New York still bears the scars of being at the centre of the Covid-19 pandemic, but former Stuff journalist Bevan Hurley discovers a city of defiant resilience.
There’s a fresh foot of snow on the ground, Central Park is a whiteout. Lakes have almost frozen over, and the few patches of flowing water reflect the soaring art deco apartment buildings that line the park’s western edge.
Central Park has been a sanctuary for New Yorkers for more than 150 years, and on this December day, the masked come in their thousands to marvel at the sheer beauty, many bringing sleds and tubes and sheets of plastic to ride down any slope they can find.
The Insta-famous are there too, staging elaborate selfies with their tripods and sticks. Some parade their dogs and cats about on leashes, imploring disobedient felines to look at the camera.
For a brief moment, the Covid-19 pandemic – which is now making a resurgence in New York, having already killed some 25,000 residents – seemed to have been forgotten. Well, almost. One tourist, perhaps swept up in the magnificence of it all, wanders maskless, and is firmly but gently reminded that he should wear a face covering at all times by a passing local.
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NYC is Dead, Long Live NYC
I’d arrived a few days earlier to start a new life in New York, with a five-year visa and an intense curiosity to find out how the city that was so badly traumatised earlier in the year would figure out a path out of the pandemic.
The journey began at a deserted Auckland International Airport. There were just 34 passengers on the flight from Auckland to Hong Kong on an Airbus A350 that seated 280. Wandering through a deserted Hong Kong Airport at 3am there’s a solitary noodle joint open, and two stores selling coffee and snacks.
December in New York heralded the second wave of the coronavirus. Covid cases and hospitalisation rates were higher than at any time since June, and New York state governor Andrew Cuomo had just banned indoor dining in the city.
In the before times, just over 1.6 million people lived on Manhattan. The same number as Auckland, crammed into an area about one eighteenth the size. More than three million commuters used to come on to the island each day from New Jersey, Connecticut or one of the city’s other four boroughs to work and play.
In March, with morgues and hospitals overflowing, New York went into a full lock down for 80 straight days. Virtually anyone who could, left. The city only began to reopen gradually in June, and by the time summer had properly kicked in, in July, its bars and restaurants were once again busily serving cocktails and burgers, with new social distancing and mask requirements.
Many millions who moved away have stayed away. The high rise office blocks remain largely empty. Financial giants are mulling relocations. Anonymised cellphone tracking suggests 3.57 million left the city between January and December, replaced by millions of lower income workers.
Compared to the normally relentless energy of the place, it was quiet. Eerily so. In the city that never sleeps, those restaurants and bars that have remained open close at 10pm.
On the streets of the Upper East Side neighbourhood where I’m living, one can maintain a safe distance from passers-by much of the time. Sidewalk etiquette dictates you pass on the right, as you would in a car, give way to the elderly, and avoid ‘mall walking’ – 2-3 shoulder to shoulder.
As you venture into Midtown, say, to go and look at the famous Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center, or to gaze at the neon Gods of Times Square, distancing becomes more challenging. Still, most are masked up and respectful of personal space.
On a trip to Harlem, the streets are crowded. In the shadow of the Apollo Theatre, a street vendor sells copies of “educational DVDs” of the anti-vax movie Vaxxed for $3.
Indoors, avoiding close contact with people becomes much more difficult. At a crowded supermarket on Manhattan’s Upper East Side on Christmas Eve eve, a voice on the tannoy reminds shoppers to maintain a six foot gap.
It’s, at best, an optimistic ask. As harried New Yorkers rush to fill their baskets in the narrow, packed aisles, they’re continually brushing up against one another.
Museums offer contactless, timed entry. Holding doors open for strangers is still the norm, but it no longer feels comfortable in a city where every surface could potentially harbour the dreaded bug.
Catching the subway is still the quickest, cheapest way to get around, and even during rush hour the occupancy is so low that one can keep your distance from commuters.
The accompanying multibillion dollar drop in tax revenue has left the city with a massive budget shortfall, meaning huge cutbacks to public services such as mass transit and garbage disposal loom.
Many lower income workers in the service industries found themselves out of work. Hunger and poverty rates increased. With 447 murders last year, 2020 was New York’s bloodiest year in more than a decade (but still way off the record highs of the 1980s and 90s).
As New York’s pandemic woes mounted, naysayers were quick to sound the city’s death knell.
In a widely-derided piece, NYC Is Dead Forever, Here’s Why, city native and comedy club owner James Altucher said he’d moved to Florida for good because the three key things that made the city great; business opportunities, culture and food, were never going to make it back to pre-pandemic levels of greatness.
Eight days later comedy legend Jerry Seinfeld penned a stinging retort in the New York Times as to why the city whose foibles are synonymous with his own would prevail.
“Real, live, inspiring human energy exists when we coagulate together in crazy places like New York City,” wrote Seinfeld.
As novelist, podcaster and journalist Molly Jong-Fast noted in The Atlantic, “the New York of the present is always dying”, making way for the next incarnation. Jong-Fast is a product of the crime-ridden New York of the 1980s. Her parents grew up in the Bohemian New York of the 1960s, her children are more familiar with the extreme wealth and accompanying excesses of the 2010s.
My first night in New York would be the last chance to dine indoors before Cuomo’s ban, so we headed to an Italian restaurant in the East Village.
The owners, a husband and wife, had let go all of their staff the day before, and were seating, serving and making cocktails for guests on their own, as well as cooking all meals and cleaning. They hadn’t been able to see their twin daughters that weekend, missing their 14th birthday the day before, so they could keep the place open. The owner had been to the market to buy the fresh ingredients for the specials of wild boar sausage, chicken lasagne. He made our bruschetta, ragu linguine, brought over cocktails, and selected an exquisite bottle of red for the table.
The chef’s mask slips as he tells us he feels betrayed by the indoor dining ban. They’d studiously observed all of the social distancing guidelines, keeping tables well spaced, and keeping doors open even in the cold to keep air circulating, only for Cuomo to whip the table cloth from underneath them.
“They treat us like criminals,” he said.
A week later, we stopped by an Upper East Side institution J.G. Melon and enquire about a table outdoors. Diners are huddled around heaters and under makeshift canopies. We take a table on the corner of the street, so close to the piles of darkened snow piled on the street from last week’s dump, I could have reached out and scooped it into my glass.
Anyone who’s been to the US will appreciate what an essential part of the experience food is.
Before Covid came along, you could have eaten at a different restaurant in New York every day for 22 years.
Now, you’re hard placed to find a Starbucks who will let you use the restrooms. Outings turn into an endless search for a public toilet.
Many here believe the rivalry between Governor Cuomo and New York city mayor Bill de Blasio led them to make inexplicable decisions that caused the deaths of many, and unnecessarily upended lives. These two Democrats soak up much of the city’s animus, before a certain golfing enthusiast enters the conversation.
The Day After
As a mob of angry Donald Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol building, breaking their way into the Senate chamber, causing politicians to flee for their lives and huddle in ‘undisclosed locations’, it was clear we were witnessing a direct attack on democracy in America. Having failed in every other regard to overturn the election, the sitting president was using violence to subvert the results of a free and fair election.
As I was watching this unfold, a friend in upstate New York messaged to ask if the violence was spreading. Thankfully it wasn’t.
Trump knows full well he didn’t win the presidential election. But he decided to construct an elaborate lie to assuage his hurt feelings. That lie metastasised into an armed insurrection by the MAGA mob.
Trump’s supporters have been fed an endless diet of lies, conspiracy theories, constructing alternative facts and bubbles of reality in the echo chambers of right wing media, and using online chat forums to unite and to activate their fantasies.
The domestic terror attack, which Joe Biden called an assault on the “citadel of liberty”, were shocking but not at all surprising.
The next day I took a palette cleansing ferry ride to Staten Island, which runs right past the Statue of Liberty, with a copy of Democracy in America.
Written in the 1830s by Frenchman Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America is still widely regarded as one of the finest pieces of writing about this country.
De Tocqueville might not have been around to see Trumpism, but his insights describe the conditions from which the movement was born and flourished.
“The hatred that men bear to privilege increases in proportion as privileges become fewer and less considerable, so that democratic passions would seem to burn most fiercely just when they have least fuel,” he wrote in 1838.
Donald Trump has never read or even heard of De Tocqueville, but I suspect he’s familiar with Ghostbusters II.
At the heart of the plot line to the 1989 movie, an inferior sequel to the original 1984 film, is the river of slime which runs under New York streets, an open torrent of bigotry and hatred which feeds off the negative emotional energy and anger.
The slime eventually takes on human form, growing, nearly causing the end of the world.
This week, the river of slime made its way to the seat of US Government, egged on by Trump and his coterie of goons.
American democracy is in grave danger. Who you gonna call?