It’s February and the city has been socked for weeks by snow, ice and frigid temperatures in the most miserable winter many can remember. At City Hall, a new mayor from a political party that has not held the city’s top office in 20 years has just taken the reins of power, and his honeymoon period when he should be unveiling his ambitious agenda is instead frozen over by the icy weather.
But this is not 2014. Instead it’s 1994 and that new mayor is Rudy Giuliani.
Ask longtime New Yorkers when they last saw a winter as brutal as this and many will immediately hearken back to “that year in the ’90s.” For the first two months of 1994, the city was pummeled by relentless winter storms often followed by spells of frigid cold that turned streets and sidewalks into a Lillehammer skating venue.
It is eerily similar to the winter New York has experienced this year that has dominated the young administration of Mayor de Blasio, who has faced criticism over plowing, garbage pickup and keeping schools open.
Giuliani, who was still finding the paperclips in City Hall when the brutal winter of 1994 set in, faced similar questions to those de Blasio is now fielding.
Last Thursday’s storm dropped nearly a foot of snow on the city, and during the morning rush hour, the snow was falling at 2 to 3 inches an hour. But city schools were open.
During a morning press conference, de Blasio repeatedly defended the decision by Schools Chancellor Carmen Fari–a to keep schools open, even as many, including Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, slammed the decision. Attendance citywide last Thursday was a dismal 44 percent according to the DOE.
“Ten of my 27 students showed up,” said one fifth-grade teacher Thursday. “This is basically babysitting.”
In a storm that hit on Feb. 11, 1994, then-Chancellor Ramon Cortines kept schools open despite forecasts of as much as a foot of snow. Just under 12 inches fell on Central Park, on top of 9 inches that had fallen earlier that week.
Giuliani faced sharp criticism over the decision to keep schools open. Sandra Feldman, the then-president of the UFT, blasted it and The New York Times quoted a Queens teacher as saying “We’re just babysitting and serving lunch.” Attendance was scarce — it was a Friday.
Schools had not shut down for snow in over a decade and the new mayor, in similar fashion to the current one last week, said it wasn’t a simple decision.
“It recognizes the reality of a million children with different circumstances,” Giuliani said in 1994.
“Think of kids – kindergarten, first grade, second grade – if their parents don’t have an option for them,” de Blasio said last week. “The school is the only place that kids can go that’s safe and secure – that’s a pretty big deal. So we don’t close school lightly.”
The controversy in 1994 led the Diocese of Brooklyn to close Catholic schools even while public schools stayed open. Previously, the diocese only canceled classes when public schools did. Giuliani faced criticism later in his term for closing schools for two weather events that turned out to be underwhelming in the city —Hurricane Floyd in September 1999 and a March 2001 storm when a forecast blizzard fizzled out before it was to hit.
If it seems it’s been a while since streets were cleaned or garbage has been picked up normally, some old timers could probably tell you about the winter of 1978 and the first few weeks of another mayor’s term that was buried by snowfall — and garbage.
For 62 straight days in 1978 — between Jan. 13 and Mar. 16 — street cleaning rules were suspended. More than a dozen snow emergencies were issued that year.
The winter of 1978 brought two storms that dumped more than a foot of snow, one on Jan. 20, the other the infamous Blizzard of 1978 on Feb. 6. City streets were strewn with garbage and filth that accumulated in the snow like layers in an ice-cream cake. When the melting began in March, litter and grime filled the streets, garbage bags piled up like fortress walls outside apartment buildings. The city’s street sweepers were slow to get moving because many had broken down after not being used for months.
At the time, blame was placed on the mayor’s office. Then-Manhattan Borough President Andrew Stein noted the Sanitation Department was “fighting World War II with World War I equipment.”
The mayor had just taken office a few weeks earlier on a campaign to bring the city back from its decline. His name was Ed Koch.
Back to 2014, clearing the snow has also proved controversial for our new mayor.
The New York Post reported after the Jan. 3 snowstorm that the Upper East Side had not been adequately plowed. Earlier this month, de Blasio faced questions over whether the Sanitation Department was doing enough to clear Staten Island roads. Neither location voted for de Blasio in last year’s election.
But Giuliani did not escape that criticism either. In 1994 — and later throughout his term — Giuliani also faced accusations that snow removal prioritization mirrored election results, ignoring parts of the city that had voted Democratic, like South Jamaica and East Elmhurst, and favoring Republican areas.
Giuliani said an inadequate number of plows was to blame and later decided to put scrapers on city garbage trucks to complement the fleet of plows, nearly doubling the number of vehicles used in snow removal. That practice continues today.