Words and Photos by Arthur Underwood

On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused the New York City subway system to flood. The lines were shut down, the entrances hurriedly taped off with police tape; “CRIME SCENE — DO NOT CROSS.” With water pouring through the tunnels, New York—a city of people accustomed to nearly constant human interaction—became increasingly isolated. New Yorkers were trapped, first in their neighborhoods, then in their buildings, then in their apartments, by the growing crisis.

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This is not an essay about Hurricane Sandy. This is not an essay about flooded subways, about power outages, about humanitarian crises. This is not an essay about New York, even if ‘The City’ plays a role. This is an essay about the everyday; an essay about interacting and interconnecting on the most basic levels.

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A few weeks ago, a succinct political quote was making its way across the internet. “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” So said the (otherwise nameless) ‘Mayor of Bogota.’

If any city fits this description, it’s surely New York. The Mayor of New York takes the subway to work every day. Celebrities of all stripes can be seen waiting on train delays like the rest of us, and it’s well accepted that the 1% walk among us, hidden though they may be by the hordes of similarly-dressed wannabes. All these people really do live and eat and work and shop in the same places as everyone else.

A New Yorker’s constant proximity to the rich and famous, to the big people and the big events, is not a lie.

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A fact: New York City consistently has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the country. (Most recently, it was ranked #4; all three of the cities with higher inequality were in Texas.)

The New York Comptroller’s office released a report this year deriding the city for its income inequality. He described the middle class as abnormally small, and noted that the top 1% of earners in the city took home over 32% of the wealth, a number almost double the already high national average.

A fact: New York State has the highest income inequality of any state in the country.

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One of the fundamental promises of modern, ‘democratic’ capitalism is that the purchase of products has the ability to create a type of sameness—that by owning similar objects, we can become equal in some essential way. If we buy the same Levis as the models in the ad, then we, too, will become attractive. If we drink the same beer as Jay Z, we will become just as cool. If we have the same music on our iPod as the President, we must be doing something right.

If the rich and the poor, people of different races and genders, people with different jobs, homes and parents can all be seen every morning, sipping the same type of coffee, wearing the same clothes, reading the same newspaper, taking the same train to work, then it becomes difficult to see the differences between us.

Is a city with deep and intractable income inequality more developed because the rich and poor ride the subway together? Or is the fact of our constant proximity, and the illusion of equality it provides, one of the key factors that allows people to turn a blind eye to their city’s problems?

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New York is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s also not a place where the poor have doormen, or maids, or personal assistants.

New York is a place where the rich use public transportation. It’s also a place where the rich use limos, taxis, cars, and helicopters.

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When we ride the subway with the rich and powerful, it feels like some part of the barrier between their lives and ours becomes thinner, like some part of the veil has been lifted. New York is a city built on its promise of proximity. At any moment—at a show, at a restaurant, in a park, riding the subway—we could find ourselves mere inches from someone or something important, and maybe, if we’re lucky, some of the light will shine on us.

Yet, a shared experience is a delicate thing, as an experience, by definition, is subjective. The experience of a taxi driver having a conversation with Woody Allen is not the same as the experience of Woody Allen having a conversation with a taxi driver. One is experiencing a conversation with a celebrity; the other, a conversation with an employee.

The experience of a poor person riding the subway because they have to is fundamentally different from the experience of a rich person riding the subway because they choose to.

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‘Location, location, location.’ The threefold real estate mantra applies triply for New York. Merely turning a corner can change a street from upscale to ‘ghetto,’ from clean to dirty, hip to passé. In a city where nothing is more than an hour’s subway away, it’s amazing how strongly being a few blocks closer to ‘the action’ can change the status of a place.

Driving down 3rd Avenue on the day after Sandy, I didn’t notice the exact moment when I entered the no-power zone. Nevertheless, at some point I crossed a hard line. On one side of an intersection, the city was bright, active, business as usual. I passed through, and the lights were gone, the businesses closed, the windows shuttered.

I thought of the daily commuters, those who rode the subway together every day, and had gone their separate ways to prepare for the storm. Some went to their cars, to their country homes, to their brother’s and mother’s houses. Others went back to their apartments, unable to leave without the trains running, to wait, in the dark, in the cold, alone.