The Death and Life of the Greatest American City
A running joke on social media among New Yorkers who stayed put for the pandemic roller coaster ride these last seven months is to match evidence of joyful city life that has exploded everywhere against proclamations of the city’s death. “New York Is Dead!” run the headlines next to photos of streets teeming with outdoor diners and shots of Central Park’s Great Lawn full of masked New Yorkers socially distanced in the late autumn sun. This outcry kicks into overdrive every time the president gets in on the doomsday action, as he did again during Thursday’s debate: “Take a look at what’s happening to New York. It’s a ghost town. It’s dying.”
It’s tempting to crack wise and say, “If that’s so, then I’ve been seeing a lot of dead people these days.” Except that nearly 24,000 New Yorkers have died from Covid-19, making Donald Trump’s trash-talking even more gruesome.
And yet, despite the stories of an exodus from New York, real life in the city remains on the rebound even as the days grow colder. The move to outdoor dining has left parts of the city feeling like Paris (perhaps even more so than the City of Lights itself, which is currently under curfew as a second wave of the virus hits the city). There is live music to be found in pockets everywhere. A few weeks ago, I biked across Terrace Drive in Central Park at 11 p.m. and jumped off halfway to join in an impromptu, and socially distant, dance party. Museums have opened and, absent the tourists, can actually be enjoyed on the weekend. Wherever you turn, there is a pervasive feeling of residents doing their best — to be safe, to keep others safe, and to enjoy themselves however they can. To live.
If anything’s over, it’s the city previously known as “Instagram New York.” Covid-19 has pulled the filter off much of our lives, revealing fault lines that had been there all along. Nowhere has this shift been more apparent than in New York City. The wealth that flooded into the city during the Bloomberg years, bringing with it a staggeringly inflated real estate market and making a comfortable home here unfeasible for anyone but the very wealthy also brought with it a rosy lens that allowed a lot of people to “perform” city life. Crime was low; social media and delivery apps replaced serendipitous interaction, allowing residents to glide alone in black cars or eat without the mess of ever getting a table. Increasingly, New York seemed to function less as a lived place than a recognizable backdrop against which people could live otherwise largely suburban lives without having to contend with the unpredictability city life normally involves.
It’s really no surprise, given all this, that the last viral “New York is dead” cri de coeur came in the form of an opinion piece in the New York Post by a wealthy white man (no, not the president). New York may have been declared dead in the past, he conceded, but this time, it’s “completely dead.” Or that a letter sent to the mayor by 163 business leaders in September that described “widespread anxiety over public safety, cleanliness and other quality of life issues that are contributing to deteriorating conditions” was barely recognizable to those actually living here; Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, told the Times they had waited to send it till after Labor Day because “they felt it was unseemly to be writing from the Hamptons.”
In fact, both sides of #NoFilter New York are very much present right now. Homelessness in the city, which was on the rise before the pandemic, is now impossible to ignore. Gun violence spiked over the summer after crime dropped during the lockdown. Parents who felt good about themselves for sending their children to public schools have had to consider how those schools are some of the most segregated in the country and have remained open longer than advised because so many children who live below the poverty line depend on them for meals.
The past months have stripped away the illusion that Manhattan, a bastion of reliable blue, does not suffer from the same deep-seated race and class issues that plague the rest of the country. On the same day George Floyd was murdered, Amy Cooper was in Central Park calling the police on a Black man who asked her to leash her dog as the rules of that area of the park required. In June, Upper West Siders — widely regarded as the bluest of blue New Yorkers — banded together to push out the homeless population that had been afforded housing in the now vacant Covid-era hotels. Their argument, anecdotal at best and belied by neighborhood crime statistics, was that the presence of the homeless was making the neighborhood unsafe — and, as was anonymously whispered on the boards of neighborhood websites, causing their home prices to drop.
We’ve been here before, of course. More than once. New York City has died and been resurrected so many times, it’s unsurprising there’s a cottage industry that chronicles the phenomenon.
In the 1960s, a decade that began ushering New Yorkers in like “rats,” as architecture historian Vincent Scully famously described the commuters arriving in the new Penn Station, the city was being assailed by the real-life implications of “urban renewal.” It was a policy that largely demolished poor but vital neighborhoods with the promise of better subsidized housing. The housing that was built was so destructive to the fabric of neighborhoods, it prompted Jane Jacobs to write The Death and Life of Great American Cities, introducing the now-famous argument that healthy communities needed “eyes on the street,” something the housing developments did not allow for. Parts of New York were almost killed when Robert Moses attempted, and failed, thanks to Jacobs and a mismatched consortium of downtown New York City residents, to ram a highway right through the heart of lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village.
New York most famously died on October 30, 1975, when the New York Daily News ran its “Ford to City: Drop Dead” cover after the president denied the city a financial bailout. Certainly, many residents believed it to be dead in 1977 when the nearly bankrupt city was battered by a heatwave, followed by a 25-hour blackout, during which there was widespread looting in parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx with the Son of Sam serial killer on the loose to boot.
Presumably, residents of neighborhoods such as Brownsville, described once by June Jordan as a place that looked like a “war zone,” believed New York was dead. Or those who lived in the Bronx during the years it famously burned, more for insurance payouts than as a result of bureaucratic ineptitude. Or those who lived in Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, areas hit the worst by a decade of redlining and white flight.
Nearly 70,000 people in the city did end up dead during the AIDS crisis between 1980 and 1996, taking with them a great deal of the city’s—and world’s—art scene. A “cultural cataclysm” that, as Katharine Duckett wrote last year, “cleared the way for the rapid gentrification and development of areas like the Lower East Side.” The neighborhood, it’s worth noting, also saw significant departures during the first weeks of Covid-19.
For a few months after September 11, New York felt if not dead, exactly, then numb. In May 2002, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik wrote, referring to a famous 1976 Saul Steinberg cover of the magazine, that “A Steinbergian drawing of New York at the moment would show eight million people, each person standing on a pole above an abyss of anxiety — not looking down, never looking down, looking only from side to side, warily.” There were a few terrible weeks this April when I rode through the desolate streets of Manhattan that I did wonder if this vision had finally come to pass.
The flight of those less interested in how the city at large is surviving than their individual presence here opened up space. With their departure, they have taken with them a shiny, self-interested city and left a grittier one that feels vital and determined.
Some declare the city not dead but O-V-E-R, which has less to do with the city itself being in dire shape than the particular city a given writer remembers evolving into its next iteration. “Once there was a city here, and now it is gone,” wrote Pete Hamill in the December 1987 issue of New York magazine. “New York City is over. O-V-E-R. Over.” screamed Kristen Johnson’s washed-up ’80s party girl Lexy Johnson, in the penultimate episode of Sex and the City right before she sailed out the window. It’s likely if you spend enough time in Brooklyn, you’ll still find residents who believe the city ended the day the Dodgers departed for Los Angeles.
It makes sense that during the most flush years of the Bloomberg era, a fascination with 1970s New York developed. There was a while, beginning in the mid-aughts, when it felt difficult to visit a local website, open a book, or turn on the TV and not find some shined-up reinterpretation of the “bad old years.” The decade that gave us iconic art, music, fashion, and real estate prices that allowed artists to live and thrive here, largely had all the bad — and it was very bad — romanticized out of it in the retelling. This past spring, when the New York Times began publishing maps of the city to show the zip codes where people who had fled were having their mail forwarded, I sometimes wished for an overlying map of where all the people idolizing the “bad years” had themselves ended up to see exactly how well they aligned.
Another map I wished for would show all the stores boarded up during the first week of the Black Lives Matter protests in June, when a handful of businesses were looted. As I biked around the city during those weeks, I was struck by the fact most of the boarded storefronts belonged to the chain stores that had invaded the city, pushing out smaller local businesses. If someone was looking for a guide to what had actually been killing New York for the last decade, this map seemed like an obvious place to start.
Many people have pointed out that Covid-19 likely accelerated departures that were probably already in the works. People for whom New York was a way station on the way to establishing families and careers or checked the box on a youthful adventure. Those who would have left anyway, just maybe not right this second. It’s probably true — the energy of New York is the result of tides of people who wash in and then eventually wash out. Longtime residents will tell you the city was ready for a reset. The cost of living has been too high for too long. In 2018, Harper’s Magazine declared New York dead due to gentrification, the latest in a long line of similar pieces. For years, Jeremiah Moss has chronicled closing businesses on his website Vanishing New York. One can’t help but look at the current wave of outrage and wonder where was the concern from those same letter-writing business owners over urban blight that has been plaguing the West Village post-Sex and the City, leaving stretches of empty storefronts as landlords held out for wealthy tenants.
And yet, during those heady protest weeks this past summer, even as blocks of stores remained closed, it often felt as though the true city, the one many longtime residents had resigned themselves to never seeing again, reemerged, resurrected from the stranglehold of vast wealth. The flight of those less interested in how the city at large is surviving than their individual presence here opened up space. With their departure, they have taken with them a shiny, self-interested city and left a grittier one that feels vital and determined.
The challenges New York is currently facing are immense. The city currently sits at the center of a Venn diagram in which its historic challenges overlap: a perfect storm of the fiscal crisis of the seventies, the failure of the federal government to step in, and the aftermath of 9/11. Ford’s “drop dead” has been rendered a laughably tame retort in the face of Trump’s relentless dismissals and insults. The city feels simultaneously attacked, abandoned, and bereft of competent leadership. It also feels very, very alive.
The nostalgic argument that terrible times produce great art is insulting and ignorant of the experience of vulnerable communities. It is true, however, that New York’s terrible times have produced great civic initiatives. The Landmarks Commission is the result of the 1963 demolition of Penn Station. The Central Park Conservancy, which oversees the well-being of the park, was created in the 1980s to rescue the park from the deep disrepair it had fallen into during the previous decade. When New Yorkers are asked how much they want to keep New York alive the answer is always: very, very much. And as we head into a fraught election with an alarmingly uncertain aftermath, there is once again the unshakeable sense the city, despite its weak leadership, is facing forward, fists up, elbows in, ready for what comes.
To choose to live in a city is, at the end of the day, to choose human nature over Mother Nature. It’s to choose to live in connection with other people, accepting in equal measure all the risks this brings as well as the rewards. It’s the choice to be part of the collective. It’s impossible to say right now where the city, not to mention the country, will be in a year, let alone five years. The budget shortfall is real. With garbage collection down, the only residents who can be guaranteed a joyful life in New York are seemingly the rats. There is a notable edge to life here. I walked up Eighth Avenue in Manhattan the other night after 10 p.m., and while it did not feel dangerous, it felt electric in ways I have not experienced the city in a long time. Where that energy will go is not yet clear. What is clear, however, is that those who have chosen to stay, and choose to come, are choosing life. The life of a Great American City.