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Lower Manhattan flickers back to life

A darkened lower Manhattan is seen from Brooklyn October 30, 2012 in New York following Hurricane Sandy.

Camping gear for blackout victims on display at Eastern Mountain Sports in New York's SoHo neighborhood, which opened without power Wednesday.

More than half a million New Yorkers will sleep in the dark Wednesday night, relying on canned food for nourishment, candles for light and radio for news. Power is out across large chunks of the city and businesses in the blackout zone are losing a fortune.

Hurricane Sandy power outages have cleaved New York City in two: a land with electricity and one without. In powerless lower Manhattan, there’s little activity to speak of. Foot and car traffic is light, and the dominant sound is heavy pumps clearing out water, sometimes mixed with the distant wail of a siren.

Most of the people on the street there are cleanup and security workers, though there is the odd wandering tourist, cameras and guidebooks handy, apparently determined to get something out of their waterlogged trip to the big city. On a normal day, their credit cards would be swiping to business owners’ delight. But now they remain sheathed in the wallets of these frustrated travelers.

Moving uptown from the financial district, there are a tiny handful of operating businesses. Sandwich boards festooned with exclamation marks scream “OPEN” and “CASH ONLY.”

One SoHo store seems well-positioned for the blackout. At Eastern Mountain Sports, the fit, friendly staffers are prepared for the power outage, with flashlights strapped to foreheads. Those headlamps are selling well, along with a wide assortment of outdoor gear. No electricity means everyone in the neighborhood is basically an urban camper, including some true beginners.

“It’s kinda interesting when folks that are definitely not outdoor people, definite SoHo people, kind of, come in here,” says sales representative Dave Bradford. “They’re like a fish out of water. It’s pretty amazing.”

Customers trickle in and sales are made. Even those who don’t buy offer well wishes and thank the store for opening. Still, the employees far outnumber the shoppers.

It’s a similar scene at the nearby clothing store OMG. Flashlight-toting staffers help customers examine jeans and jackets for sale, leading some into dressing rooms rendered somewhat creepy by the darkness. Manager Shai Bal laughs it all off as a holiday theme.

“We are in Halloween spirit, so everything is going to be dark,” he jokes.

No power means no credit card swipes or working ATMs, so some customers that want to buy can’t. Those who do make up a pathetic fraction of normal weekday business.

Food isn’t easy to find in the powerless zone. People walking around with hot meals or a coffee become instant celebrities, with strangers approaching them, begging to know where they found it. A deli with staffers inside offered promise. But it turns out they were just throwing away spoiled produce.

Food trucks help fill the void. Dominic Guglielmo, sick of his newfound diet of crackers and PBJ, is waiting on a plate of lamb over rice.

“Finally, some warm food,” he exclaims. “It’s pretty nice.”

Cab rides uptown are a bit more hazardous than usual with traffic lights out of service. The sign of a return to the power zone is unmistakable: a gleaming green light at Park and 40th, glowing with the electricity struggling downtown businesses can only hope for.

Mark Garrison: Here in powerless lower Manhattan, foot and car traffic is light. You hear little other than the sound of heavy pumps clearing out water.

Moving uptown, there are a tiny handful of open businesses, including one in SoHo that’s actually well-positioned for the blackout.

The power’s still out at Eastern Mountain Sports, but the fit, friendly staffers are prepared, with flashlights strapped to foreheads. Those headlamps are selling well, now that everyone nearby is basically an urban camper. Sales rep Dave Bradford says he’s gotten some new customers.

Dave Bradford: Folks that are definitely not outdoor people, definite SoHo people, kind of, come in here, they’re like a fish out of water. It’s pretty amazing.

Still, the employees outnumber the customers, much like the nearby clothing store OMG. Flashlight-toting staffers help customers see jeans and jackets for sale. No power means no credit card swipes or working ATMs, so some customers who want to buy can’t.

Food is hard to find. A deli with staffers inside offered promise. But it turns out they were just throwing away spoiled produce.

Dominic Guglielmo, sick of crackers and PBJ, waits on a plate of lamb over rice at a food truck.

Dominic Guglielmo: Finally, some warm food.

The cab ride back uptown is a bit more hazardous than usual with traffic lights out. Finally, a green light at Park Avenue and 40th, glowing with the electricity downtown businesses will need to revive.

In New York, I'm Mark Garrison for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter for Marketplace and substitute host for the Marketplace Morning Report, based in New York.

Camping gear for blackout victims on display at Eastern Mountain Sports in New York's SoHo neighborhood, which opened without power Wednesday.

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