The New York You Once Knew Is Gone. The One You Loved Remains.
Those of us who stayed in New York are faced with the task of keeping the city alive. We aren’t going anywhere.
New York City is not as deserted as the pictures will lead you to believe.
After recently undergoing two weeks of isolation for Covid-19-like symptoms, I emerged from my apartment expecting to find, like the man in the famous Twilight Zone episode who accidentally survives an atomic blast in the bank vault where he works, that New York had disappeared while I’d been waiting things out upstairs.
But it was still there. Indeed, as I climbed onto my bike to run errands for myself and some others — arguably the most socially distant form of travel possible these days — the streets felt immediately familiar. To know New York City by bike is to know it intimately in a way not possible by foot or car. It’s like being thrust into the bloodstream of a great beast, privy to its every pulse. You need only go a few blocks before the rhythm of the lights and motion of the traffic reveal themselves; you learn the beats and melody of the streets the way you learn any song.
Despite its muted movements and darkened storefronts, the city I pedaled into was not new to me. Anyone who’s held a job that puts them at odds with the 9–5 world — or rather the 7-midnight world, as New York schedules so often run — knows this particular city. It’s the “my shift ended at 4 a.m.” New York. Or “my shift starts at 5 a.m.” It’s early Sunday morning in August New York. It’s Audrey Hepburn emerging from a lone cab on a deserted Fifth Avenue to stare longingly into a Tiffany’s window New York. It’s Thanksgiving night or Christmas Day New York. It’s the New York of for better or for worse.
And now it’s something else, too. E.B. White said there were three New Yorks: the city of those who were born here, the city of those who commute in daily, and the city of those who come here “in quest of something.”
To this list, we may now add a fourth: The New York of those who stayed.
It is, of course, not a holiday, nor is the city nearing the end of a long night. The witchy New York hour between yesterday and today is now the New York of all day, every day. A nightmarish bizarro world set to the soundtrack of sirens. Everything is still here, but off. Even as I thrilled to the empty streets — rounding Columbus Circle in an uninterrupted sweep that made me think of the red-tailed hawks I now enviously watch gracefully circling the skies over my neighborhood — I couldn’t escape the ominous sense that the city had slipped its axis. It was the wrong time of year for this empty, the wrong time of day. The sun itself felt in the wrong place, and the light hit at odd angles. The beat of the city was now the beat of an unhealthy heart, lurching unevenly from one pulse to the next.
Music evokes memories, and the refrain of the city’s stillness reminded me of past moments when I’ve had its streets to myself. Sailing down a now-vacant Fifth Avenue, I recalled biking the same stretch during the 2004 GOP convention when Bloomberg had shut it down to cars. I vividly remember reaching 34th Street, and seeing a young man on a delivery bike thrown to the ground by NYPD officers because he had stopped a few inches past some security cones that had been set up. Now food delivery people are on the front lines, risking their health to keep us fed, and the restaurant sector that has long been the lifeblood of New York alive.
There are other reminders of past traumas, too. After 9/11, the streets were plastered with photos of loved ones who had gone missing. Now they are plastered with “closed by Covid” notices. In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy, portable generators and gasoline became the most valued resources in the hardest hit areas. Now, it’s yeast and pulse oximeters and toilet paper. This time everyone is newly in love with the bully in Albany instead of a bully in Gracie Mansion. So many firefighters lost their lives after running into the burning towers on 9/11 that for a long time people would stand back and clap when the red engines went by. Now we throw open our windows at 7 p.m. and cheer, issuing our own barbaric yawps across the rooftops, as much for the extraordinary health care workers risking their lives as to assure one another we’re still here.
And yet all past comparisons are faulty ones. Yes, New York City has been sucker punched before, to use the term Anthony Fauci employed on The Daily Show recently to describe how Covid-19 has hit the city. We have been abandoned by past presidents, too. And we most definitely have a history of inept mayors. We’ve lived through plagues, more than once. But we’ve never been hit in a way that has turned the very things that make us great into what will kill us.
We are a city of congregators. We are so used to being jammed up against one another, so thrilled and challenged and comforted by it that maintaining social distancing requires the mental vigilance of giving up an addiction. For years, New Yorkers have been advised by those who’ve left the city that bigger houses and more land can be found elsewhere for a fraction of the price — as if everyone here doesn’t know exactly the demands of the deal they struck in staying. Exchanging ease for the possibility of magic. It’s not recklessness that finds us edging past the six-foot demarcation zone in the lineup at Fairway, it’s habit. Empty space here is an invitation. In a city of people used to rallying in an emergency, be it large or small, we have been forbidden from using our greatest strength. This virus is perverting everything: It’s Gotham’s kryptonite.
Even so, you can detect a thrill in those who remain at the fact that we have the parks, exploding with spring colors and smells, to ourselves. That once you’ve survived the blocks-long lineup of people waiting to get into Zabar’s — reminiscent of the old Depression soup kitchen photos, except for the fact everyone is a responsible distance apart — it’s so blissfully empty inside it feels like strolling through the Met after dark. That one can now drive from Brooklyn into the city for an errand and back in an hour, instead of blocking out an entire morning for a simple task.
In New York, distance has always been best measured in time: What’s the use in knowing something is three miles away when those three miles are so congested by traffic, or involve so convoluted a subway route, that it will take you an hour to traverse it? Now seven miles in New York is nearly the same as seven miles in Wyoming. This collapsing of time is thrilling until you feel the way it has shrunk the city, normalized it. Third Avenue on an August afternoon, Central Park under a full moon, the Brooklyn Bridge after midnight: Biking the empty city roads has been one of my greatest joys. But what is an open road without a destination on the other end? What is New York without anywhere to go? And with no one that you can meet?
New York is unique in that it’s the only city that seems to require from its residents a declaration of departure. There is a copper place behind the bar at Knickerbocker, a long-standing tavern in Greenwich Village, that reads “when you leave New York you ain’t going nowhere.” A deep-seated fear that this may be true seems to have driven generations of writers to itemize the reasons they are leaving. Or perhaps because moving to New York requires a particular resolve and desire for reimaging oneself, leaving it demands the same.
The reasons people have left the city in this moment are myriad: What sane person would stay in a small apartment with children if there were more spacious pastures available elsewhere; why risk infecting an elevator in a building full of old people if you don’t have to; perhaps relatives need caretaking elsewhere; perhaps you do. But it’s notable that for the most part those slipping away have done so silently, lest their departures define them in some way. They are especially slipping away in Manhattan, quiet hallways and a new absence of garbage the only evidence of their flight.
I Left New York for Greener Pastures — and a Puppy
The rolling hills of Appalachia have been my refuge from the coronavirus epidemic
This time, too, the dynamic has shifted. For a while now a stable life in the city has been accessible only to the super wealthy, the cost of living pushing out long-standing residents with fewer resources and making life nearly impossible for those who long to start the quest but lack the connections to fund it. But to leave now, however practical or painful that decision may have been, is a measure of resources. You have other options.
The ones who remain also do so for many reasons: because they’re needed here, on the frontlines or in their homes; because, as is the case in so many of the city’s hardest hit neighborhoods, they have no other options; because they are not being allowed out; because so much of their identity is wrapped up in the city that to leave would simply be worse than whatever they risk by staying. Or maybe it’s simply that it’s home. But now the challenge is how to be a New Yorker without New York.
New York in this moment may be saying goodbye to us, but we refuse to say good-bye to New York.
In truth, the city has been vanishing for a while and at an astonishing rate; to be a New Yorker of the last decade is to have developed an awareness that the storefront, restaurant, building you are passing by — many empty long before the pandemic arrived thanks to vertiginous rents and insatiable landlords holding out for tenants with deep corporate pockets — may very well not be there tomorrow. For years, as the pace of development and gentrification picked up, it has felt like living one very long goodbye. Even so, it was impossible for any of us to prepare for the disappearing act of the last two weeks of March.
In the original “Goodbye to All That” essay — which was as much a farewell to youth as anything else; its writer returned, after all, and has resided on the Upper East Side for many years now — Joan Didion wrote, “It is easy to see the beginning of things, and harder to see the ends.” But in the case of this pandemic, the beginning was the end. In many ways, the abrupt closures of the last month have mimicked the sudden loss of a loved one: the immediate disorienting grief when everything is upside down and your brain, stretched between what was and what is now, does acrobatic maneuvers trying to exist in both places at once.
And yet, as I wound through the Village past blocks of dark storefronts and favorite restaurants that have again and again marked my nearly 25 years in the city, wondering if I’d ever feel their embrace of familiarity again, I was reminded less of death than my mother’s long decline into dementia. The person I knew and loved and needed very much, the person who had in ways good and bad defined who I was, was disappearing before my eyes, but the body of my mother remained. In Alzheimer communities, it’s known as anticipatory grief: The confusing and extraordinarily painful process of understanding that what you see before you is not actually there. And may never be there again. Of caring for the body and grieving for the soul. Of not looking away.
New York is still here, but it is also not. For those of us who have remained, the task seems to fall somewhere between caretaking — we will order pickup and take out from the places that have served us so well, we will do our shopping for our neighbors — and refusing to let go. We ain’t going nowhere. New York in this moment may be saying goodbye to us, but we refuse to say goodbye to New York.