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Top 10 Stories of 2003

by Gail Robinson, Dec 22, 2003
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The wider world looked at wars and business scandals and kisses (Adrian Brody and Halle Berry at the Oscars; Madonna and Britney Spears), but New Yorkers' attention in 2003 was focused not just on its own tragedies and scandals but also on a lot of buildings -- shuttered firehouses, new designs for buildings at Ground Zero, a city full of buildings without electricity, what's happening inside the city's school buildings.

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Here are the ten top stories in the New York City of 2003, a few more that could have been in the top ten, and then several that were suppose to happen, but didn't.

1. Rebuilding Lower Manhattan

Throughout the year, plans for what would be built at Ground Zero and the rest of Lower Manhattan took shape. And more services returned to the area devastated by the attacks of September 11, 2001. The plans developed so rapidly, with so much debate, controversy and public interest, that rebuilding merits a Top 5 stories of its own. (See box.)

2. The Blackout

On 4:11 p.m. on August 15, lights went out, subways ground to a halt, air conditioners stopped cooling, and computer screens went blank as New York City, along with parts of the Northeast, the Midwest and Canada, experienced the largest blackout in U.S.history. Power would not be completely restored in New York until the next day.

Most New Yorkers took the blackout in stride, directing traffic, offering rides and hanging out on their block. The peaceful response reminded some observers with long memories of the response to the 1965 blackout and presented a sharp contrast to the mayhem that accompanied the outage in 1977. But the blackout still took its toll: Damages were estimated to top $1 billion. Months later, a government panel traced the problem to three transmission lines in Ohio. Their failure, along with computer problems and operator error, triggered a domino effect that left 50 million people without power.

3. Staten Island Ferry Crash

Ten people died and dozens suffered injuries when the Staten Island Ferry crashed while attempting to dock on Staten Island on the afternoon of October 15. Passengers said there was no indication the boat, the Andrew J. Barbieri, was slowing down when it slammed into a concrete pier that ripped through the boat, striking people and sending glass and debris flying. More than two months later, investigators have still not determined the cause of the crash.

4. Remaking the School System

With the public schools firmly under his control, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his school chancellor Joel Klein made sweeping changes to the system in 2003. They:

  • Did away with community school boards.
  • Eliminated community school districts, replacing them with 10 "regions."
  • Established a uniform curriculum for all but the top performing city elementary and middle schools.
  • Set up a parental liaison person in every school.

Rebuilding
Lower Manhattan

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The Freedom Tower

On December 19, Governor George Pataki announced plans for a 1,776-foot Freedom Tower to rise at Ground Zero.

The design capped months of leaks to the press and battles between architects that began last January when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation selected Daniel Libeskind's design to guide the rebuilding at Ground Zero. It called for the 1,776-foot tower, the tallest building in the world, and a space for a memorial to be sunk 30 feet below street level, exposing a section of the "slurry walls" that kept the Hudson from flooding the area after the collapse of the Twin Towers. But Larry Silverstein, who holds the lease on the site, criticized the design, saying it did not have enough office space and would cost too much to build. He chose his own architect, David Childs, to work with Libeskind. The collaboration quickly turned rocky, with the two men often reportedly refusing to talk to one another.

The Memorial

In November, after months of secret deliberations, a 13-member jury selected eight designs as finalists in the competition for a Ground Zero memorial. Those chosen from 5,201 entries featured a dizzying array of devices for remembering the dead, including hanging candles, engraved walls, beams of light, waterfalls, prairies, trees and photographs. With no design emerging as a clear favorite with the public, the jury is expected to select the winner and two finalists early in 2004.

Moving Downtown

New York State and New York City announced plans for a downtown transportation hub that would include easy access to nine subway lines and the PATH train. Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, known for designing train stations in Europe, will design the $2 billion transportation terminal at the World Trade Center site.

Back In Business

Services that were knocked out in the September 11 attacks are gradually being restored to the area. For example, in November, the World Trade Center PATH station reopened. But the new $23 million station is only temporary: Eventually, PATH service will be incorporated into the planned downtown transportation hub. And Con Edison began rebuilding two power substations destroyed on 9/11 and expects them to begin providing electricity to lower Manhattan by next summer.

Health Issues

Concerns over air quality at Ground Zero immediately following the attacks heightened in August when the inspector general of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a report saying that the White House influenced the agency to tell New Yorkers that the air at Ground Zero was fine -- even before the agency had fully monitored the air quality. Soon after, the city health department announced plans for a comprehensive survey to follow the health of those people most directly exposed to the World Trade Center collapse and subsequent clean-up efforts. City health officials say that the registry was not launched in response to the recent accusations.

Two Years After

New York marked the second anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center with a low-key observance aimed primarily at the families of those who died. At the site, children who were relatives of the victims read all 2,792 names.

When the changes were announced last winter, teachers and parents reacted cautiously but optimistically. But by the fall, despite a relatively smooth first few weeks of school, the goodwill had faded. The teacher's union and the mayor seemed virtually at war. Parents and teachers complained that the thorny problem of overcrowding had grown even worse. Parents and community advocates lamented the demise of the community school boards. And administrators griped about chaos and confusion.

5. Shooting at City Hall

New York City Councilmember James E. Davis was shot and killed on July 23 by a gunman who opened fire inside the City Council chambers during the council's regularly scheduled meeting. A police officer then shot and killed the assailant, Othniel Askew, a one-time political rival of Davis's who had accompanied him to City Hall.

Davis, 41, a former police officer and a crusader against violence, was elected to Brooklyn's 35th district council seat in 2001. After his death, the Democratic Party selected his brother, Geoffrey Davis, to run for the post. But Davis was hounded by questions about his past, and on Election Day, was defeated by Letitia James, running on the Working Families Party line. Her election marked the first time a third party candidate had won an election to City Council since the 1970s

6. Fare Hike

The cost of riding subways and buses in New York City rose for the first time since 1995 -- from $1.50 to $2. Not surprisingly New Yorkers grumbled. But they did more than complain. Following up on allegations that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had concealed income and kept two sets of books -- one "real" and one for the public -- transit advocates and public officials took the authority to court. Although, in the end, the effort did not keep the fare from going up, the furor did lead to some reforms at the MTA. But the authority's fiscal woes persist. In December, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi said fares might go up again as early as 2005.

At the same time it raised fares, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority did away with the subway token, a New York City icon for 25 years. Few New Yorkers seemed to care, though the Transit Museum Store continues to sell jewelry bearing the brass coin.

7. A Rebuff for the Mayor

Seven and half million dollars in leaflets and advertising paid for by Mayor Michael Bloomberg failed to convince city voters to get rid of party primaries in city elections. By a margin of about 70 percent to 30 percent, New Yorkers defeated the proposal backed by the mayor and opposed by the Democratic Party and most of organized labor. It would have allowed all voters to cast ballots in non-partisan primaries and created a run-off between the top two vote getters - regardless of party. Two other ballot measures backed by the mayor were also defeated in an election marked by low turnout and the re-election of all City Council incumbents who sought re-election.

8. Brooklyn's Beleaguered Judiciary

The Brooklyn courts continue to be racked by scandal in 2003. Supreme Court Justice Gerald Garson was indicted for bribery and on charges that he fixed a divorce case in return for money and gifts. And Justice Reynold Mason was removed from the State Supreme Court for illegally taking money from an escrow account on a rent-controlled apartment in Flatbush, and using the funds to make child support payments and political contributions.

As the charges against individual judges piled up, the spotlight fell on Brooklyn Democratic leader and State Assemblymember Clarence Norman who many suspected of selling judgeships in the country. In November, Norman and the party's executive director, Jeffrey Feldman, were indicted on charges stemming from the investigation. Both plead innocent.

9. Closing the Budget Gap

When budget talks began in January, the city faced facing a $3.8 billion budget gap. But the agreement reached in June between City Council and the mayor on a $43.7 billion city budget for fiscal year 2004 cut relatively few services, with perhaps the most controversial one being the closing of six firehouses. Key to the deal was an increase in income taxes for the wealthy and the sales tax, although the state did not approve a commuter tax as the mayor wanted.

10. A "Sound, Basic Education"

In June, New York's highest court ruled that the state has been shortchanging city schools, failing to provide enough money to give the city's 1.1 million public school students the "sound, basic education" the state constitution guarantees. In her opinion in the case brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Chief Judge Judith Kaye rejected the argument that students' backgrounds, not school conditions, are responsible for poor academic performance. She wrote, "We cannot accept the premise that children come to the New York City school uneducable, unfit to learn." The court gave Albany 13 months to come up with a plan to fix the matter.

Governor George Pataki, who had fought the lawsuit for years, appointed a commission on school funding and gave it until March 1, 2004 to make its recommendations. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg attacked the commission, calling it "a cruel hoax." He said the schedules would not work with state and city budgets and criticized the membership of the commission.

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THE NEXT FIVE

In a year with less competition, some of these noteworthy stories would have made the Top 10.

The Split With Albany: - A year ago they seemed the staunchest of political allies with Mayor Bloomberg generously supporting Governor Pataki's re-election bid and the two men going to great lengths to downplay their differences. But as the year wore on the divisions grew, as the officials fought over issues including federal terrorism aide and state help for the city. By August, Jennifer Steinhauer and Al Baker of the Times wrote that their relationship "is not unlike a bad marriage in which one partner [Bloomberg] keeps up appearances even when the whole world is predicting divorce behind their backs." As if to underscore the point, in December, Bloomberg invited Pataki to his Bermuda estate. "That's what he [Bloomberg] does when he wants to make nice: invites you to play golf in Bermuda," an unnamed City Hall official told the Post.

Give My Regrets to Broadway - The Great White Way went dark for four days and nights in March as musicians struck over the minimum number of musicians required for Broadway shows. Actors and stagehands then walked out as well. The strike was estimated to have cost $10 million.

The War at Home - As the United States prepared for war against Iraq, New York hosted protests and stepped up security. When war began in March, the New York City Police Department launched Operation Atlas, which put thousands of heavily armed police on the streets and heightened protection at sites such as bridges and tunnels, hotels, theaters, embassies, mosques and synagogues. New York served as a focus of antiwar activity, with a number of protests. Most were peaceful, though the police department came under criticism for refusing to grant a permit for a massive February protest and for then arresting hundreds of people at the rally that was held instead.

Snapple in the Apple - In September, Snapple became an official beverage of New York City with a five-year deal that gave the maker of "the best stuff on Earth" exclusive rights to put its drinks in vending machines in city schools. On January 1, a similar arrangement will extend to other city properties. Administration officials, who have sought to use the New York "brand name" to generate revenue, hailed the $166-million deal, but critics cited the lack of competitive bidding for the contract and said the schools should not be selling sugary drinks to an already overweight student body.

Shakeup at the Times - A seemingly innocuous New York Times story on a missing Army mechanic in Iraq spurred a massive shakeup at the paper when it became known that the report, Jayson Blair, had plagiarized the article from a Texas paper. The Times then reviewed Blair's work and, in an extraordinary multipage story detailed other cases of plagiarism and inaccuracy. The ensuing uproar -- and the scrutiny accorded "the paper of record" -- revealed widespread staff discontent with executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd. The two resigned about a month after Blair's transgressions become public. In July, Bill Keller, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who previously had lost out to Raines for the top job, was named executive editor.

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WHAT DIDN'T HAPPEN

Avoiding Doom - In a time of fiscal crisis, it would have been the fiscal megacrisis -- the so called doomsday budget the mayor said would have to go into effect if Albany did not come up with $2 billion to help the city. Under it, some 10,000 city workers would lose their jobs, 40 firehouses would close, and cuts in education would reach deep into classrooms. But the state helped the city avert doomsday by passing a package with tax hikes and service restorations.

Trading Spaces - It seemed like a good solution to several problems. The city would give the Port Authority land that it owns at LaGuardia airport in return for the Port Authority giving the city land it owns at Ground Zero. This would provide the city with money and additional space in Lower Manhattan for the mix of commercial, residential, memorial and cultural space so many New Yorkers want. It would the Port Authority more control of the airports. But even before they got down to nitty gritty finances, talks floundered. In October, the deal officially died as officials announced plans to extend the lease of the airports to the Port Authority until 2050.

Orchestral Dissonance - In June, the New York Philharmonic shocked the cultural community when it announced that it was leaving Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, where it as played since 1962, for the better acoustics of Carnegie Hall. The announcement put the future of Lincoln Center in doubt: The defection of the Philharmonic would leave Avery Fisher facing dark silent nights at the same time it started a renovation project and some questioned whether the cultural complex had any reason to exist. But in October the Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall cancelled their deal, reportedly because of conflicts over scheduling, and the symphony will remain at Lincoln Center -- whatever its shortcomings.

Wait Until Next Year: - For the third straight year in a row, the New York Yankees did not win the World Series, meaning that, once again, no New York team was first in its sport. This time, the Yankees got to the sixth game of the World Series before losing to the Florida Marlins. And to further rub salt in the wounds of New York sports fans, while none of our teams captured titles this year, a team from Jersey -- the Devils -- did, bringing hockey's Stanley cup to the other side of the Hudson.


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