Images of Empty Cities Shouldn’t Define This Pandemic

Empty streets are just one of the many portraits of a pandemic. They capture what’s gone, but not what remains.

34th Street on April 6 in New York City. Photo: Kena Betancur/Getty Images

On the same day a Navy hospital ship docked in the New York harbor to combat the spreading coronavirus pandemic, TikTok user Landon K. Gibson uploaded a haunting montage of the deserted streets of midtown Manhattan. Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor” plays through the series of jump cuts: a subway surveillance camera pointed at an empty platform; ghostly theatre marquees for shows nobody’s watching; the dazzling lights of Times Square shining on deserted concrete.

The video, part of a new genre of media, already has millions of views. As cities around the world have required people to stay at home, forced businesses to close, and enforced physical distancing, photos of the deserted urban landscapes have proliferated on social media and news sites — an echo of the post-2008 recession “ruin porn” photography that gorged itself on the crumbling heart of American metropoles.

These are the other pictures of our pandemic, the reverse of the empty streetscapes: Pixelated faces arranged neatly in boxes on a screen.

Over at Google, you can also search your local city among its Community Mobility Reports — data readouts created via the platform’s location services, which graph the decline in visits to things like restaurants or retail stores since the virus took hold. It also maps the corresponding rise in the number of people just sitting at home, as if anyone needed to see it on a chart. In most places, you could just as easily look out the window or step outside into the perpetual calm alternate universe of never-ending Sunday mornings.

On one of those recent quiet, empty days, before the playgrounds closed, along with the adjacent greens spaces and the parking lots in our neighborhood, I was standing in a schoolyard. My kids played with a soccer ball. It was quiet and empty and cold. Then a van sped by, and the woman at the wheel craned her head out the side window as she shouted at us: “Get off the playground you fucking dummies!” Her comment faded as she zoomed away, a disembodied voice in the social distance.

At some point, everyone seemed to have changed the terminology. “Social distance” became “physical distance.” Already, by the time the jargon had shifted, a million Zoom parties. Everyone is in a Hangout or a Houseparty or getting FaceTime, finally fulfilling the vague Silicon Valley’s prophecy of a fully connected platformed global village of smiling pixelated faces arranged neatly in boxes on a screen, waving and smiling and drinking and constantly interrupting one another.

In the weeks since we all came home forever, I’ve been in virtual attendance at work meetings, weekly get-togethers with friends, a child’s birthday party, and even a bachelor party. I’ve seen everyone’s bookshelves. I’ve seen their clutter and their carpet. Their faces without makeup, their hair without product, their cheeks without a shave. I’ve seen their living rooms and, a lot of the time, a significant portion of their ceilings. The intimacy of our distance is staggering.

But as close as those experiences feel, and as personal as those details are that we can see, the weight of that distance is becoming more noticeable. Like the proliferating images of lifeless streets around the world, the emptiness almost seems to increase every day, the deeper into the isolation we get.

The scrambling, hoarding awe with which we greeted the pending shutdown of our cities, and the panic we quickly embraced, has now morphed, it seems, into moribundity — a kind of shared perpetual exhaustion. Ask around. Everyone is tired, either sleeping too much or too little. Either way, our balance is off. Something is up. And the obvious reasons for this — work, kids, work and kids, anxiety, depression, fear, boredom, overwhelm — while all accurate explanations, somehow feel insufficient to describe the source of our weariness.

They are symptomatic of a deeper malaise. It’s the one that greets you when you do, on occasion, still walk out your door to find everyone, even yourself, missing. The sense that, not just people, but everything is in the process of disappearing, even as it stands before you. The neighbors are home but ghostly — you catch glimpses of them, reflections in a window. The playgrounds are there but dead. The shops still stand, but without definition. Everything, suddenly obsolete. When I stare at the Google mobility report, my eyes trace the declining lines on the graphs as they move downward, below the baseline. I guess this is what it looks like when a society and the people who built it are seen moving some distance apart.

But when the screen changes to our latest digital meetup, suddenly it’s filled with faces of people, each one framed, in my home. These are the other pictures of our pandemic, the reverse of the empty streetscapes. And I can’t help but think about all those snapshots of the crumbling cities, the ruin porn, each one trying its best to capture what had been lost, but each equally an exhibit for what never actually left. As their voices come through, each square on my screen expands, and I see pictures of the missing people. And we talk and we listen. We have a couple of drinks together, apart. And we remind each other that we haven’t disappeared — that we’re all still here.

And then the world feels less empty.


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