Photoessay: At twilight, with a sudden surge of power, an alternate downtown universe flickers out

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Text by Anna Codrea-Rado, photos by Caterina Clerici.

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Less than an hour before the sun set over Manhattan on Friday evening, operations were well underway at ABC No Rio, the radically oriented community center in the Lower East Side perhaps as famous as anything else for its punk matinees, to prepare for a fifth night of darkness.

Officials had said that power could return to parts of lower Manhattan as early as 11 p.m. or midnight, so volunteers outside the art-squat on Rivington Street were surprised when they suddenly flickered on, just as clouds and a setting sun were signaling twilight, and ushering the neighborhood into the new nighttime normal that had developed since Hurricane Sandy ravaged the city.

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The days without power had drawn on long enough that, for some, new rituals, not entirely unpleasant, were suddenly about to disappear (until the next time?) 

Outside ABC No Rio on Rivington Street, volunteers hand out free food.

"I was a little disappointed. I wanted to have a cook out," said Olivia Cieri, dragging hard on a cigarette with one hand and flipping burgers with the other. The 21-year-old volunteer had come to ABC No Rio to help with the community services the nonprofit organization had set in motion in the days after the storm.

Olivia Cieri and Shawn Brody make burgers outside.

Chomping on a burger, Kenny Fraser, 40, said he was very grateful to the organizers for providing the neighborhood with free food. With no power in his apartment, he'd been riding his motorcycle uptown every night with his girlfriend to eat out.

"Even though the power's back, it's going to take ages to get everything together. I was so hungry, so this is perfect," Fraser said.

Cieri with her cooking tools.

Local residents line up for food.

The lights in Lower Manhattan started to come back around 5 p.m.

In addition to food, the squat had organized outlets for cell-phone charging.

"We had 40 people here, charging their phones," said Brennan Cavanaugh, "and then the power came back on and everyone split."

Cavanaugh, 44, works with Time's Up!, an envionmental group that collaborated with ABC No Rio to set up the food bank. Time's Up also normally runs bike repair workshops, and Cavanaugh lent a hand by providing them with his bicycle-powered generator.

Members of the Time's Up! group help a passerby repair his bicycle.

Brody in front of the squat's entrance.

Cavanaugh's apartment building in the East Village flooded during the hurricane.

"We watched the water creep up the street like a tidal river," he said.

Despite not being in a mandatory evacuation zone, Cavanaugh and his wife decided to leave their apartment and seek shelter with relatives. "It was kind of fun. It gave us a new experience," he said.

The organizer of the squat's help effort, Jack Bratich, 43, was sorry that he hadn't come up with the idea sooner. Bratich said his main problem after the storm was communication. He would walk around the neighborhood looking for cell signal.

"I was data foraging," he said.

Bratich's friend lent him a bike; as he rode around the neighborhood, he realized there were plenty of people on his doorstep who needed help. So he started talking to friends and acquaintances to see what he could pull together. Contrary to much of New York City's experience with the storm, downtown, for many, the felicity of face-to-face meetings determined much of what one knew and did in the aftermath of the storm.

"This wasn't about the virtual networks, it was about really speaking with people," Bratich said.

With generators from Time's Up! and food donations coming in to ABVC No Rio, the place quickly became a hotspot.

Decked out in a studded leather jacket with a fox-tail hanging off the shoulder, Shawn Brody, 24, was helping Cieri with the burgers.

Bratich said Brody had been instrumental in coordinating the food donations. Brody was philosophical about the blackout; he said he wasn't really doing anything very differently compared to when he had power. The biggest difference he noticed was the number of "small town nods" he was getting on the street.

"You know, when you pass someone and you both look at each other with that 'we're both fucked' look," he said.

ABC No Rio was offering food and phone-charging.

One of the few bars open during the blackout.

A lit-up store on Rivington Street, shortly after the power came back.

A passerby walking along Prince Street toward Broadway, the separating line between the lit neighborhoods and those still without electricity.

Broadway: while the east side regains power, the west is still in darkness.

A cyclist rides down Prince Street in the dark.

The Chrysler Building was the only light that could be seen from Prince Street.

News reporters broadcast in the dark.

A security guard peeking through the window of building 575 on the dark side of Broadway.

Peering out of the darkness of the door to 575 Broadway, Randy Michael beamed at lights from the Armani Exchange store across the street.

As night fell, for a time Broadway marked the division between the lit neighborhoods and those still engulfed in darkness. To the west, darkness; to the east, points of light, increasing as time moved on.

Michael wasn't resentful for being on the wrong side of the street, he was just relieved to have some light to look at after four days in darkness. A security guard, Michael has been responsible for looking after the building.

"Other than the electricity, we've not had any problems," he said.

Bleecker Street.

Tom Ryan selling fruit at the corner of Bleecker and Mercer streets, lit up by a passing police car.

Also lurking in the shadows was Tom Ryan, the 45-year-old fruit stand worker at the corner of Bleecker and Mercer streets. In the pitch black, Ryan manned the produce stand for its owner, who was taking a break from the day shift. The stand wasn't open for the first two days after the storm, but once deliveries were coming in again from Hunts' Point Terminal Market, they were able to reopen.

"I'm normally here til 11 p.m., but I've been closing early—at about 9 p.m.," Ryan said. Ryan's biggest concern was not being able to store the fruit in the truck over night.

"I've just been covering it with tarp and hoping that no one slashes it open," he said.

Nothing happened to it the first night he left it like that, so Ryan was hoping for the best. Despite the two days without goods and the shorter operating hours, Ryan doesn't think that business suffered.

"We sold 8 cases of bananas today and five yesterday," he said. As one of the few food vendors open in the neighborhood, the stand has been a lot busier than normal during the daytime.

The generator-powered truck outside Wicked Willy's on Bleecker Street.

Half a block away, one of the only other open places in the village was Wicked Willy's bar. Running on a generator, the bar stayed open throughout the storm.

Like Ryan, they found a booming business this week. Even allowing for the extra costs of running off a generator, staff estimated revenue to be higher than on a normal week. A barmaid, who declined to give her name, said that on Wednesday the police shut them down.

"We were really busy and the police said it was dangerous for people to walk home in the dark intoxicated," she said. The staff acknowledged what they were doing was a gamble, especially because it was so costly to run, but they felt a sense of obligation to their locals and their neighbors without power.

Customers inside Wicked Willy's bar.

"'Improvising'" was a very important word for us," Andy Ramgoolie, the owner of Wicked Willy's, said. The bar become a go-to point for the neighborhood; they came for the free phone charging and stayed for the friendly service and relaxed atmosphere. Ramgoolie said he saw local residents doing something they haven't done for years: catch up with one another.

Lois Rakoff charging her phone at Wicked Willy's.

"It's been wonderful," said Lois Rakoff, a regular patron. "You don't have to pay for a drink to use their electricity. I've been here every night. Everyone's friendly and it's safe," she said.

Rakoff, who walked to Willy's in her glowstick-studded jacket, wasn't too concerned about the lack of power in her nearby apartment. "I go to Burning Man, I'm used to it," she said. She was more worried that Halloween had been a bust and that the village, usually the party destination, was rendered powerless on a Friday night.

People line up at the Taco cart at the corner of Bleecker and Thompson streets, one of the few food vendors in the area.

A taxi driving toward Bleecker Street.

The corner between Minetta Street, Bleecker Street and 6th Avenue.

The police directing the traffic on 6th Ave.

A flare.

A cyclist selling assorted fluorescent goods.

A group of cyclists from the Time's Up! collective biking around with sound system attached to one of the bikes.

Bleecker Street.

Cyclists trying to cross 6th Ave with no traffic lights.

Thunder Jacksons on Bleecker and Sullivan streets.

Taco truck on Bleecker and Thompson streets.

Broadway.

The kitchen of Lombardi's Pizzeria on Spring Street.

Sitting at the red-checked tables of Lombardi's, under the glare of the overhead lights, amid a heaving clientele tucking into steaming 18 inch pizzas, Sandy seemed like a distant memory. In a corner at the back of the packed iconic pizzeria, Nicolas Jaar - the electronic musician - was sharing a pizza with a young blonde girl. To mistake this for a normal Friday night would be forgivable, given how quickly Lombardi's returned to normalcy. In the kitchen, however, the chefs were mixing the dough and crushing the tomatoes for the sauce, by hand.

The coal oven wasn't affected by the power outage.

By virtue of being New York's oldest pizzeria, losing power had no impact on their coal oven. Gilbert Soto, Lombardi's general manager, said that on the first day after the storm he was only open for take out. "I got a car in front of the store and used the battery to power a few light bulbs," he said. Produce came from a supplier around the corner; it was limited but sufficient to run a menu.

Within a few hours of the power being restored, Lombardi's was as packed as it normally is on a Friday night.

Even with all the challenges, Soto acknowledged that he was luckier than the many New Yorkers who are suffering tremendous losses in the wake of the hurricane.

"We didn't lose our food and we were able to pay our staff," he said. "We didn't make money in those first few days, but everyone came together."