In 2015, when Renae Reynolds finished graduate school and landed a New York job offer, she was faced with a choice: Fork up the money to buy a car, or spend nearly three hours each day taking four separate buses just to get from her home in Far Rockaway to her new office in Bayside.
Even though both Far Rockaway and Bayside are in the borough of Queens, there isn’t an easy way to get between the two neighborhoods. Reynolds lives in what experts call a “transit desert,” an area with a high level of demand for transit options, but little supply. Just one subway line runs to the eastern end of the Rockaway Peninsula, where Reynolds had moved in 2013 to be closer to her family.
“I am from one of those communities that’s part of that whole forgotten city narrative,” Reynolds said. “If one train is having issues, your entire day is shot. Ultimately, it means you have no alternative. It’s pretty intense to live in a place like that.”
And so even though Reynolds preferred to take mass transit, she bought a car. Three years later, she is still driving to work. She now works about 20 miles away (a 40-minute drive without traffic) in Brooklyn. Reynolds is a transportation planner for the New York City Alliance for Environmental Justice, where she successfully campaigned for congestion pricing, a fee on drivers traveling through the most gridlocked streets of New York.
Proponents of mass transit say congestion pricing is a no-brainer. Increasing the cost to drive in busy areas decreases traffic, improves air quality, and has the potential to raise money for new public transportation projects. Metropolises like London and Singapore have embraced the scheme, but the idea has been slow to take hold in the U.S. One reason: Critics say it can burden working-class commuters, many of whom, like Reynolds, live in transit deserts where taking mass transit is not a practical option.
Still, with New York City’s growing urban population, struggling transit system, and more pressing gridlock, the prospect of congestion pricing has lingered, floating around Big Apple policy circles for more than a decade. And then last week, a breakthrough: On March 31, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York’s State Legislature approved a $175 billion budget, which includes a congestion pricing fee, making New York the first U.S. city to adopt the policy.
The fee, which likely won’t go into effect until the start of 2021, will only apply to drivers traveling through New York City’s ‘central business district,’ which includes most of the streets below 60th St. in Manhattan. The language in the budget stipulates that passenger vehicles can only be charged the fee once per day. The state has yet to determine how much drivers will be charged and how much the fee might vary throughout the day; a new Traffic Mobility Review Board is expected to announce more specifics later this fall. (Previous suggestions recommended a toll of $11.52 for cars and $25.34 for trucks).
Now that the city has adopted congestion pricing, which estimates suggest will generate $1 billion per year, advocates for low-income communities and communities of color are trying to ensure the scheme will ultimately benefit the residents they represent. But after a decade of struggling to get traction behind the idea, most stakeholders agree on one thing: the city can no longer afford to delay addressing its transportation woes.
“The 10 years of getting it passed was step one,” said longtime congestion pricing proponent Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, whose membership includes more than a dozen local grassroots organizations. “Now the fight’s going to be over the next years how this thing gets rolled out.”
The time is now
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — who ran for office as a Republican — first raised the idea of congestion pricing more than 10 years ago. But Democratic Assembly members representing New York City districts outside of Manhattan blocked his proposal. Much of the opposition to the policy today still comes from these outer boroughs — particularly Brooklyn and Queens, where some residents drive to the central business district for work. Lawmakers from those neighborhoods say their constituents will be the most burdened by the new fees, forcing them to take public transportation into the city that could increase their commutes by hours — and that’s if there are transit routes available in their neighborhoods at all.
“My community is knocking down my door saying they don’t want to be taxed,” Democratic Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte said at a rally in March held in opposition to the congestion pricing proposal. She represents a district in central Brooklyn. Bichotte pointed to “dollar vans,” an informal (and sometimes unlicensed) network of drivers who charge residents small amounts to get around nearby neighborhoods as evidence of ad hoc systems designed to address her constituents’ poor public transportation options. “Now the people who will be affected are people in my community — the immigrant workers,” she explained. “The people who need alternate ways to get into work.”
Congestion pricing can burden lower-income communities where people priced out of city centers are forced to live. These are neighborhoods that may be too far from downtown for many residents to walk or bike to work, or where there aren’t many public transit options. With no reasonable alternatives to driving, congestion pricing can appear like a regressive tax for people living in these areas.
Roughly one in 14 New Yorkers lives in a transit desert, according to research from the Urban Information Lab at the University of Texas. A 2015 New York University report found that neighborhoods in the city with limited transit access also had higher rates of unemployment and lower incomes.
While many of the previous concerns about congestion pricing remain, some stakeholders who once opposed the policy now support it. This time around, efforts to pass congestion pricing were championed by Democrats, including Governor Cuomo and newly elected state legislators who now control both the Assembly and the Senate. That kind of unity on the issue put pressure on other leaders who were once skeptics, like Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had initially preferred a millionaire’s tax to fund mass transit fixes.
“The time to act is running out, and among all alternatives, congestion pricing has the greatest prospects for immediate success,” de Blasio said in a February statement. “It is my hope that critics of congestion pricing will join me in acknowledging its necessity.”
New Yorkers can thank the fact that getting around their city is increasingly becoming a shit show — whether you drive or take subways and buses — for their legislators’ dramatic change of heart. Last year, average car speeds through midtown Manhattan fell to a pitiful 4.7 miles per hour. The hellish traffic is at least in part due to so many new Lyft and Uber drivers on the road. The ridesharing crunch got so bad that NYC last year had to place a cap on their numbers.
But it’s not just the roads that clogged roadways. The more than 100-year-old subway is also showing its age. Car equipment failures and notorious “signal problems” that cause delays are twice as frequent as they were 10 years ago, and one in three trains fail to arrive at their destinations on time. A New York Times investigation found that although twice as many riders are taking the subway now compared to 20 years ago, the amount of money allocated for maintenance has barely changed when adjusted for inflation. Shortly after a subway train derailment in Harlem that injured dozens of people in 2017, Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority system.
Finally, something had to be done to quell angry commuters who elevated transit to a major election issue last fall. Even without congestion pricing, New Yorkers were going to have to pay more for their commutes to fund much-needed repairs and upgrades. Experts released a report last year estimating that it could take up to $60 billion to get the city’s transit system back on track. And without other options to raise those funds, the burden was passed on to train riders via higher fares.
Governor Cuomo and the MTA President warned earlier this year that failing to pass congestion pricing would lead to a 30 percent increase in subway fares by 2024. “There’s no way that folks can afford to pay $3.50 for a ticket,” said Renae Reynolds. (A standard base fare is $2.75 right now.)
“The Great Equalizer”
As much as New York’s subway needs the funding, there are still a lot of unanswered questions that will ultimately determine who will be the policy’s winners and losers. In order to ensure that congestion pricing’s implementation doesn’t create new disparities, cities have to address transit deserts.
“A robust public transit system is not just a complement, it’s a prerequisite for effective congestion pricing,” Alex Bigazzi, an assistant professor at British Columbia University who studies transportation engineering, told Grist last year.
For her part, Reynolds says she has been pushing for congestion pricing in the hopes that the money the city generates will go toward improving subways and bus lines in Far Rockaway and other under-resourced neighborhoods. “Overwhelmingly low-income communities and communities of color rely on public transportation,” Reynolds said. “That means that any delays — and we have been dealing with tons of delays as the system has continued to deteriorate — makes those communities even more vulnerable to losing pay or losing their jobs, or missing critical appointments, or staying connected to the most important people in their lives.”
A 2013 study by the Pratt Center for Community Development found that black New Yorkers’ commutes are, on average, 25 percent longer than those of white residents. Hispanic commuters face travel times roughly 12 percent longer. Two-thirds of commuters who journey more than an hour to get to work earn under $35,000 a year.
And even though people of color are more likely to have to travel long distances with fewer mass transit options, they are still more likely than their white counterparts to take mass transit. According to a 2017 report from the city comptroller, 75 percent of bus commuters and 66 percent of subway commuters are people of color. Across the U.S., people who are lower-income, black, Hispanic, and immigrants are more likely to depend on public transportation, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that only affluent drivers will be paying the new congestion pricing tolls. “One of the things that they have to try to measure is what is the impact on low-income folks in terms of their need to enter the central business district and how that may create impacts on that strata of our society,” said Cecil Corbin-Mark, deputy director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, which advocates for largely black and Latino neighborhoods in Harlem and other parts of Northern Manhattan.
Figuring out how to mitigate those impacts is essential, he explained, as is making sure that businesses aren’t forcing workers who make deliveries to pay the fees: “We just can’t allow something with as many benefits as this to be taken advantage of and scammed on by people who are supposed to be responsible for bearing these costs.”
While many environmental groups representing the low-income neighborhoods that often bear the brunt of the city’s pollution have been on board for congestion pricing since the Bloomberg era, other advocates tackling poverty, like the Community Service Society in New York, have also jumped on board. “Simply put, the city’s subway system is falling short of its reputation as the ‘great equalizer’ where people of all economic backgrounds can afford the fare and access opportunities that help them and their families get ahead,” the Community Service Society said in a 2017 statement calling for congestion pricing as a fix to the city’s subway woes.
Even though congestion pricing is designed to eventually make commutes more bearable for subway and bus users, those improvements could be years off. The new tolls are projected to bring in $15 billion of capital investment for the MTA over 10 years. Roughly 80 percent of funds raised from congestion pricing will go towards improving New York City’s aging subways and bus system, while the remaining money will be allocated for rail lines connecting the city to surrounding suburbs.
While Corbin-Mark says many New Yorkers are willing to wait and see what the results of this new scheme will be, he adds that there will be hell to pay if residents’ expectations aren’t met. “They don’t just want to know that the money is going to the transit system, they want to know that problems are being fixed with the money that’s being generated,” Corbin-Mark said. “They recognize that, ‘OK, we’ve got to give something to get something.’ But if they don’t get it, then they’re just going to be really hopping mad.”
To minimize the fees’ impact on low-income communities, lawmakers are mulling over potential credits, discounts, or exemptions for people with disabilities and those who earn under $60,000 a year. Taxis and ride-sharing apps are also pushing for exemptions or credits. “The drivers are already suffering,” said Bigu Haider, an organizer with the Taxi Workers Alliance who drove for more than 20 years. “Now it’s getting worse.” Congestion pricing is “a suicidal charge” if it does not contain an exemption for taxi drivers, Haider continued, referencing a rash of deaths of cab drivers, many of whom were immigrants of color, who took their own lives as ride-sharing companies disrupted the economics of driving a taxi.
It’s not just New Yorkers who will be watching those thorny decisions closely as they’re made, cities like Seattle and Los Angeles are considering similar policies, and will likely look east for a potential model. And as the details over New York’s congestion pricing emerge, it’s possible that stakeholders — both for and against the plan — may once again change their tune.
Plans to outline exemptions for low-income drivers and in some extenuating situations like doctors visits have even changed the minds of former critics like Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, who said in a recent interview with a local cable TV news station that her “concerns [over congestion pricing] have been addressed.”
And advocates like Reynolds say the scheme will increase equity as long as the money generated is prioritized for transit upgrades in communities with fewer resources than more affluent suburbs. “It would be great to see a victory that is prioritizing the needs of New York City’s most vulnerable, the people who are the lifeblood of the city,” she said.
A changing climate, a changing commute
Proponents of congestion pricing say there are bigger, existential risks associated with not adopting congestion pricing. The city’s vulnerability to climate change has made upgrading the transit system and reducing fossil fuel consumption a priority for many local lawmakers.
Floods have already inundated tunnels — giving a taste of what could happen as climate change exacerbates severe weather events.
“In a post-climate change world, if we’re not figuring out how to make massive investments to make our system resilient in the face of what will be ongoing and increasingly severe weather events, it could cripple the city,” said Bautista of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance.
Residents of Far Rockaway, where Reynolds lives, understand this argument all too well. The neighborhood isn’t just a transit desert. It’s also one of the portions of New York City most vulnerable to flooding. In 2012, it took some of the hardest hits from Superstorm Sandy. Some families there are still rebuilding from the storm, which shut down a portion of the Rockaway subway line for more than six months.
WE ACT’s Corbin-Mark hopes congestion pricing will not only lead to less traffic, but that it will fund an electrification of the city’s buses to reduce carbon emissions and other co-pollutants — which could help mitigate the effects of climate change, and mean cleaner air for communities of color that are already experiencing higher rates of asthma than the city as a whole. “There’s a lot of talk about a Green New Deal,” he said. “Well, this is one way to put something like that into action.
“Nobody’s really excited for anything that means that some sets of folks are going to have to pay,” Corbin-Mark added. “However, many people do understand the necessity for such a system. There’s some pain, but it’s a broader benefit.”
GM quiet about Cruise driverless taxi fleet as deadline looms
As the self-imposed deadline for the self-driving taxi service from General Motors Co.’s autonomous vehicle development unit looms this year, the San Francisco-based GM Cruise LLC has gone quiet.
Hype for Cruise’s potential built up in late 2017 and into 2018 as the former start-up laid the groundwork for a commercial launch of its autonomous technology. Increasingly, however, company leaders have said a launch of Cruise’s driverless taxi service would be “gated by safety,” a hedge that has been repeated since October when GM’s self-driving unit partnered with Honda Motor Co.
Meantime, the industry at large has started pulling back on some of its autonomous-vehicle optimism. A fatal accident involving one of Uber’s self-driving test vehicles spurred an industry-wide reassessment of how to best validate the complex technology required to make a car navigate public roads without the help of a driver. As investors and industry observers wait to see Cruise’s robo-taxi service in action, experts say the 2019 deadline is hardly a deal-breaker for the driverless-vehicle unit’s future.
“The real question is not whether Cruise is on track for 2019 or not — it’s whether GM has the stomach to gut this thing out to completion and do everything it’s really going to take to get there,” said Mike Ramsey, an automotive analyst for research firm Gartner Inc. “Does GM have the stomach to spend money — that they don’t have a ton of — and sacrifice areas that make money now to stick this out?”
GM is trying to prove as much. The company is executing a sweeping restructuring that includes stopping production at five North American plants and cutting 15 percent of its salaried workforce. The goal is to cut costs and redirect precious capital toward expensive autonomy, electrification and mobility efforts.
The rollout of the technology has always been guided by safety, a Cruise spokesman said, reiterating what GM and Cruise executives have said in recent months. Leaders also say the quiet period for Cruise is a result of the Silicon Valley workforce’s focus on getting the technology right.
GM is planning to spend roughly $1 billion on Cruise in 2019 after spending about $700 million last year. That includes hiring another 1,000 people over the next nine months. Cruise has also garnered some $5 billion in outside investments from Japan’s SoftBank Investment Advisers and Honda.
And executives say a change in leadership ushers in a new phase for the self-driving car unit. Former GM President Dan Ammann took over as CEO of Cruise effective Jan. 1. He replaced co-founder Kyle Vogt who moved into the role of chief technology officer. Ammann and Vogt say the shuffle allows both executives to focus on their strengths as Cruise moves toward deployment.
But Cruise’s original vision of a driverless taxi fleet of cars without steering wheels or pedals is still stuck in neutral more than a year after the company asked NHTSA permission to put the cars on public roads. It took NHTSA about 14 months to respond to the petition, advancing it to the public review stage last month.
GM’s long wait for a response is evidence that gaining the necessary federal approval is no small step, nor is it guaranteed. Federal safety regulation language revolves around human drivers and vehicles engineered to be piloted by a human driver — as opposed to artificial intelligence.
GM CEO Mary Barra has said the San Francisco team could proceed without federal approval of the steering wheel-free models by launching the service with the safety driver-piloted test vehicles already on public roads. But even if GM Cruise doesn’t start ferrying customers in one of its lidar-equipped Chevrolet Bolt EVs by the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, experts seem to think the company will be forgiven.
“If GM were to potentially recast its projected time horizon for the launch and rollout of its GM Cruise unit’s service at a later time (i.e. significantly beyond 2020),” Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas wrote in a recent note, “we believe the stock market would be largely understanding.”
Sam Abuelsamid of Navigant Research, which recently ranked Cruise as one of the leaders in the autonomous vehicle race, said the company’s self-imposed 2019 deadline is largely arbitrary.
“If we don’t see a driverless taxi service from Cruise by the end of this year, it will not be the end of the world,” Abuelsamid said. “In the long term it’s better to delay and do this the right way — and Uber made the case last year for what happens when you rush this technology.”
Uber suspended all testing of self-driving cars last March after one of its autonomous test vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. The ride-hailing giant was rushing its autonomous vehicle development to keep up with leaders like GM’s Cruise and Alphabet’s Waymo LLC.
What followed was an industry-wide reckoning with autonomous-vehicle testing practices. Many companies took their driverless test vehicles off the roads while they revamped testing practices. Uber wouldn’t resume autonomous vehicle testing for another nine months. Waymo walked back promises to take human safety drivers out of its autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans. And GM appeared to quietly abandon plans to begin testing autonomous vehicles on the busy streets of New York City.
“This is normal,” Ramsey said. “None of what changed in the last year constitutes failure. This is just what happens when something that is really hard, but has a lot of promise, comes around. This is how new technologies get commercialized.”
Yemeni-Americans in New York City are boycotting the New York Post after a damning Ilhan Omar cover story
Yemeni-American shop owners across New York City are denouncing the New York Post in light of a controversial cover image put forth by the publication featuring the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a stand alone quote from Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar.
“Here’s your something. 2,977 people dead by terrorism,” read last Thursday’s headline, appearing to suggest Omar, a Somali American congresswoman from Minnesota, was dismissive of the attack on the Twin Towers.
The cover was in reference to a speech Omar delivered last month at an event for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen, and frankly I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it,” Omar said. “CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” (CAIR was founded in 1994, and an Omar spokesperson later told the Washington Post that the freshman lawmaker misspoke and meant to refer to the fact that the organization had doubled in size after 9/11).
Omar has faced backlash in recent weeks from the media, commentators, and politicians alike. Last Friday, President Donald Trump shared a video on Twitter blasting Omar for the speech. In the days since Trump’s tweet, Omar said she has experienced an increase in death threats. As of Monday, the video remains on his Twitter page.
New York City’s Yemeni-American community says they are worried that the New York Post’s front page will encourage anti-Muslim violence and rhetoric. As of Saturday morning, ten well-known Yemeni store owners had agreed to stop selling the tabloid, while Yemeni taxi drivers passed out fliers about the boycott to other Yemeni-owned establishments across the city, according to The New York Times.
In an open letter, the Yemeni American Merchants Association said the New York Post’s front page “provoked hatred against Rep. Omar,” and lambasted its decision to publish as “cheap and sensational tabloids that undermine national unity and entice violence and hate for the sole purpose of circulation and sales.”
“This rhetoric threatens the safety and wellbeing of Rep. Omar, Muslim leaders, and the larger Muslim American community at a time when Islamophobia is at an all-time high,” the letter added.
INSIDER reached out to the News Corporation, the New York Post’s parent company, for comment. On Sunday, the Yemeni American Merchants Association announced its formal boycott at a news conference outside of the News Corporation’s building in Manhattan. People in attendance displayed signs that read “boycott hate” and “New York Post take your paper back.”
The association has issued a set of demands, including a public apology to Omar by the Post, and a request that the publication’s editor-in-chief, Stephen Lynch, step down from his position.
Yemeni-American store owners have previously turned toward political activism: after the president issued a ban on travelers in 2017 from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen, thousands of Yemeni-Americans closed shop and gathered together to rally against the policy.
“It’s not the first time that the New York Post basically spreads hate and fear in their newspapers,” Ayyad Algabyali, the association’s director of advocacy, told the Guardian, adding that there is “no end date” to the boycott and “this might be for good.”
Fire Mauls Beloved Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris
Notre-Dame cathedral, the symbol of the beauty and history of Paris, was scarred by an extensive fire on Monday evening that caused its delicate spire to collapse, bruised the Parisian skies with smoke and further disheartened a city already back on its heels after weeks of violent protests.
The spectacle of flames leaping from the cathedral’s wooden roof — its spire glowing red then turning into a virtual cinder — stunned thousands of onlookers who gathered along the banks of the Seine and packed into the plaza of the nearby Hôtel de Ville, gasping and covering their mouths in horror and wiping away tears.
“It is like losing a member of one’s own family,” said Pierre Guillaume Bonnet, a 45-year-old marketing director. “For me there are so many memories tied up in it.”
Around 500 firefighters battled the blaze for nearly five hours. By 11 p.m. Paris time, the structure had been “saved and preserved as a whole,” the fire chief, Jean-Claude Gallet, said. The two magnificent towers soaring above the skyline had been spared, he said, but two-thirds of the roof was destroyed.
“The worst has been avoided even though the battle is not completely won,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a brief and solemn speech at Notre-Dame on Monday night, vowing that the cathedral would be rebuilt.
“This is the place where we have lived all of our great moments, the epicenter of our lives,” he said. “It is the cathedral of all the French.”
The cause of the fire was not immediately known, officials said. But it appeared to have begun in the interior network of wooden beams, many dating back to the Middle Ages and nicknamed “the forest,” said the cathedral’s rector, Msgr. Patrick Chauvet.
No one was killed, officials said, but a firefighter was seriously injured.
The fire broke out about 6:30 p.m., upending Mr. Macron’s plans to deliver an important policy speech about trying to heal the country from months of “Yellow Vest” demonstrations that had already defaced major landmarks in the capital and disfigured some of its wealthiest streets.
The tragedy seemed to underscore the challenges heaped before his administration, which has struggled to reconcile the formidable weight of France’s ideals and storied past with the necessity for change to meet the demands of the 21st century.
A jewel of medieval Gothic architecture built in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre-Dame is a landmark not only for Paris, where it squats firmly yet gracefully at its very center, but for all the world. The cathedral is visited by about 30,000 people a day and around 13 million people a year.
For centuries France’s kings and queens were married there. Napoleon was crowned emperor in Notre-Dame in 1804, and the joyous thanksgiving ceremony after the Liberation of Paris in 1944 took place there, led by Charles de Gaulle.
World leaders congregated at the cathedral in a memorial service for Mr. de Gaulle in 1970, and then again for President François Mitterrand in 1996.
On Monday evening, as the last rush of tourists were trying to get in for the day, the doors of Notre-Dame were abruptly shut without explanation, witnesses said. Within moments, tiny bits of white smoke started rising from the spire — which, at 295 feet, was the highest part of the cathedral.
Billowing out, the smoke started turning gray, then black, making it clear that a fire was growing inside the cathedral, which is currently covered in scaffolding. Soon, orange flames began punching out of the spire, quickly increasing in intensity.
The French police rushed in and started blowing whistles, telling everyone to move back, witnesses said. By then, the flames were towering, spilling out of multiple parts of the cathedral.
Tourists and residents alike came to a standstill, pulling out their phones to call their loved ones. Older Parisians began to cry, lamenting how their national treasure was quickly being lost.
Thousands stood on the banks of the Seine river and watched in shock as the fire tore through the cathedral’s wooden roof and brought down the spire. Video filmed by onlookers and shared on social media showed smoke and flames billowing from the top of the cathedral.
Jean-Louis Martin, 56, a native of Dijon in eastern France who works at the university in Geneva, gasped as the flames leapt up. “It hurts me,” he said. “There are no words. It’s just horrible.”
The crowd gasped and cried in horror when the spire fell. “Paris is beheaded,” said Pierre-Eric Trimovillas, 32.
Vincent Dunn, a fire consultant and former New York City fire chief, said that fire hose streams could not reach the top of such a cathedral, and that reaching the top on foot was often an arduous climb over winding steps.
“These cathedrals and houses of worship are built to burn,” he said. “If they weren’t houses of worship, they’d be condemned.”
The city’s prosecutor’s office said it had opened an investigation.
Monsignor Chauvet said firefighters were able to save some of the cathedral’s artworks but did not say how much was damaged inside the building. A linen fabric associated with Saint Louis, the Holy Crown of thorns and the cathedral’s treasury were saved.
Mr. Gallet, the fire chief, said firefighters were still rescuing artworks in the building, hours after the fire had started. The main risk, he said, was the smoke within the cathedral, and the fall of materials, including melting lead.
The cathedral had been undergoing extensive renovation work. Last week, 16 copper statues representing the Twelve Apostles and four evangelists were lifted with a crane so that the spire could be renovated.
The cathedral had been in dire need of a thorough and expensive restoration, André Finot, the cathedral spokesman, told The New York Times in 2017.
Broken gargoyles and fallen balustrades had been replaced by plastic pipes and wooden planks. Flying buttresses had been darkened by pollution and eroded by rainwater. Pinnacles had been propped up by beams and held together with straps. In some places, limestone crumbled at a finger’s touch.
Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College in New York, said construction work and renovations had long been a dangerous combination.
“There’s a history of churches and synagogues and other houses of worship falling victim to construction fires,” he said, adding that one of the reasons for the peril was the proximity of open flames on torches, sparks from welders and other hazards on scaffolding to other flammable materials.
In recent years, the Friends of Notre-Dame, a foundation based in the United States, estimated that the structure needed nearly $40 million for urgent repairs. The French state, which owns the cathedral, already devotes up to 2 million euros a year in upkeep, or about $2.4 million.
The fire came during Holy Week, six days before Easter Sunday. For Roman Catholics, the cathedral has been a spiritual pilgrimage site for generations. France has a deep Catholic history, and nearly two-thirds of its population is Catholic, even though fewer and fewer attend Mass.
“It’s apocalyptic,” said Eleanor Batreau, 45, who organizes pilgrimages to Lourdes and sometimes works at Notre-Dame. “It reminds me of Dresden burning. I’m a Catholic, and Notre-Dame is a symbol of Mary.”
The risk of the fire is not just to the cathedral itself, but also to the gargoyles that cover its walls and to the stained glass, particularly its “rose” windows.
The largest of its bells, which dates to 1681, managed to survive the French Revolution and has been rung at some of the most important events in French history, including both World Wars.
Bernard Fonquernie, the architect in charge of the cathedral’s restoration in the 1980s and 1990s, said that he believed much of the building, its furnishings and its stained glass could be saved. “The stone vaulting acted like a firewall and it kept the worst heat away,” he said.
Yet the fire is likely to be just the latest, if most dramatic, insult to a landmark that has endured decades of neglect and damage, some at the hands of French revolutionaries, through its more than 850-year history.
Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, “Notre-Dame of Paris,” noted even then that “one cannot but regret, cannot but feel indignant at the innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable pile, both by the action of time and the hand of man.”
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