Focus Features has been a real anchor and success story in New York’s renowned downtown independent film scene. From its headquarters in a historic terra-cotta building in the heart of the West Village, Focus has kept its doors open while other companies went out of business.
But Thursday Focus was shuttered. Its offices were dark for the first time since it opened more than a decade ago.
Focus was one of countless downtown stores and businesses that have been closed since Hurricane Sandy struck Monday night, knocking out electrical power to more than 4 million people in the New York-New Jersey area alone.
New York’s normally active downtown production scene has ground to a halt. Avid editing machines sit idle. NYU film students with pending midterm assignments were forced to cancel their shoots.
Traffic and street lights are out throughout the downtown area. “It’s scary here at night,” a car service driver told me, as he explained that he was hit the previous night by another car in a darkened intersection.
These inconveniences in the downtown area are difficult to experience, but they clearly pale when compared to the massive destruction and misery that the storm afflicted elsewhere.
Nonetheless, Manhattan, known for its diverse neighborhoods and cultures, has suddenly been roughly divided in half. New Yorkers above 34th Street have generally had uninterrupted electrical power. They are going about their daily routines as if nothing happened. For example, midtown restaurants near Rockefeller Center were booming last night. In the mornings, well-dressed executives scurry to work.
Meanwhile, downtown residents are struggling to find basic life necessities. Food is scarce. Hot water is virtually nonexistent. Residents below 34th Street routinely pack flashlights to help them, for example, navigate dark stairwells while elevators sit idle.
An NYU colleague, a former assistant film director, explained that she and her husband finally found a hotel with power. They moved out of their downtown apartment. But they make regular trips back to their place and climb the stairs. “We have an aquarium — no power so no pump — we have to go back there once a day to circulate/aerate the water in the tank,” she said. They live on the 17th floor.
“It’s like we are in some post-Apocalyptic dystopia,” said another friend, a former studio executive living on the Upper West Side. “Uptown folks are the ‘Haves’ with the ‘Have-nots’ are downtown, clawing their way towards us.”
Until Wednesday, my wife and I along with my 12-year-old son were among the downtown “have-nots.” We live in the West Village in a New York University apartment. We moved from L.A. a year ago when I became chair of the undergraduate film and television department at the Tisch School of the Arts.
We lost our power after dinner on Monday night. Suddenly, the Weather Channel and CNN were no longer available to us. But we were ready — or so we thought. We had stocked up on candles, flashlights and battery powered lamps. We had stored food.
But two days of living without power proved very frustrating. Our iPhones and iPads were running out of power.
At one point, we learned that a friend 12 blocks uptown had power. We invited ourselves over and plugged our gadgets into her electrical sockets. After we recharged, we felt relieved — no longer were we in danger of losing our normally routine link to the outside world.
I’ve seen many others in the desperate hunt for electrical power; sometimes it’s unsuccessful. The other day I stopped in front of a shuttered outdoor restaurant near our apartment when two young women jumped in front of me. Quickly, one popped open the cap on an outdoor electrical socket while the other plugged in an iPhone cord. They nodded to each other. I didn’t stick around. The restaurant was well within the no-power area.
Wednesday, we made the move uptown. An industry friend, who mostly lives in Los Angeles, graciously agreed to let us camp out in her empty apartment near Rockefeller Center.
On Wednesday night, the annual West Village Halloween Parade, a major local event, was canceled.
But on West 69th Street just off Central Park West brownstones on both sides of the street were adorned with elaborate movie-set like Halloween decorations. Trick or treaters and adults thronged the street. A neighborhood activist speaking on a bull horn asked for contributions for next year’s Halloween party. Fine. But then I thought: wasn’t it odd there was no mention of Hurricane Sandy relief efforts?
I witnessed this because we took our son, dressed in his scary costume, to the neighborhood. We didn’t want him to miss Halloween.
We were now among the “haves.”