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above: commuter traffic is almost nonexistent during the morning rush at Grand Central Station in New York City, Monday, June 8, 2020 (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Correspondence

New York's New Normal

The past months have been strange for everyone, for New Yorkers most of all. What happens when the city that never sleeps locks down? When commuters stay home, subways are deserted, and shops, restaurants, theaters, museums, libraries, schools, playgrounds, public gardens, sports arenas, churches, and concert halls are all locked?

Or for that matter, what happens when global capital, real estate developers, and entitled millennials meet virtue signaling, revolutionary nihilism, and the progressive media bubble?

The Wuhan epidemic hit the city hard early on. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s claimed success in overcoming it is largely due to herd immunity acquired then, when subways, sidewalks, and bars were crowded. No one knew how to treat the disease, and patients who weren’t killed by ventilators killed others when Cuomo forced them into nursing homes.

At first, officials told us there was no cause for fear, except that someone might say something unpleasant to an Asian person. There was a piece in a local paper about how one guy in Chinatown was burglarized, another had a sign vandalized, and a third was robbed while out delivering food. These were, apparently, signs of the racist reign of terror brought on by the expression “Chinese virus.”

But then the ambulance sirens began wailing and ICU admissions and dead bodies began piling up. Soothing words turned to genuine alarm, and in a few days everything shut down except services considered essential. You could walk down the middle of deserted streets at midday, and that’s what people did to avoid getting near anyone.

The city remained a ghost town for almost three months, with its silence punctuated mainly by the endless firecrackers at night, the organized cheering for frontline workers from doorsteps in the early evening, and the protests, marches, riots, and looting induced by the media coverage and viral YouTube video regarding George Floyd’s death under police arrest, which in fact seems to have been caused largely by a drug overdose.

The latter festivities were characteristically supported by the public officials who kept us all locked up for months. Streams of protesters marched by my house chanting ill-tempered slogans. Most of them seemed to be entitled millennials who see no prospect for a life like that of their parents: no car, no house, no family, no stable career, lots of student debt, and no assets of any kind. Thus their fury had a personal background, and the lockdown meant they could no longer divert themselves at bars and restaurants. 

People in my neighborhood, a somewhat hipper version of neighboring Park Slope, put up Black Lives Matter placards and applauded as the marchers processed down the street. On the neighborhood discussion board people stopped complaining about the miserable offenders who failed to wear masks and started talking instead about how bad it is to call the cops on black people. And since people go for specialties here—we used to have an artisanal mayonnaise shop around the corner—there was a huge “Black Trans Lives Matter” rally nearby, in front of the Brooklyn Museum. 

We had much less damage from vandalism and looting than many cities, mostly in a few high-end Manhattan neighborhoods, and what damage there was has mostly been repaired. Possibly our police are more organized and effective than most. Real estate interests are certainly more powerful: I can’t help but think that behind-the-scenes discussions helped keep Mayor Bill de Blasio somewhat in line. Stupid, incompetent, and ideologically obstinate though he is, he does like political contributions.

Murders and assaults have gone up enormously, some of them uncomfortably close to where we live or otherwise targeting people and places that have been safe since Rudy Giuliani was mayor. Even so, the great majority were all-black affairs, including one near us where a man was shot twice in the head while lighting a candle at a memorial for another shooting victim. In recent years 97 percent of shooting victims in New York have been nonwhite, and that doesn’t seem to have changed much. As expected, Black Lives Matter has failed to convert its supposed constituency to its claimed principles. 

Between plague, riot, assault, and murder, people aren’t rushing to take advantage of the city’s gradual reopening. Open-air restaurants are indeed well-patronized, and sidewalks and parking areas have been converted to that use. While the warm weather continued, this was one aspect of the city that became very pleasant. 

But the subway is still very sparsely used, Grand Central Terminal is nearly empty at 6 p.m., and Midtown Manhattan Wednesday afternoon looks like it used to look midmorning on Sundays. The barbershops there are open, but the barbers sit around staring into space. The office workers who once patronized them have vanished.

A further problem in some areas like the Upper West Side is that the city has been moving homeless people, many of them at least somewhat crazy, from homeless shelters to hotels that are now otherwise unused. Instead of isolating from each other in their rooms, as intended, many of them go out on the street, where their bizarre behavior makes life difficult for the locals. 

Closer to where my wife and I live, neighborhood groups have been getting streets closed off for children to play in, but there have been few takers. And the health club a couple of blocks from us has reopened but is almost deserted. Park Slope health and fitness fans have evidently found ways to do their routines at home or in Prospect Park and haven’t come around to resuming their old—now presumably hazardous—ways. 

But the degree of concern varies. Mainline Protestant churches, patronized by nice people who do nice things, remain closed. Catholic churches have been open since June, although attendance is way down except at the few that offer the Traditional Latin Mass, where attendance is higher than before. 

In upscale areas all the white professionals wear masks. So do East Asians, who have been doing that sort of thing for decades in their homelands, as do most blacks and Hispanics, whose populations have been hit hard by the virus. But since evidently neither Russians, South Asians, nor Orthodox Jews believe in listening to what outsiders tell them, they can’t be bothered to don the face-diapers. The same goes for the working-class people of Staten Island, the most remote of the city’s five boroughs.

But life stumbles on, and whatever happens always has benefits. Suppression of traffic has made the air much better, and parks and cemeteries have been packed with birdwatchers. You see more children on the sidewalks or in parks with their parents and playing in the ways that years ago were considered normal.

However insane New York and its people sometimes appear, there are a great many intelligent, well-intentioned, and highly functional people here. In the past, New Yorkers were famously street-smart, and some of that continues. And the free time and enforced isolation has led to outbursts of suppressed neighborliness. People say “hello” to each other on the street much more now, a surprising change in New York.

What’s actually going on and where will all this go? Nobody knows. People still don’t go out and see each other much, and the media and other official sources of information do not stand out for their objectivity. It’s been said that those who can are leaving the city. It does seem that rents are dropping and that moving vans are scarce if you need to rent one, but a common sight in front of apartment buildings. 

People say the city won’t come back. The virus will stay with us forever, and politics is making big cities unlivable. The shutdown and damage to public order have been enormously burdensome, and it’s not clear how we can make up for that. But basic indicators remain the same. Plagues eventually vanish, powerful people eventually get what they want in New York, and Zoom meetings are a poor substitute for physical presence. Business and the arts depend on specific personal connections, which the internet disintegrates rather than facilitates.

So I can’t say the Big Apple will come back bigger, busier, and richer than ever, but we’re not going to have a repeat of the 1970s. The age of internet connectivity has been the age of a few imperial cities. It’s made it easier for the movers and shakers to be together, away from the people who take the orders and do the work. Why should that change, and why should the people who run things stop doing what they want?

James Kalb

James Kalb

James Kalb is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism.

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