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2 June 2021

Letter from New York: a ghost town comes to life

The city is returning to its pre-pandemic rhythm – but the new mayor will be governing a changed city.

By Nick Burns

Spring in New York City: tulips in Washington Square Park, cherry trees blossoming in the shadow of cast-iron buildings in SoHo. The air loses its winter crispness and takes on that close, indistinct quality of the warmer months in the US north-east. The streets of Lower Manhattan fill with people. On warmer days it is possible to catch a foretaste of that unique smell of the city in the summertime: the odour of hot trash, wafting up from the bags piled on the pavement for collection. A small price to pay to be free of a long and bitter winter. And this year another kind of thaw is in progress – from the long hibernation of pandemic isolation.

More than 50 per cent of New Yorkers have now received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Outside small pharmacies in Russian Brooklyn, in Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, at hundreds of sites across the five boroughs, New Yorkers line up to get their jabs. The scandals besieging the state governor Andrew Cuomo, previously deified in national media for his energetic response to the pandemic, have not hampered the buoyant mood in the city. Attention focuses more on dropping case rates, widely available vaccines, lockdown measures pared back, and – the latest treat – marijuana legalisation (on which New York was beaten to the punch by California and, more embarrassingly, Illinois).

[See also: Why learning about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre is not enough]

The city is gearing up for a crowded mayoral primary election in June, in which more traditional city politicos will square off against a newcomer to local politics, the 2020 presidential candidate and businessman Andrew Yang. He has a household name, an entrepreneurial, tech-optimistic rhetoric and a centrist stance, but his early lead has dissipated and he now polls roughly even with the Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams and former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia. Forecasts of a low turnout make it difficult to estimate the outcome. If Yang tops June’s primary, he will have as good as won the mayor’s office in the November general election – but governing may be another matter.

New York is not politically conservative, but it might fairly be called conservative in a more temperamental way. Interest groups, from unions to police groups, cannot be counted on to take kindly to bright ideas – including those Yang has promised – about disrupting established practices in the city.

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***

I landed here from California one night in late January, as the first flakes of a three-day blizzard began to fall. My new apartment was completely bare, with every furniture store shuttered in consequence of weather or the pandemic, and deliveries stymied by unploughed streets. There was little for it but to sleep on the floor, taking Zoom calls leaning against empty walls – I wandered through the silent streets of Little Italy in search of a coffee maker, watching snow fall on the awnings of closed restaurants, on the fire escapes of the tenements.

Henry Adams, the great American stylist and last luminary of the Adams political dynasty, wrote of the psychological effects of the climatic swings of the US north-east: there, “life was a double thing”. This year more than ever. On my street in February, more than half the businesses were closed either temporarily or permanently. The area was quiet, almost peaceful. Dining indoors was not permitted, bars shuttered. Unlike in Britain or in most of the US, mask-wearing outside was almost universal. On Houston Street at rush hour, it was possible to find oneself in a crowd of people in which not a single face was visible: a strange and alienating experience of social isolation.

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Now the streets seethe with life. Even the city’s rats are multiplying, fattening themselves on discarded pizza crusts and crawling into litter cans. Lines are long at the dollar-a-slice pizza vendors and corner delis. Dormant cafés reopen, restaurants that did not survive the pandemic are quickly replaced with others in accordance with the city’s unforgiving tradition of creative destruction. The ubiquitous jerry-built cabins and corrugated plexiglass outdoor dining shanties, some remarkably elaborate, had in the coolest months been frequented only sparsely, by those with high tolerance for the cold. Now it is hard to get a table. The city is suddenly crowded – a relief, but also, in a slightly perverse way, sad, as if during the blizzards it had been mine alone, but now belongs to the crowds.

[See also: George Floyd’s murder one year on: has the US changed?]

Meanwhile, public health authorities have indicated masks are not necessary outside under most circumstances, placing an imprimatur on a shift in habits that was already occurring as the vaccination campaign advanced. The city is slow to catch up to the rest of the country – a few ultra-careful bobos remaining steadfastly mask-maximalist – but the matter seems decided.

In the quasi-suburban calm of outer Astoria in Queens, Greek-American men return to the corner kafenio to drink espresso freddo and share gossip. People draw up lawn chairs, play music, grill food outside corner stores in Dominican neighbourhoods in Brooklyn. Helmeted children on scooters charge down rows of stately brownstones in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, terrorising pedestrians. Even in Stapleton, in distant, sleepy Staten Island, music drifts through the warm nights and the streets are busy. Across the Hudson River in Hoboken and Jersey City, curfews for bars have been lifted entirely. (In New York City they were lifted on 31 May.) In converted warehouses facing the high-rises in Midtown, New Jersey’s youth have their temperatures checked in order to drink beer from oversized steins until the early hours of the morning.

Reports of the city’s death have – it seems clear – been greatly exaggerated, but things are far from back to 2019 levels of activity. The financial district, where Wall Street traders scurry in the shadow of neo-gothic stone skyscrapers and their glass-and-steel descendants, remains quiet during the day. Much of the city’s office space is empty, a casualty of home-working, and many wonder whether the long-haul commuters from outer suburbs in New Jersey or Long Island will agree to resume their punishing daily journeys when another option now seems possible. A mass exodus from the metropolis never materialised, but fears remain that the city has lost some of its richest inhabitants – those who contribute most to its public coffers – to Florida, Texas or elsewhere.

***

The next mayor of New York City will also have to contend with a rise in crime, reversing a decades-long decline from the tense 1980s and early 1990s, when in one year there were 2,245 homicides. A disturbing wave of hate crimes perpetrated against the city’s Asian-American population in recent months – including an especially shocking episode in which doormen in Midtown appeared to stand by as a woman was attacked on the street outside – has sparked general outrage and demands for action.

During the worst of the brutal first Covid wave in New York last March, authorities took the unprecedented step of introducing nightly closures of the subway, long famed for its unique 24-hour service on all lines. The service stoppages, which ran until 17 May, were intended to allow for a thorough cleaning of the cars to prevent the spread of Covid – although it is now doubted that the virus transmits via contact with surfaces. What is more, since the subway system has been constructed with 24-hour service in mind, there was not sufficient room in the city’s train yards to hold the cars, meaning some of them had to be run empty during the period the subway was “closed”.

What better epitome of the US is there than this? The very infrastructure of the metropolis cannot be stopped even for a moment, must never let up its relentless effort or it will be destroyed. When out walking at night during the period when the subway was closed, it was possible to hear the empty trains rattling through the grates. The pavement would vibrate with a low hum as the ghostly carriages passed by underground. 

[See also: The US reopening is a moment of reckoning for a divided nation]

This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West