One is always at war over something in New York, the tenants versus the landlords, the bicyclists versus the cabbies, even the chocolate chip cookies battling it out among themselves. Joie de guerre, that is what the citizens here have, joy in combat. Hourly, on any corner, you hear: "whaday mean?" and -- in proud rebuttal -- "Whadaya mean, 'whadaya mean'?"
Thus it was no surprise to anyone, early this summer when the pothole war began. The pothole war: it has pitted the mayor against the negligence lawyers, the citizens against the courts and resulted in vast outlays of money on all sides. It has sent city maintenance workers into the dark night and resulted in piles of paperwork many have called inhuman.
Now the chilly spector of winter is in sight -- winter, which is to potholes what April showers are to the flowers of May. The pothole war continues, both sides settling in for a long battle. They do not, of course have to dig any trenches. They already have the holes.
The pothole war. It began, as do all wars, when frustration reached its limitations and the citizenry could take no more. In this case it was Mayor Edward Koch who struck the first blow. Announcing that the city pays $10 million annually in negligence suits, he proposed and obtained a law that would forbid a street-related suit unless the city was notified of the offending potholes 15 days before the accident occurred.
The negligence lawyers, as expected, retaliated strongly. Under the leadership of Sheridan Albert, president of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, they marched up the steps to City Hall and deposited a carton filled with reports of 5,000 cracks and potholes.
Since they have battered the mayor's office with reporters of street conditions weekly, the current number of potholes estimated to be in excess of 75,000. Conterattacks from city hall impuging their honor or suggesting venal motives do not bother them. "Garbage," Albert said.
Albert is a tough cookie, natty in white on white shirt and turquoise trousers, confident in his office in downtown Manhattan. He's organized his lawyers into the Big Apple Pothole and Sidewalk Protection Corp., which besides documenting potholes, will -- for a fee -- tell lawyers whether potholes have been registered with the city.
He's raised $80,000 to outfit his search-and-document pothole troops. Don't joke to him about the first thing a New Yorker does when somebody bumps into him or her on the escalator. (Holds neck and hollers "whiplash.") Don't suggest to him that on the best kept sidewalk an accident can happen. ("Accident," he says, as if it's a dirty word. "Oh, yeah, sure, you could argue that everything's an accident.")
He's field commander in what he perceives as a holy war, and the other day, as outside his headquarters city cement mixers roared and pedestrians whined, he told his side of the story.
"An important right is being taken away from the people of New York," he says. "The right to sue . . . You know we're going to test this law constitutionally as soon as we get the right case. How's it unconstitutional? cLemme give ya a very stark example. Say I fall in a hole in your driveway. I can sue. But I fall in the same hole on the sidewalk in the City of New York and I can't sue. See, the law denies equal protection to all people who fall on the sidewalk. That's what makes it unconstitutional."
Albert is serious about this battle. Having personally walked 10 miles of city streets looking for pothole, having tried video cameras mounted on cars and ice cream carts, he says he had even, at one point considered reconnaissance work using aerial photography. "The big problem was that something on film might have the various characteristics of a hole on the sidewalk, but it might just be shadows. Nobody would guarantee the results," he said.
So aerial surveillance for the moment, has been shelved.Albert is back to using foot soldiers to patrol the streets. Manhattan and the Bronx have now been completed, and troops are pushing deep into Brooklyn daily.
"I see now they're sending crews to make repairs using blacktop," Albert scoffed. "When the snow comes and it freezes, you know what's going to put the city in an even worse position legally, making improper repairs. I think the juries are gonna resent that."
He smiles. Like rommel. Or Eisenhower. And the pothole war goes on.