An immigrant's reflections on a dying city that is bound to be reborn.
NEW YORK — Back in March, just before the pandemic arrived, I walked down Broadway to Soho. It was an unusually hot, sunny day and the streets of New York City were packed with people. Something told me I did not want to be there. Suddenly, beyond the usual city noises, I heard the voice of a young man calling out to people, asking them if they might be interested in getting a tattoo. I felt that there was something strange in this call. Was this how to advertise a tattoo? Isn't redesigning your body a profoundly intimate decision? Getting a tattoo is not the same as getting a coffee.
However, that voice told me one thing: that the business must be short of customers. Since we already knew about coronavirus at the beginning of March, I associated the advertising voice with the pandemic knocking on the door of the most vital city in the nation. I looked around again, realizing that this city that I knew so well, and that I was no longer in love with, was the perfect place to spread the virus at the speed of light. What if it really happens? I wondered. Appalled by the possibility of a human catastrophe of massive proportions, I became worried about the people I know and love. New York, with its dense population, was the perfect setting for a virus outbreak.
When I first arrived in New York, the city leaned outwards, attracting foreigners but also the Americans who don't feel comfortable in the interior of the continent. It was a place of uprooted people. A place where bagels were sold by Thai corner store owners and Vietnamese bakers, where all the staff of the Jewish sports center was Christian Orthodox and my superintendent was a fugitive from Kosovo whose daughter was attending a prestigious university.
When there's a lack of government instruction, the degree of paranoia is even higher and more dangerous.
And then it happened, seemingly overnight. After I ran my errands in Soho, my wife and I went to see Elaine, my mother-in-law. She was staying in an assisted living facility north of Manhattan, but when we arrived security would not let us into the building. My wife had visited the day before, but management had decided to stop visits in order to protect the aging residents from coronavirus just one day later. After much negotiation, we managed to convince the staff to bring Elaine down to sit with us in the garden. This was the last time we saw her. She died two months later, probably infected by the coronavirus. During the last weeks of her fading life, we were only able to stay in touch over the phone. We could not organize a funeral for her. Besides the brutal pandemic and the loneliness she was forced into for the very last period of her life, COVID-19 also infected my stepson, now in his mid-twenties. He probably had a lighter form of the virus and went through it in a couple of days.
In DC, people coming from New York were considered dangerous and suspicious. There were vague announcements, restrictions, and even unspoken hatred towards anyone coming from Manhattan, as if they were zombies. When there's a lack of government instruction, the degree of paranoia is even higher and more dangerous. The phobia expressed against New Yorkers reminded me of the John Carpenter movie, Escape from New York, in which all of Manhattan is transformed into a prison surrounded by the tall concrete walls. Similarly, in real America at the peak of the pandemic, Americans were building a wall around Manhattan in their minds, hoping to prevent New Yorkers from getting out of the city. Let them die there, was the tacit thinking when it came to all things related to New York. However, Escape from New York, shot in 1981, does not feature an explicit reason for why the wall, why the lives of the entire city were left to chance, to the brutal laws of self-survival. Could it be because some kind of virus had afflicted the city, making the rest of America terrified? An allegory for exceptionalism, since New York with its zeitgeist has never been considered part of the country?
Some 30 years after "Escape," Tony Judt, in what became the book he dictated on his deathbed, described the conditions that make New York so unique, giving the outside world reason for envy and even hatred. Reflecting on the city that became his, after he lived in many other places and cultures, Judt said:
"I prefer the edge: the place where countries, communities, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against each other – where cosmopolitanism is not so much an identity as the normal condition of life. Such places once abounded. Well into the twentieth century there were many cities comprising multiple communities and languages — often mutually antagonistic, occasionally clashing, but somehow coexisting. Sarajevo was one, Alexandria another. Tangier, Salonica, Odesa, Beirut, and Istanbul all qualified — as did smaller towns like Chernovitz and Uzhgorod were small. By the standards of American conformism, New York resembles aspects of these lost cosmopolitan cities. That's why I live here.
Had Judt found in New York what had been lost in Sarajevo, Alexandria, Istanbul, Beirut? All these cities belonged to the Middle East and grew into the centers of Muslim culture. Did Judt rediscover them in New York? Knowing the city well, I recognize that Manhattan does have some aspect of a great bazaar that functions perfectly well but respects no rules, at least no apparent ones. If Carpenter was a visionary and was able to predict a vindication of the less cultured, rural world over the highly enlightened urban community by sealing off the city and letting it die — as it happened in Sarajevo — then the historian and citizen of the world, Tony Judt, and all of us who defend and cherish multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism are about to lose the battle."
Forty years later, Carpenter's vision of the destruction of Manhattan has almost become a reality. In the last few weeks, New York has been written about as a dying city, if not dead already.
The first subtle, interesting observation arrived from The Atlantic, claiming that New York has lost its constant background sound, similar to the sound of the galaxy with its constant background radiation. New Yorkers, the piece says, have used that sound to situate themselves, much as astronomers use radiation to fix our place in the universe. In the early days of the pandemic, the background noise of the city became weaker than any living person can remember. It went down as much as five decibels. That means that the decreased noise of countless cars, trucks, trains, construction sites, sirens, whistles, phones, aimless drilling, assorted ruckuses, conversations, laughter, shouts, curses, televisions, music played too loud, and dogs barking too long— has changed the ecosystem to the extent that New Yorkers have become disoriented and have started to flee the city.
"A mad rush for the exits as New York City goes down the tubes," declared the New York Post, asserting that the Upper West Side of Manhattan is on the verge of panic as mothers and children flee for safety to President Donald Trump"s white "suburban dream," while criminals run amok and homeless people and drug addicts fill local hotels. Was the New York Post thinking about The Escape from New York?
Street life in Manhattan has dropped into anonymity.
Until four years ago, I lived on the Upper West Side. It is an area of Manhattan I know well, including the many friends I made there. It used to be a quiet residential area populated by academics and journalists. But even during my stay there, that is, before the pandemic, the city was changing rapidly. In the last few years, the neighborhood lost good restaurants and bars, and my favorite stationery shop closed. In my neighborhood, but also all over the city, there are almost no butcher shops. I miss little grocery shops where you can build a conversation around food, cooking, ingredients. My European verve has not allowed me to grow accustomed to shopping in big supermarket chains where it is impossible to establish contact with the sellers. Street life in Manhattan has dropped into anonymity. Apartments are now less affordable while the number of banks is increasing, contrasted only by the growing number of cheap junk food joints. In short, the quality of life in New York has been falling for years as the crisis of affluence has driven out everything we love most about cities. Everything has been turned over to land bankers, billionaires, and the worst people in the world –criminal landlords, writes Kevin Baker in his book about the downfall of New York:
"The landlords are killing the town. This is not some new phenomenon, but cancer that's been metastasizing in the city for decades now. Even worse, it's not something that anyone wants, except the landlords, and not even all of them. What's happening to New York now—what's already happened to most of Manhattan, its core, and what is happening in every American city of means, Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Seattle, you name it—is something that almost nobody wants, but everybody gets. As such, the current urban crisis exemplifies our wider crisis: an America where we believe that we no longer have any ability to control the systems we live under."
But what if the bankruptcy of retail chains like Kate Spade, Subway, Le Pain Quotidien, Victoria's Secret, the Gap, Brooks Brothers, Lord & Taylor, and J.C. are actually a new chance for the city? What if COVID-19 is proving that the exponential growth of the economy and hyper-consumption was the wrong model? What if we now have a chance to reset the Big Apple? Remember that fatal phrase of then-mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, who said, "If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, it would be a godsend."? He then began to build the ugly looking, very tall skyscrapers for anonymous billionaires from Russia and China who pay dozens of millions of dollars for luxurious apartments they will never live in. There is no doubt that those skinny, towering buildings in the city growing on every corner of Central Park are made for launderers of the quickly and illegally created wealth by foreign oligarchs. We were lucky that Bloomberg had a very short run for the presidency and we are now hopeful that the city can be downsized and redesigned. All that is needed to bring the Big Apple back is new management, someone who will replace the current inactive mayor Di Blasio and manage to recruit the younger generation that has much better ideas on how to create a liveable city.
Masked Liberty — Photo: Jon Tyson
Last week, I returned to my neighborhood in New York and I fell in love with the city again. There is about 40 percent less population in the city. The affluent New Yorkers left the city for their coastal summer homes as soon as the pandemic began. After the apocalyptic scenes during the pandemic in which 241,000 New Yorkers were infected with coronavirus and 24,000 died, the city is now turning back to life. Many streets have been taken over by restaurants that previously had no outdoor seating. They are packed but respect social distancing measures. During my one week sejour in the city, I did not see a single person not wearing a mask. Whoever is not going to restaurants now is using various home delivery services that were in swing even before this last emergency.
But what happened in the last few months is amazing. There are hundreds of electric bikers zooming up and down Broadway, crossing the road at the red lights, driving against traffic on the pedestrian side delivering food, medicine, and other supplies. They are fast and silent and dangerous too, but nobody is complaining about that. How will this develop? I remember "Pony Express," the fast scooter delivery that compensated for the slow and inefficient postal service in Italy in the nineties.
Why does my shoemaker on Broadway need to pay $24,000 a month for rent?
At the moment, New York seems to be absorbing any innovation that may lead to a new beginning, showing its great strength. Sure the subways are still more or less empty, but people are using more buses than before, having a chance to admire the city. New Yorkers are buying bikes and cars and those who can afford it are looking to buy a second house outside of the city. No matter how much New York might become attractive again one day, the folks have now learned the importance of spending more time out of the city and under the open sky.
The super crowded images of the city are no longer a sign of modernity, COVID-19 has helped us understand this. The bandwidth that allows us to do almost every job from home creates the impression that going to offices will no longer be necessary. That would definitely lead to the death of cities as we knew them. It is impressive to know that the Washington Post and the New York Times are homemade papers now, written and put together by thousands of journalists scattered across the suburbs of Washington D.C. and New York City. According to the current pandemic rules and restrictions, improved after much hesitation from the federal government, the two papers, before reopening their newsrooms, will have to restructure the buildings, the elevators, and the offices in order to enable more than 1000 journalists to work in-person again. The papers are extending the period of remote work until sometime next year.
But as most discussions are proving, the permanent work from the home model will, in the long-run, impact the quality of journalism that needs to be discussed, questioned, inspired, edited, and researched in person. Zoom is not enough as it is one-way communication. The need for in-person communication has been noticed even by gym patrons, who for the months have exercised at home. They have now rediscovered an urge to go back to their regular gyms. The piece is an interesting read about how the workout in America has been transformed into the way of life.
So why not transform New York, the city of art and architecture, into a lab for new forms of urban life, changing it into a second home destination and moving workplaces into Queens and New Jersey? Why does real estate have to dictate the way of life in the city? Why does my shoemaker on Broadway need to pay $24,000 a month for rent, and Victoria's Secret at Herald Square $937,000 a month? The good news is that the landlords can no longer ask for those prices. Shops are closing and people are leaving, waiting to come back when the prices begin to tumble. This is mostly the reason why so many media outlets wrote an early obituary to New York.
When I first arrived in New York, my first bank manager was a Chinese man who discussed passive and active interest rates but had problems pronouncing "three" in English. No matter how much I would love to see that New York again, it is gone. But boy I cannot tell you how much I can't wait to see what is coming next. It will not be a funeral, it will be another party.