- Historic Sites
A never-before seen report shows just how fragile our great cities were—and are
February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
Eighteen hundred nonmedical workers left the municipal hospitals. These included practical nurses, technicians, guards, housekeepers, orderlies, food-service and laundry workers, and ambulance drivers and attendants. Nonemergency services were shut down. Outpatient clinics were closed. Friends and relatives of patients volunteered to help, but there was some violence when they tried to cross picket lines. Some were stabbed with hatpins when they tried to enter hospitals.
Several hundred nurses joined the strike. About two-thirds of the child health clinics were closed. There was an acute shortage of emergency room and obstetrical nurses. “Working papers” clinics and certain preventative services were abandoned, and venereal disease and immunization clinics were staffed on an emergency basis by doctors. Tuberculosis and dental clinic services were sharply curtailed. Some interns walked out with nurses and nonmedical staff. Hospital emergency duties were carried out by unassisted senior physicians.
The city’s 1,000 parks and playgrounds and 22 miles of beaches were unattended. The major problem was litter, since the 4,000-man recreation and maintenance force and 2,500 clerical-administrative workers were either on strike or honoring picket lines. There were a few drownings at swimming pools and beaches without lifeguards. Some managers trying to get to work were punched by pickets. Looters and vandals carried off or destroyed a number of rare plants in the botanical gardens, but fortunately there was time to lock the zoo animals indoors, as far away as possible from the public. Volunteers saw to it that they were fed and cleaned. The museums were protected by platoons of private armed guards, hired by wealthy patrons.
National Guard troops called in were of little use. The guard’s commanding general said that his men were not in uniform to break strikes and refused to let them perform any city services except security. Because very few of them had police or fire experience, the mayor insisted that they report to senior police officers rather than their own commanders. The general reluctantly agreed to this. To avoid injury to civilians, the guardsmen were also required to carry unloaded firearms. Inasmuch as unarmed guards were greatly outnumbered by those they were supposed to guard against, they were ineffective. Private hired guards were of considerably more value than National Guardsmen. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working with managerial staff, estimated that they could repair the drawbridges for full use in 12 hours.
At 10:00 p.m. on Thursday, after trying unsuccessfully to cope with increasing false alarms triggered by striking firemen, the mayor switched on the news and heard to his amazement that he was reported to have advised all managerial and professional employees to remain at home until further notice. He had also supposedly issued a warning against drinking adulterated city tap water. Neither of these reports was true. Technicians at the Municipal Broadcasting System, instead of walking out, had walked in and barricaded themselves at the WNYC headquarters in the Municipal Building. They had broadcast disinformation, and some of the media recipients, under pressure for “instant news” during the emergency, had not double-checked with the mayor’s office because the reports seemed to have come from an official city news agency.
The mayor tried to telephone the Emergency Control Center at One Police Plaza, where all strike news releases were supposed to be coordinated, but he was unable to get through. He discovered that another group of Municipal Building strikers had taken control of the Centrex phone system and neutralized all government office telephones of the 566 exchange.
In a few hours a relatively small group of people had brought the city to a complete halt.