Disasters often are referred to as "great equalizers"-- everyone, no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, or class, is effected. Yet, individuals respond to disasters in different ways, influenced by who they are, and the resources to which they have access. When the Blizzard of 1888 struck, men, women and children of all backgrounds were stuck outside in the howling wind, struggling against the cold and through the towering snowdrifts towards their homes. However, when New York City's wealthier citizens got home, they were safe and warm and, in many cases, able to depend upon stocked groceries and supplies. Many New Yorkers weren't so lucky, and had to wait out the storm with whatever shelter and provisions they could muster. For days immediately following the blizzard, as the region dug itself out, New York City suffered from a coal shortage, as well as a shortage of produce, meat, and milk.

All New Yorkers were, at the very least, inconvenienced by the blizzard, and many of those individuals who lived far from where they worked or wherever they were when the blizzard intensified on Monday morning found themselves stranded. The city's hotels overflowed, and several provided cots in the lobby for stranded travelers-- some for rental, some free of charge. Taverns were particularly packed, warming patrons with companionship and spirits. Some entrepreneurs saw the chaos of the blizzard as an opportunity to raise prices: a grocer on 8th Street raised the price of a pail of coal from ten cents to one dollar. The public frowned upon such price gouging, however-- that grocer found the wheels of his wagon stolen and replaced with shabby old ones, along with a message in chalk that read: "Fair Exchange is No Robbery." Counterbalancing the acts of greed were acts of kindness, as bakeries around the city remained open through the night, expanding their output, and giving away goods to people in need.

This section presents stories about how the Blizzard of 1888 affected New Yorkers who were trying to go about their everyday business. Much of the popular memory of the blizzard evolved out of these stories, and out of the general sense they gave of the tremendous impact the storm had on people's lives. But the popular memory of the blizzard has grown beyond the sum of the parts of these stories, and sometimes in popular recollections of the storm truth is obscured by fiction, reality obscured by memory's attraction to the dramatic. The legend of the Blizzard of 1888 emerged not long after the snow stopped falling. For decades after the event, the storm’s anniversary spawned commemorative articles in newspapers and magazines. Such press attention fostered exaggerations and misconceptions about the actual event, escalating the sense of the blizzard's impact.

The blizzard did paralyze city life and cause tremendous damage and suffering, but much of the memory of the blizzard has tended to label it as the sole impetus behind many of the city's physical transformations. As this exhibit has shown, the blizzard was more a clarifying event than a transformative one. The blizzard did not lead directly to the burying of overhead wires or to the subway, nor did it revolutionize sanitation in the city-- all of these initiatives were on the civic platter well before March 12, 1888, and were not begun in earnest until the mid-1890s. The blizzard was but one in a series of events that helped city planners, workers, politicians, and businessmen realize the path to a more efficient, cleaner, and more modern city.

It is instructive that popular memory tends to collapse causation onto the most dramatic events of an era, and that the Blizzard of 1888 acts as an easy magnet for memories big and small, true and untrue. The disconnection between some of the stories that emerged from the blizzard and some of the memories that evolved in subsequent years exemplifies this phenomenon, which itself is a function of emotions that often emerge in the wake of disasters and that impact the way disasters are remembered. For instance, individuals' desires for the authenticity of having "been there," for possessing a unique (even if untrue) take on events, and the sense that shared participation in an event bolsters community all shape the way people remember dramatic occurrences.

For decades, the Blizzard of 1888 stuck out in New York City's collective memory as the worst storm in the city's history. The storm was truly severe and caused much hardship for the city's residents. Recollection of its severity, however, evolves not only from the intense snowfall and blinding winds, but also from the city's complete lack of preparedness for such an event, its struggle to recover, and the fact that the blizzard struck as the city was transforming and vulnerable. Future storms were as severe, and also paralyzed the city, but they did not provoke nearly as much documentation and commentary, were not pointed to as revolutionary events, and did not leave such a mark on the city's memory. The Blizzard of 1888 illustrates how disasters, natural and man made, are remembered both for the destruction they cause and in light of the particular historical moments in which they occur.

The stories and memories in the following sources are sometimes true, sometimes false, and often somewhere in-between.

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Towards a Cleaner City