By Melissa Gray, CNN
(CNN) — Bar manager Paul Wilson says Sunday’s New York City Marathon is the perfect way to pull the city together in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
It’s uplifting and inspiring, he says, and it will bring much-needed revenue to the city and to businesses.
“I think it’s the perfect time to have it,” said Wilson, who runs Bar East on 1st Ave. in Manhattan, which gets a front-row seat to the race every year. “I don’t think the timing could have been better.”
Tell that to residents of hard-hit Staten Island or parts of Brooklyn and you’ll get a different story.
“To host the New York City Marathon in the middle of what is complete devastation and a crisis in parts of this city is just wrong,” said City Councilman Domenic Recchia, whose south Brooklyn district includes Coney Island and other areas that suffered heavy damage.
The decision by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to hold the marathon as scheduled Sunday, less than a week after Sandy came ashore, is dividing New Yorkers and runners alike.
Bloomberg brushed aside criticism Thursday that the marathon will direct crucial resources away from recovery efforts, saying electricity will be restored by race day, thus freeing up police who are currently manning intersections where the traffic signals and electricity have gone out.
Race Director Mary Wittenberg said organizers are hiring private buses to take runners to and from the marathon, rather than straining resources better used elsewhere.
“This city is a city where we have to go on,” Bloomberg said Wednesday.
Recchia said people in Coney Island and the neighborhoods of Sea Gate and Brighton Beach can’t move on yet because they have no food, water, or electricity. Residents on Staten Island pleaded Wednesday for gas, food, and clothes. One lady standing outside damaged homes said she had eaten one slice of pizza in the past two days.
Recchia and other critics are suggesting that marathon runners and race volunteers turn their focus instead to handing out food and water to storm victims.
“I understand you’ve all trained and worked hard, but let’s face it: At the end of the race when you ran a ‘sub four-hour’ or a ‘record best’ race, someone in OUR city could have used you for a few hours,” Brooklyn resident Tim McGuire wrote on Facebook. “50,000 runners or whatever? One-fifth of that would do a lot of good putting in that time elsewhere….and trust me, the accomplishment would mean more in the long run anyway.”
Holding the race so soon after the storm is “a slap in the face to all the people who have lost so much,” wrote Denice Calautti on Facebook.
“Let’s worry about the actual residents first before we worry about the marathon,” wrote Facebook user Jamie Gregory. “The marathon is only going to create extra chaos that is not needed at this time. The city has been through enough. Give them time to get back on their feet.”
Matt McInerney, manager of The Running Company, a runner’s apparel store on New York’s Upper East Side, said his customers have mixed feelings about the race going ahead. One of his customers was registered to run but decided not to, thinking things won’t be managed well enough this soon after the storm, McInerney said.
But the marathon has the potential to lift the city’s spirits, he said. It has an atmosphere unlike any other event in the city, filled with energy and excitement as spectators watch the runners speed by.
“It will definitely be a good way to get the city excited again,” McInerney said.
Olympic marathoner and former New York City Marathon champion Paula Radcliffe echoed his comments on Twitter this week, saying the city needs “the solidarity, the lift, and the economic boost that Marathon Sunday brings to NYC.”
Said Tony Ruiz, a running coach with the Central Park Track Club, “The ramifications of not having the race would be very severe and possibly hurt the city even more, and certainly hurt economically.”
The race is also an important fundraiser for hundreds of charities who recruit runners to raise funds, and they stand to lose their pledged donations if the runners can’t take part in the race, said Lee Silverman, president of JackRabbit Sports, a running gear retailer that works with many of those charities every year.
Marathon organizers said one major benefit to holding the race now is to publicize the relief effort and encourage the public to donate. Wittenberg likened it to a telethon.
“We often talk about the marathon as the triumph of the human spirit,” Wittenberg told CNN. “I think this shows the triumph of the New York City-area spirit, and that’s the message. You can help, show people you can help, and this city will rebound. It will be as vital and as vibrant as ever.”
New York Road Runners, which puts on the marathon every year, said it is donating $1 million to the Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund and encouraged others to donate as well.
On Facebook, Kevin Ghim said many of his friends and teammates are running and raising money for the New York City Red Cross.
“I plan to run for raising awareness and money for my city as well, where previously would’ve just run for personal gains,” he wrote.
The race winds through New York’s five boroughs, starting in Staten Island, where at least 19 people died in the storm. The damage there is so severe that Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino plan to head there Friday.
U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, who represents Staten Island and Brooklyn, said the city has its priorities wrong.
“We’re still pulling bodies out of the water and the mayor is worried about marathon runners and returning to life as normal,” Grimm said in a statement. “The Verrazano Bridge should be used for getting fuel and food in to Staten Island, not getting runners out. Police resources would be best allocated to prevent looting and in rescue and recovery operations.”
Wilson, however — who still plans to have his annual viewing party at the bar along 1st Avenue — says it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
“I don’t see it as a big disrespect to the victims or anything like that,” he said. “I think it’s something that everybody will benefit from and enjoy. I think we need it.”