NY Times features Able Snow Patrol!

No Snow in New York, but a Wintry Mix of Opinion

The New York Times
Published: January 13, 2012

Where is the snow? That is the question swirling – unlike actual flurries – across New York City and its suburbs, where sidewalks have been relentlessly gray and yards stubbornly green this winter. After a decade of higher-than-average snowfalls, including last year’s snowiest January ever, nary a flake has fallen since the freak October storm.

The lack of wintry precipitation comes as a relief to many – no lost power, no snarled commutes, no lagoons of slush. The city, too, is saving on salt and overtime. But for others, the absence has upset the rhythms of the season, stealing the sense of giddiness and grace that accompanies a robust snow. And in what might be thought of as the snow-based sector of the economy – hardware stores, ski shops, snow-plow services, even corner shoe-shine stands – the drought has been exceptionally bad for business.

Making it even worse: After the generous helping of snow last winter – at 61.9 inches, more than double the annual average for the city – some businesses increased their inventories of snow-related merchandise.

Polstein’s Home Center in Brooklyn ordered 20 percent more of everything – shovels, salt, snowbrushes, snow blowers, sleds and saucers. Justo Martinez, the manager, is buried under 1,200 shovels on the floor and another 8,000 in storage. He just cut $100 from the price tag of a $299 snowblower. “That’s practically cost,” he said.

Don Ward, who runs a shoe-shine stand at Avenue of the Americas and 47th Street, has watched the sky wistfully. “Snow brings up my bottom line,” he said, explaining that revenue rises 20 percent to 50 percent just after a storm. “Salt does something terrible to shoes, so when there’s a snowstorm, it’s a win-win.”

In the Bronx, Steve Owens, the owner of Able Snow Patrol, oversees a currently idle fleet of snow plows and each morning curses the forecast. “This has been a very slow start for us,” he said. “We have a lot of anxious drivers sitting at home who want to get out and make money. They get paid by the inch.”

Beyond any economic fallout, there is the ineffable snow-borne lightness that many across the New York region miss. Schoolchildren – and teachers – wondering when the next snow day will come. Alternate-side-of-the-street parkers, spoiled by the 17-day suspension last winter, looking for a break. Harried residents longing for the stillness that descends with the snow.

“It makes New York more magical,” said Teddy Schiff, an Upper East Side real estate developer.

The winter is still young, of course. On Thursday, the rain that hit the city was mixed with snow farther north; the Adirondacks got several inches, though that was little solace for the snow-starved here, many of whom would probably be surprised to learn that even if Central Park does not see another flurry, this winter will not break any records. The 2.9 inches that fell during the October storm already surpassed the accumulation for the winter of 1972-73, which logged just 2.8 inches.

Still, compared with the past 15 years, this winter is shaping up to be particularly skimpy, snow-wise. The past decade was the first, since weather records have been kept, that New York City had four consecutive years with at least 40 inches of snow. The record for annual snowfall was set in 1995-96, with 75.6 inches.

“The recent past in New York City has been characterized by unusually great snowfalls, although this year things are evening out,” said Fred Gadomski, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University. “This is how we end up with averages. Some years, there’s a blockbuster amount of snow and other years, it just doesn’t happen.

“But,” he warned, “it’s only mid-January.”

For city officials, the absence of snow is a balm. The Sanitation Department has a current snow-removal budget of $42.8 million, which covers the cost of salt, overtime and equipment repairs. Last winter, the city had run through half that amount by mid-January; so far this year, it has used about 5 percent.

Any money left at the end of the season goes back into the general fund. “For the city, it’s a life saver,” said John J. Doherty, the sanitation commissioner. “It’s great to get a year like this once in a while.”

The city has 250,000 tons of salt available in the event the weather takes a turn. Late last winter, the department made two emergency purchases of rock salt totaling $6.3 million to replenish its stores.

The city’s parks are also prepared for snow when, or if, it comes. Hundreds of hay bales dot Riverside Park in Manhattan, ready to prevent sledders from crashing into lampposts and trees. And the parks department stands ready to provide its traditional free hot chocolate on snowy days – 2,500 cups, on average – in several parks.

“It becomes more of a party, and we hand out extra sleds,” said John Herrold, president of the Riverside Park Fund. “I hope we have at least one snow day.”

Not everyone feels that way, of course. Anne Asanovic, a secretary in Midtown who commutes 108 miles by bus daily from her home in the Poconos, has not regretted the scarcity of snow for a minute, having missed six days of work last winter. “I feel terrific that there’s no snow,” she said.

Same for Tony Backos, a lawyer who lives in Greenwich, Conn. During one snow storm last year, he and his family lost power for four days. “I wouldn’t mind if we didn’t have any snow for the rest of the winter,” he said.

Do not tell that to the folks at the Bronx Zoo, where staff members are eager to see their cold-loving charges – Siberian tigers, snow leopards and polar bears, to name a few – in their natural element.

“Some species clearly enjoy it when it snows,” said Patrick R. Thomas, the zoo’s general curator and associate director. “Our tigers are more active and playful in the snow, and the polar bears slide across it. They just exhibit what we would consider joyful behaviors.”

If joy and parking can inhabit the same space, New Yorkers who are liberated from alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules by snowfall have been there – just not this winter.

The humorist Calvin Trillin wrote a novel, “Tepper Isn’t Going Out,” about a man who spends his days hunting for the perfect Manhattan parking spot. Though Mr. Trillin now enjoys the luxury of a garage, he still empathizes with the alternate-siders.

Getting respite from the tyranny of alternate side, he said, “is a wonderful New York thing.” For the die-hard parkers, he added, a winter without a snow suspension would feel as if “Christmas was canceled.”

Alison Leigh Cowan contributed reporting.


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