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Charlotte Amalie
Wednesday, May 18, 2022
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LESSONS TO BE LEARNED FROM NEW YORK

New York City and the Virgin Islands. It is hard to imagine two places more un-alike. One small and beautiful, the other enormous and, to be generous, not beautiful. What possible lessons can the World Trade Center disaster provide for Virgin Islanders? People everywhere are trying to find some way to connect to these horrible events and to help in some way. Virgin Islanders, many with connections to New York, are no different. In many instances, these efforts are a stretch.
I believe, however, that Virgin Islanders, by virtue of experience and despite the enormous differences between the territory and the metropolis, come closer to knowing what it feels like in New York today than many other people on the mainland. If you take away the criminal nature of the act and the lack warning, the destruction of the World Trade Center was similar to a devastating hurricane in its impact on the community.
I suspect that the sense of dislocation, imposed ugliness, depression and loss that New Yorkers are feeling is similar to that which Virgin Islanders have felt in the wake of recent terrible storms. Over time, the effects of loss ripple out from immediate loved ones to friends of friends, and everyone in the community is affected. One week after the attack, we are entering that phase in New York.
If we accept these parallels, can New York teach the Virgin Islands anything about coping with this kind of nightmarish situation? I believe that the answer is "yes," particularly across three critical dimensions.
The glue of community
The first area is trust and community: New York's image as an undifferentiated "megalopolis" is extremely misleading. Probably more than any other American city — and certainly more than any suburb — New York is a vast collection of neighborhoods and communities. Because it relies on mass transit, people of all kinds constantly interact with one another. The subway's social role may be more important than its transportation role.
Because we have few malls and megastores, the neighborhood market, drugstore, dry cleaner and hardware store are still centers of community life. And because we are such a diverse city, and there is no majority group anymore, there is an unstated understanding that "we're all in this together." This is a far cry from the myth of "America United" currently being sold on television, but it is probably the best that we've got in this country.
And it was this sense of a single community that provided the critical glue that made possible the extraordinary performance by New Yorkers both during and after the calamity.
I do not believe that this "glue" exists in the Virgin Islands. In recent decades, divisions based on race, class, island and place of birth have deepened, reducing the level of trust and making the territory a less tolerant place. In the crunch, a basic level of trust and shared identity is one of the things that is absolutely crucial in getting through. There is a lot of work to be done.
All systems up and running
The second lesson is more mundane. A major reason that the death toll was not even higher was that there were systems in place that worked. Nothing could have fully prepared organizations for the magnitude of this disaster, and all systems were overloaded. But they worked, starting with evacuation and continuing through the rescue, hospital care and other phases.
Like the sense of community, these systems have to be in place before disaster strikes, and, despite our inevitable tendency to slack off, they have to be tested and updated regularly.
Americans are probably the best-organized people in the world, and this is an area in which Virgin Islanders can profitably emulate their fellow citizens on the mainland. By almost any measure, the territory is a systems basket-case. As a result, everything seems to be a new event, and the wheel must be repeatedly rediscovered. Another area for major attention.
A leader to follow
Finally, we come to leadership. Contrary to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's image elsewhere as a popular figure, many New Yorkers loathed him. No longer. He has emerged in this crisis as a calm, reasoned, reassuring, forceful leader. These are all qualities that stand in sharp contrast to the president of the United States.
The mayor's leadership has been as important as the sense of community and the systems that are in place. Candidates to succeed him as mayor will now be judged by how they would have performed in this terrible and very fluid situation.
Virgin Islanders should ask themselves that question about their leaders. If, as I suspect, they come up empty, it is time to begin searching out leaders in new places and also to begin the process of developing a new generation of leaders.
What ties all of these things together is the need for a lot of work in advance of a crisis. For a variety of reasons, the starting points for this process in the Virgin Islands are few and easily defined: local media, including the Source newspapers and talk radio, the University of the Virgin Islands, and the business community.
What sets the Virgin Islands apart from other places is that the government cannot be counted on to play a positive role. It would be worth while to start a broad discussion on the three issues of community, systems and leadership across the territory, with a focus on honest self-assessment and planning for the future.
A final lesson of the New York story is that even imperfect community, systems and leadership at every level are preferable to none at all.

Frank Schneiger
New York City

Editor's note: Management consultant Frank Schneiger has worked with V.I. agencies since 1975, most recently as consultant to United Way of St. Thomas/St. John. He is one of the founders of the St. Thomas/St. John Youth Multiservice Center.
We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to source@viaccess.net.

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New York City and the Virgin Islands. It is hard to imagine two places more un-alike. One small and beautiful, the other enormous and, to be generous, not beautiful. What possible lessons can the World Trade Center disaster provide for Virgin Islanders? People everywhere are trying to find some way to connect to these horrible events and to help in some way. Virgin Islanders, many with connections to New York, are no different. In many instances, these efforts are a stretch.
I believe, however, that Virgin Islanders, by virtue of experience and despite the enormous differences between the territory and the metropolis, come closer to knowing what it feels like in New York today than many other people on the mainland. If you take away the criminal nature of the act and the lack warning, the destruction of the World Trade Center was similar to a devastating hurricane in its impact on the community.
I suspect that the sense of dislocation, imposed ugliness, depression and loss that New Yorkers are feeling is similar to that which Virgin Islanders have felt in the wake of recent terrible storms. Over time, the effects of loss ripple out from immediate loved ones to friends of friends, and everyone in the community is affected. One week after the attack, we are entering that phase in New York.
If we accept these parallels, can New York teach the Virgin Islands anything about coping with this kind of nightmarish situation? I believe that the answer is "yes," particularly across three critical dimensions.
The glue of community
The first area is trust and community: New York's image as an undifferentiated "megalopolis" is extremely misleading. Probably more than any other American city -- and certainly more than any suburb -- New York is a vast collection of neighborhoods and communities. Because it relies on mass transit, people of all kinds constantly interact with one another. The subway's social role may be more important than its transportation role.
Because we have few malls and megastores, the neighborhood market, drugstore, dry cleaner and hardware store are still centers of community life. And because we are such a diverse city, and there is no majority group anymore, there is an unstated understanding that "we're all in this together." This is a far cry from the myth of "America United" currently being sold on television, but it is probably the best that we've got in this country.
And it was this sense of a single community that provided the critical glue that made possible the extraordinary performance by New Yorkers both during and after the calamity.
I do not believe that this "glue" exists in the Virgin Islands. In recent decades, divisions based on race, class, island and place of birth have deepened, reducing the level of trust and making the territory a less tolerant place. In the crunch, a basic level of trust and shared identity is one of the things that is absolutely crucial in getting through. There is a lot of work to be done.
All systems up and running
The second lesson is more mundane. A major reason that the death toll was not even higher was that there were systems in place that worked. Nothing could have fully prepared organizations for the magnitude of this disaster, and all systems were overloaded. But they worked, starting with evacuation and continuing through the rescue, hospital care and other phases.
Like the sense of community, these systems have to be in place before disaster strikes, and, despite our inevitable tendency to slack off, they have to be tested and updated regularly.
Americans are probably the best-organized people in the world, and this is an area in which Virgin Islanders can profitably emulate their fellow citizens on the mainland. By almost any measure, the territory is a systems basket-case. As a result, everything seems to be a new event, and the wheel must be repeatedly rediscovered. Another area for major attention.
A leader to follow
Finally, we come to leadership. Contrary to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's image elsewhere as a popular figure, many New Yorkers loathed him. No longer. He has emerged in this crisis as a calm, reasoned, reassuring, forceful leader. These are all qualities that stand in sharp contrast to the president of the United States.
The mayor's leadership has been as important as the sense of community and the systems that are in place. Candidates to succeed him as mayor will now be judged by how they would have performed in this terrible and very fluid situation.
Virgin Islanders should ask themselves that question about their leaders. If, as I suspect, they come up empty, it is time to begin searching out leaders in new places and also to begin the process of developing a new generation of leaders.
What ties all of these things together is the need for a lot of work in advance of a crisis. For a variety of reasons, the starting points for this process in the Virgin Islands are few and easily defined: local media, including the Source newspapers and talk radio, the University of the Virgin Islands, and the business community.
What sets the Virgin Islands apart from other places is that the government cannot be counted on to play a positive role. It would be worth while to start a broad discussion on the three issues of community, systems and leadership across the territory, with a focus on honest self-assessment and planning for the future.
A final lesson of the New York story is that even imperfect community, systems and leadership at every level are preferable to none at all.

Frank Schneiger
New York City

Editor's note: Management consultant Frank Schneiger has worked with V.I. agencies since 1975, most recently as consultant to United Way of St. Thomas/St. John. He is one of the founders of the St. Thomas/St. John Youth Multiservice Center.
We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to source@viaccess.net.