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Massive Generators a Necessary Evil in Sandy-Scarred Downtown's Comeback

By Irene Plagianos | December 12, 2012 7:45am

LOWER MANHATTAN — After laboring for weeks to repair her storm-damaged nail salon Stone Nails, Janet Kwak was finally able to reopen the popular, 17-year-old shop Monday.

But few of her regular customers were able to see the lit-up pink neon "Nails" sign, or easily enter her front door, because of the massive generators sending power and heat into her building at 90 Broad St.

“It's hard. People don’t know we’re open, and they’re scared to come on to the block,” Kwak said. "But we’re also very grateful to have a shop — our neighbors were not so lucky."

In a frustrating conundrum for many downtown businesses struggling to recover from Sandy, the very generators and trailers that are powering up the buildings and allowing businesses to get back up and running are simultaneously blocking neighboring entrances and filling up the streets and stores with toxic diesel fumes, blaring engine sounds, and unwieldy wires and equipment.

Kwak and a neighboring ground-floor convenience store called Victoria Café are blocked off from their customers' view by three massive generators covered in signs that say “Danger: High Voltage,” and supply the 24-floor commercial high-rise that takes up nearly a block.

They're one piece of an obstacle course that downtown has become, where construction containers and trailers with huge white tubes line Stone Street between Whitehall and Broad streets, and traffic cones and orange construction netting block off streets and sidewalks.

Kwak's shop sits in the center of what has officially become a do-not-walk-zone. Only a small opening between generators, mostly trafficked by a stream of construction workers, allows passersby access to her store and the one beside it. Many who scurry past, ears covered, are in too much of a rush to realize the shop is open.

Residents who live or work in the area not only complain about the sound and smell of the generators, also the hazards of just moving around.

"It's like you can't walk anymore," said Lael Wakefield, who works for a trading company in the neighborhood. "It's dangerous. I'm hoping no one gets hurt."

Many of the Financial District’s already-narrow streets are now congested with loud generators that smell of diesel fumes. There's also various trailers and huge garbage dumpsters, used by the scores of ruined shops and buildings continue to gut their properties.

“It’s been very tough for us,” Kwak said, as the generators roared outside her small salon.

She and her husband have worked tirelessly to restore the shop after it was rushed with a couple feet of salty flood water during Sandy.

She’s afraid her store — usually crowded with customers — will continue to lose business as she’s hidden behind the mass of huge machines working to keep her newly re-opened building functioning.

And those generators and trailers are likely to stay for at least two months, she said.

A building manager was not immediately available for comment.

All around Kwak, the slow, uneven recovery of Sandy is apparent. Some buildings are largely functioning as business as usual — despite the smell of diesel fumes and loud whirr of generators, while other shops are completely shuttered.

On Monday, Kwak made at least a few regular customers happy.

"I'd walk by and just hope she was open," said Cathy Bailey, who lives on nearby Williams Street.

Bailey's building, which was without heat and power for two weeks, is also up and running again.

"This place is the just the best," Bailey added. "I haven't gotten my nails done in ages — this just returns a bit of normalcy to your life in all this chaos, you know?"