New York City went dark, but her spirit shined bright.
How a community in the East Village came together during the pandemic.
I’ve lived in New York on and off for nearly four years. I say “on and off’, because this city doesn’t take you in that easily. She knocks you around, tests your resilience and makes you prove your loyalty, like a rite of passage, before rewarding you with her warm and inclusive embrace.
In January, exactly a year ago, I received her final nod of approval and landed back at JFK to put down roots. In March, the city shut down.
I considered leaving to bunker down elsewhere for a New York minute. As someone who thrives on the serendipitous connections this city facilitates, the thought of solo isolation was daunting.
But I chose to stay, for two reasons.
When you choose New York, you choose all of her. She’s a city of extremes. High highs and low lows. Living here is like driving a sports car without shock absorbers — you don’t get to enjoy the wild ride without feeling every speed bump along the way. When you choose her energy, creativity and magic, you also choose her noise, grit and dirt. So I guess it made sense that with her 24/7 buzz and endless sources of entertainment on every corner, the shutdown would cause an equal and opposite level of devastation.
My second reason for staying was that I wanted to be here for the coming out party. I know, looking back, this statement has all the naivety of a tourist thinking they can amble down 5th Avenue at rush hour. But at the time, when the concept of lockdown was inconceivable and the virus was still playing hide and seek with the world, I assumed after two or three months Cuomo would signal the green light and we’d flood the streets in celebration.
Who could’ve predicted the length of the detour or the intensity of its speed bumps? And yet, from this vantage point, I am grateful I stayed — right in the heart of it, in the East Village, near Union Square — for I got to live in the front row seats of history.
But more than this, I got to experience a side of New York that I knew was there and had caught glimpses of before. A side that can easily be buried beneath the bright lights and relentless hustle to make life happen.
And that is her unwavering community spirit. From my friends who stayed (and sadly, many did leave for various reasons) to the guy at my local bodega, from café owners to supermarket cashiers, there was a different connection this year. A deeper level of camaraderie. Stripped bare of her distractions, New York came down to the energy on the streets and the spirit of the people.
Nowhere did I experience this more than in my own building. While I may not have known how long lockdown would be, I knew I couldn’t do it alone. Bumping into a neighbor back in March, I suggested we form a WhatsApp group. A quarantine tribe. It grew over the months and, together, we watched the year unfold from the safe haven of our rooftop.
A diverse group of New York die-hards who had already experienced tough times in this city. The Jewish couple with a strong Brooklyn accent who baked cakes, fried latkes and made pumpkin pies. The Puerto Ricans who brought out cocktails and hot toddies. The Australian and his guitar. The well-known DJ from the height of the nightclub era. The gay couple who took me on road trips and fixed things around my apartment. The comedian with her sex and dating podcast. And me, a South African with her crazy New York dream.
Our connection began in the early days when New York was the epicenter of the pandemic. Confined to our apartments, with the air still cold outside, we would meet on the roof at 7pm to join the city clapping in gratitude for our essential workers. Those who were looking after the sick, putting food on our table, and keeping the wheels of the city turning.
In the Spring, just as we’d flattened the curve and the tulips stood defiant in their flower boxes, we joined the city in its defiance. We first saw the riot police in the street below, the haze of burning rubber and the stores boarding up around us. But when the violence shortly subsided, we were engulfed in wave after wave of peaceful protests, chanting for justice and for Black Lives to Matter.
In the Fall, as the leaves changed color, different winds of change blew in. After an intense five days glued to the electoral map, the sound of a bugle wafting across the East Village signaled the new Biden era. Within minutes, our building community spontaneously headed to the roof armed with champagne. The joy and relief in the streets below was palpable.
In between, over the Summer, the city came to life as we could be socially distanced outside. Restaurants got creative with al fresco dining, fairy lights, cocktails to go and wooden pergolas for shade. The odd jazz band permeated the humid air. People exercised in parks. But still, our quarantine tribe, separated from family and friends, came together for 4th July, birthdays, 9/11 and, later, Thanksgiving.
And now, as the Winter months have rolled around and even though the clock has ticked over to a new year, we once again find ourselves retreating to our homes. Some restaurants are attracting diners (dressed in ski gear) with their heat lamps and blankets. But many have switched off their lights and boarded up their windows. The wooden structures sitting empty in the streets, a stark reminder that Covid’s game is far from over, and so many people are suffering in unimaginable ways.
With the vaccine roll-out, this new year will hopefully bring light at the end of the tunnel. The lights of Broadway will one day shine again, comedians will once again humor us from the stage, and bars and restaurants will open their doors. Yet for now, it feels like the darkness before the dawn.
But when you choose New York’s light, you choose her darkness too, knowing you’ll get through it with the support and resilience fueled by her community spirit.