responding to future mass disasters. It is a story of well-known leaders like mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg and the commissioner of the Department. But much of it is about Joseph Pfeifer, a line officer in the Department on 9/11. Many of his friends and his own brother, also in the department, perished that day. But Pfeifer, undeterred, stepped forward and helped shape and lead the department’s resurgence, including improved communication and capacity for improvising in the face of uncertainty. He, and FDNY, are both excellent models of New York resilience.
There are lots of other possible historical examples. For instance, in 1776-1777, members of the Provincial Congress kept working even as advancing British royal forces scattered continental and New York troops. When the British approached the temporary capital at Kingston, the new government simply dispersed, reassembled later at Poughkeepsie, and kept the fledgling state intact. New York’s first governor, George Clinton, calmly took the oath of office in September 1777 and then hurried off to lead a fight against the enemy. Setbacks inspired the great New York reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton on to more tenacious campaigning. Mishaps in testing prototypes and fighting patent infringement lawsuits motivated New York’s pioneering aviator, Glenn Curtiss, to keep innovating.
In New York City, perhaps the nation’s most resilient cosmopolitan area, the Rockefeller Foundation is sponsoring a project on resilience, particularly for cities. Much of the concern is about environmental disasters, e.g., Superstorm Sandy. The Foundation is providing grants and support to a number of cities to hire Chief Resilience Officers. The Foundation’s president, Judith Rodin, has written a new book on it, The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong.
In the book, she defines “resilience” as “the capacity of any entity – an individual, a community, an organization, or a natural system – to prepare for disruptions, to recover from shocks and stresses, and to adapt and grow from a disruptive experience.”
The work at the Rockefeller Foundation and elsewhere is thoughtful and the topic is certainly important. State government interest in the issue continues to be high. Dr. Rodin was co-chair of the Governor’s New York State 2100 Commission, appointed after Superstorm Sandy, issued a report on “Recommendations to Improve the Strength and Resilience of The Empire State’s Infrastructure” in 2013. [pdf]
Much of the research and writing on the topic however, only goes back a short distance into history. Wouldn’t it be beneficial, particularly for New York, where we have such a long and rich history, to look at resilience in more of a historical context?
What can we learn about how state policy regarding resilience has shifted in the past? In the late 1940’s and 1950’s, much of our “Civil Defense” work was focused on the possibility of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Even the construction of the state Thruway at that time was partially justified by the potential need to move millions of people out of New York City in the event of an attack. But after Hurricane Agnes devastated much of the southern part of the state with flooding in 1972, attention shifted to natural disasters. After 9/11, there was more attention to terrorism and recovering from terrorist attacks. After Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, government attention swung back toward concern about global warming and violent weather.
Why do we sometimes seem to learn little from disasters and not use them to build up resilience? For instance, a strong hurricane devastated parts of Long Island in 1938, reeking particular damage on seaside communities. But over the follow years, with a few exceptions, people built houses, hotels, and businesses in the same vulnerable areas.
Does a policy that responds to a disaster in the hope of creating more resilience sometimes eventually lead to more vulnerability? For instance, the great blizzard of 1888 paralyzed street traffic in New York City and disrupted the “rapid transit” system of the day, elevated railroads. This helped lead to the beginning of a long campaign to put transit underground, which in the 20th century resulted in the subway system. Rising sea levels and storm surges have now put that system at risk.
How large a vision and initiative do we need to be truly resilient? For many years, New York City residents got their water from cisterns, wells, natural springs, and other bodies of water. Rapid population growth in the first part of the 19th century meant that much of the drinking water was polluted, leading to cholera and yellow fever epidemics and terrifying fires which destroyed many buildings, which were made of wood. Visionary city, state, and civic leaders recognized that half-way measures would not be good enough to make the city resilient in the area of clean water. The result was the magnificent Croton Aqueduct, constructed between 1836 and 1842.
Governor Cuomo traveled to Buffalo during the recent seven foot snowstorm to lead and coordinate state response efforts. “Mother Nature is showing us who is boss once again,” he said at a press conference. But Cuomo’s presence and the state’s massive recovery efforts were themselves evidence once again of New York’s inclination not to passively accept mishaps from the weather or other sources. Studying New York’s history of resilience can help us plan for future challenges.
Illustration: Conception of NYC’s Big U levee project (courtesy Rebuild by Design).