In June of 2015, I met an Italian man while drinking wine on the lawn of a Florentine villa. The weather was hot and sunny, the winds strong. The constant thump and crack of the nearby party tent lent the afternoon a malevolent feel, as though we’d dressed up to witness a ceremonial flogging. As we talked, the man kept casting uneasy glances toward the sky. Not only was Florence getting hotter by the year, he said, but the winds seemed to be getting stronger. Italy has a number of seasonal winds; they’re named, sometimes for their moods, sometimes for their point of origin. (La Tramonata, a cold, dry, winter wind from the north, translates as “beyond the mountains.”) This wind, he said, felt less predictable than the named winds. Irregular and strong, it had started to blow the red ceramic roof tiles off historic buildings like the one above us. It wasn’t unusual for a tile to blow loose and explode in a piazza like a bomb.
In New York, most winds, unless they’re hurricane-strength, don’t get names, and most don’t make the news. One day in late October, the wind in New York made the news. It was 40 mph and the skies were clear. In California the same day, the wind also made news. There, due to high winds and the shoddy state of their equipment, PG&E had to stage a blackout.
According to the National Weather Service, in sustained 40-mph winds, high-profile vehicles are difficult to control. Small objects may be blown around and should be secured, and here’s why, because I did the math.
A five-pound flowerpot, falling from the top of my 12-story building, would strike a pedestrian — likely on the head — at nearly 70 mph.
In the rural, coastal place in New England where I’ve spent time for 20 years, winds have grown more erratic and frequently intense. A sunny day can suddenly darken (or, more ominously, not) and the winds spontaneously and briefly accelerate to 40-to-90 mph. Formerly stable, mature trees, weakened by repeat wind events, don’t just lose limbs; they’re yanked from the earth like a tooth. A few summers ago, a massive elm was blown over by a 100-mph wind that lasted ten to 15 minutes. The house it formerly shaded was spontaneously axed into kindling.
The dangers of 40-mph winds in Manhattan feel less immediately tangible or menacing. In the urban game of rock-paper-scissors, apartment building beats tree. And yet. Manhattan, ironically because it’s a city, requires that most of its inhabitants spend time outside every day, unsheathed by cars. Children walk back and forth to school beneath buildings with air conditioners and flowerpots and scaffolding. I don’t suffer from “fear of wind” (anemophobia, technically) — I suffer from realism. The city is more strictly enforcing its façade laws, which compensations I trust have been implemented at roughly the same rate as PG&E did in California. With a lot of dread, I anticipate the first few deaths, and then following those tragedies, local governments and corporations’ “solving” the problem as PG&E, for the moment, solved its — with a series of blackouts. We’d blackout the trees. We’d blackout historic architecture. More benignly, when the winds exceed 40 mph, the meteorologist might recommend — and I’m serious — that people wear hard hats.
Regardless, a poetic self-reliant pose might serve everyone well. Buildings and streets could be navigated more prudently if we accept the city as a seamless extension of nature. The elements have infiltrated the bricks and stormed the streets, and we should embrace the merge, hiring experienced park rangers from Zion or Glacier to monitor the daily conditions, close trails, put up signs. Like the Italians and the Californians, we could name the winds. We could name them after their moods or point of origin. We could name them after man-made canyons they travel through, as they increasingly pick up speed.
*This article appears in the November 11, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
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