Pandemic-Era New York Isn’t So Bad
Pandemic-Era New York Isn’t So Bad
I’ve seen many New Yorks in my lifetime, starting with the gritty “French Connection” city of the 1970s, the Pop Art times of the ’80s, the renaissance of the ’90s and on through the most recent revitalization, the gentrified Manhattan and Brooklyn of post-9/11 New York City.
And yet, while I have speculated about what New York City will be like after a pandemic, I have never seen it during a pandemic. So I recently made a visit, which also fulfills my broader agenda of keeping alive the idea and practice of travel.
Some people might legitimately question whether it is ethical to travel at all right now. My answer is yes, if done responsibly. I hail from what New York considers a “safe enough” state (Virginia), drove rather than crowding mass transit, avoided the hotel elevator by reserving a third-floor room, and did my socializing outside.
There are no totally safe activities nowadays, but I was supporting New York City small businesses, most of all bookstores and restaurants. A Manhattan without tourists is a Manhattan that will wither, so I like to think my visit did some small amount of good.
What did I find? Wall Street is largely shuttered, Broadway is closed, and Midtown feels deserted. I could drive around many parts of town without having to suffer in traffic, an experience I had never before known and perhaps will never see again. It is not typically feasible to tour Manhattan by car, but I did so several times.
And yes, you can find a parking spot in most parts of Manhattan these days, another novelty. Did I mention that my hotel room cost less than a third of what I’ve normally paid?
I visited the Museum of Modern Art, operating under stringent visitor restrictions and with its tourist clientele mostly gone. I had just about every gallery to myself, and thus an unparalleled look at the museum’s masterpieces. If a room had even a few other visitors in it, I moved on and came back later.
The center of the city has moved downtown, to Greenwich Village and surrounding areas. Many streets are closed to cars, and restaurants have put their tables on the sidewalk or the street. Instead of choosing a place on the basis of the food, the menu now just has to be “good enough,” with the key variables being the quality of the seating and the degree of the spacing. I have never seen that part of town feel so alive. The most vibrant single street for both food and socializing was slightly further north in Koreatown, starting at 32nd and Broadway and spreading two blocks to the east.
I visited Brooklyn twice, and it too struck me as livelier than usual, with so much happening outside. The restaurants had less ambitious new arrangements, with a small table or two outside rather than 20, but the street conference was a common sight, especially for Brooklyn’s numerous immigrant groups. The multiculturalism of Brooklyn was more on display, and on Rosh Hashanah the playing of the Shofar horn was frequently to be seen and heard.
Each part of the country has dealt with the pandemic differently, and I was struck how near-universal and disciplined was the practice of mask-wearing, even outside. I haven’t been seeing that anywhere in the mid-Atlantic region where I live.
Of course parts of my visit were overwhelmingly sad. It is not just the reminders of the death and trauma New York has experienced. It’s the uncertainty about the return of the city’s hum of activity. Many of the major cultural venues seem very far from a full-scale reopening or, in the case of concerts and theater, any reopening at all. So many small businesses are failing — bankruptcies are up 40% — while others are surviving by ignoring or limiting their rent obligations, which is not sustainable in the long run.
Most of all, I am afraid of when the colder weather arrives and makes outside dining much more difficult. Restaurants will do their best with heat lamps and perhaps limited indoor seating. But much of the fun will be gone. The whole mood of downtown will change rather suddenly, probably within the span of a two-week period in October. Many of the city’s more wealthy residents will flee.
I don’t wish to encourage irresponsible tourism. But in many ways, there has never been a more interesting time to visit New York City. If you go, be sure to check the weather report — and the safety precautions — before you depart.