How many articles do we need to keep reading that claim New York is dead and dying? Seriously, is this what people really believe to be true?
In his book Insomniac City, Bill Hayes refers to the Empire State and Chrysler buildings as an old married couple keeping watch over its people below. And right now, this pair have their arms folded, a smirk on their faces, while shaking their heads in disbelief at each one of these headlines.
We did not need a pandemic to spread this rhetoric. People have been trying to kill off New York for decades. There are books and blogs dedicated to showcasing (or in my mind, plotting) her demise.
I too have heard people complain recently that New York will be forever changed. But here’s the thing. New York has always been forever changing. It’s people who want to stand still and hold on to the past, even when she is ready to move forward.
It reminds me of a quote I saw soon after arriving here. It was flashing on one of those electronic billboards on 3rd Ave, and it went something like this, “The best day in New York was the day before you got here”.
How many people have arrived in this city, wide-eyed and in awe of her sheer wonder, only to have someone say, “ah, but you missed the best years”. I reckon, whether you arrived today in the height of the pandemic, in the 70’s at the height of the hedonistic nightclub scene, or anywhere in between, you’d still hear the same thing. There will always be those who hold on to her yesteryear as the glory days.
Now let me be clear, my rosy colored glasses are indeed tinted with a touch of reality. And I’m not for one minute saying these are easy times. No, New York is not the vibrant, hyperactive city we’ve known it to be. Many people are struggling, lives have been turned upside down and while some businesses have adapted, others have had to close their doors.
But the reality is, with Covid a global equalizer, these scenes are not unique to New York. They are playing out in countless cities around the world. Sure, New York was always going to experience the effects of a global pandemic to the absolute extreme. Afterall, she’s a city of extremes — high highs and low lows.
I’ll never forget that visceral shock I felt the day her always-on buzz from Broadway to Wall Street was turned off. I’m not sure there’s another city in the world that would feel this contrast so acutely.
But as dramatic as her shut down was, so will be her rise. It may take time, but she will rise. For if there is one thing New York has pulsating through her veins, it’s resilience.
Living right in the heart of it over the past five months, I’ve witnessed New York’s grit and resilience first hand. I’ve seen neighbors pull together to form tight bonds of friendship. I’ve watched a lone jazz band breathe life back into the East Village. I’ve sat at restaurants that have adapted and innovated to call back diners. And I’ve seen artists use any blank space as a canvas for their self-expression.
The sense of community spirit is as strong, if not stronger, than ever. A key ingredient that seems to be missing from the analysis of New York’s naysayers.
For New York is not just a city. It’s an attitude, a way of being. It’s a state of mind. And it’s this state of mind that has magnetized — and will continue to magnetize — the dreamers and creators, the innovators and builders, the artists and writers year after year. It’s this attitude that will fuel her rebuild.
I get that some people have chosen to leave New York. I know parents of small kids who have traded in the concrete for greener pastures. I know sun-lovers who have traded in the snow for sandy beaches. But almost all of them had one foot out the door well before this pandemic hit. Covid has merely accelerated these decisions.
To those who have left or who are leaving, that’s ok. New York is not for everyone, all the time, at every stage of life. But all I ask is that you don’t deploy the dead and dying narrative as justification for moving on.
To quote Bill Hayes again, “to be a New Yorker is to be away from the city and feel like you are missing something”. Perhaps those who choose to leave, find comfort at the thought of her demise so they don’t have to fear missing out on her comeback.
As for those of us who have reaffirmed our commitment to stay here — and I know many — we can either look back in the belief that the best years are behind us, or we can look forward and say the best years are yet to come. We can either cling to nostalgia from the past while bemoaning the present, or we can roll up our sleeves and create the future.
The simple truth is we can’t stop change. We can resist it. We can roll with it. Or, even better, we can shape it.
New York’s restaurants will come and go. Businesses will open and shut. Music venues will rise and fall.
But what will always remain intact is the essence of this city’s soul and the rhythm of her heartbeat.
And it’s from this place, that we can look to the future and write a new story.