A bad day in New York is a hell of a lot better than a good day most places elsewhere…
A love of New York has always been a dysfunctional sort of relationship, an exercise in converting flaws into part of the ‘charm,’ and excusing things that a reasonable person might consider a deal breaker from the get-go because ‘it’s New York!’
Tiny apartments, extortionate rents, gridlocked traffic, noise, pollution, construction, dirty streets, pizza rat, cockroaches, crazies, crime (it happened pre-Covid too); waiting in line for the newest restaurant, bar or baked good (seriously, remember cronuts?); aggressive drivers and brusque servers; mosquitoes, humidity, Arctic bomb cyclones….
Why would anyone want to live here? Oh wait, it’s New York! As a reason it was always deemed so self-evidently compelling as to require no further explanation. I certainly didn’t need one when I was offered a job here eight years ago.
To speak of anything other than loving New York was a blasphemy – a sign you didn’t ‘get’ it or couldn’t hack it. And the one thing nobody could say was that New York sucked. But suddenly people are.
At the start of shutdown those of us who toughed it out in the city united, as it claimed the unenviable superlative of ‘the worst’. Coronavirus reached its peak here in late March, early April. On the worst day of that worst time New York City reported 8,021 new cases and 714 deaths in one day.
As a reporter a great deal of my time ‘in New York’ has actually been spent on the road. I’ve travelled all over America, bouncing from story to story and state to state. More than once I’ve had to double check a flight ticket not to know where I am going but to know, for sure, where I am.
Touching down back in Manhattan was always a thrill, seeing the skyline at any time of day and night was confirmation of my love for the place and I longed for more time at home. Well, I got it.
I spent shutdown marooned in my studio apartment in Mid-Town – a place I loved, then loathed, then tolerated in inglorious isolation as the weeks turned to months. I lived it and I reported it.
I spoke with doctors, nurses and EMTs who bore witness to harrowing scenes and risked their lives daily. Some slept in cars between shifts so as not to put their families at risk until the City finally provided hotel rooms. They wept with fear and exhaustion as the White House, by Trump’s own admission, ‘downplayed’ the dangers. Experts clashed over what we should and should not do and their debate translated into conflict on the streets. Conspiracy theorists denied the existence of COVID-19, brandished arms and spoke of their liberties while bodies were loaded onto refrigerated trucks parked on side-streets behind hospitals and funeral parlours because the morgues were full.
It was bad. Sometimes it was overwhelming. Sometimes you wanted to look away. Then, George Floyd was killed beneath the knee of a Minneapolis cop and no-one could look away. I reported on that too, from Minneapolis – a city on fire. The fire spread across the country. It spread across the world. Here in New York City, like so many, there were peaceful protests and there were nights of violence and crime. Curfews were imposed; stores boarded up. For a while, at night, the sound of sirens – the eerie soundtrack of the pandemic – was replaced by the sound of shattering glass.
The summer of 2020 bulldozed on.
Summer always bring a rise in crime but this year the spike has been intense. There’s no sense in trying to talk that down, why would you?
Take June, last year there were 89 shootings across the 5 boroughs. This year there were 205. The sharpest rise of all has was seen in burglaries – 1,783 compared to 817.
Law enforcement and criminologists differ on the reasons for this increase but that’s cold comfort to anyone affected by it. NYPD Police Commissioner Dermot Shea has pointed to the ‘legislative mandate’ that demanded inmates no longer eligible for bail be released back onto the streets.
Figures through June showed rearrests of these offenders accounted for an additional 750 major felonies compared with the population released this time last year.
Empty houses, often in the more affluent neighbourhoods where their occupants could afford to quit the city for the Hamptons, made easy targets. And a quiet street in any city, as anyone walking alone will tell you, is more dangerous than a crowded one.
These things are worrying, and they are real. But there is a danger of taking them and mixing them up with something more nebulous; the hearsay anxiety of something, that happened to someone, in some place, in broad daylight and conflating it into an overarching narrative of ‘New York City isn’t safe anymore’. Some places never were. And suddenly a person is ‘fleeing’ the city because confirmation bias has converted one bad experience into proof that the whole place has gone to shit.
You see there’s a common thread among those who talk about how New York sucks these days; the idea that everything has changed and changed for the worse.
For some people it has in the most devastating ways; they have lost loved ones, they have lost livelihoods, they have lost more than a city.
But, for those of us who have the luxury of mistaking inconvenience for suffering, everything has not changed. Maybe the way we look at it has; maybe the way we feel about it has; maybe we have. Maybe that’s no bad thing. Certainly, all of our lives have been altered – some perhaps permanently.
Stripped of the hustle and bustle we’ve had time to reflect and notice what we really miss when all is said and done. Maybe at first it was restaurants and bars and shows and movies. And sure, it will be great to have all of those things back again. But as shutdown really took hold a lot of New Yorkers started missing things we’d never even had here in the first place; outdoor space and a horizon that’s further away than across the street and broader than the span of a window.
So much of shut down in this city was spent in anticipation of its end. The shared hope developed a sort of momentum, replacing New York City’s famous buzz with a different kind of energy. But now it is clear that the end will not be anywhere near as definitive, or abrupt, as the beginning. All the absolutes of shutdown have splintered into an un-nerving sort of uncertainty. New York City is neither closed nor is it open and if it never sleeps it’s only because it’s anxious. We all are.
But that unsettled state of mind (nod to Billy Joel) isn’t only being felt in New York and it’s not New York’s fault. It didn’t hide all of the things that are now being held against it. We just didn’t notice them because love is blind and we were busy and so was it.
I’m not immune to the doubts and the questioning. I always thought New York was it for me. The end. I’ve made it. But now I’m not so sure. New York is (still) a remarkable city and I have no desire to go ‘back’ home. Home is here, where I live, not where I’m from. (Separate point if you talk about going ‘back’ home your heart was never really here in the first place). Certainly New York is my first love but is it my last? Who knows?
For me, I guess, the relationship isn’t done yet. But if I leave, it will not be because New York isn’t safe or New York sucks. Look around. It’s having a bad day but so is the rest of the world and a bad day in New York is a hell of a lot better than a good day most places elsewhere.
And if you leave, let’s be honest, it’s not New York. It’s you.
Photo credit: NY Mayor’s Office