In the early days of the pandemic lockdowns, New York City was a scary place. As deadly chaos ensued in the hospitals, a spectacularly loud soundscape was replaced by the terrifyingly constant sirens and the hum of refrigerated morgue trucks. Anybody on the pavement, most of whom were essential workers who had no choice but to be there, fearfully crossed the recommended two-metre distance, shying away from other passers-by. A city notorious for being crowded has become a tense place where getting too close to someone feels like it could send you both to a mass grave.
Although painful, these things are easy to talk about. They are morally clear: death is terrible; fear is terrible. What many New Yorkers more cautiously admit is, as the sheer terror began to wane in late April 2020, we went out and discovered that some things about the city were getting better. No tourists, no crowds, wealthy New Yorkers – they went to the Hamptons or the country for convenience. Anyone who couldn’t afford or didn’t want to leave was left behind. New York felt more neighborly, like a city half the size of it.
This transformation happened on a walk with a best friend. What might have been a casual date felt life-affirming, not life-affirming, proof that COVID hasn’t killed you both yet. Among New Yorkers who have adopted this walking habit during quarantine is architecture critic Michael Kimmelman. New York Times. Six days after then-Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency, Kimmelman invited a group of friends and colleagues to show him around their neighborhood, which he continued to write in a series of columns for the newspaper. These offerings encouraged New Yorkers not to leave each other and our city, to go out with friends when we weren’t inside, and to visit often miserable places like Times Square and the Brooklyn Bridge in peace.
published last month The Friendly City: Walking in New York, a collection of these essays. Many New Yorkers will appreciate the book for capturing a strange time when, as Kimmelman writes in the introduction, the coronavirus pandemic “opened a window to see New York, albeit briefly, in a new light.” He wanted to “capture a dangerous, historic moment where New Yorkers find strength in their shared neighborhood and with each other.”
Two years later, this period of hopeless coexistence feels like a strange dream, as New Yorkers suffer the long tail of what writer and activist Naomi Klein calls the shock doctrine—when those in power take advantage of a crisis to impose austerity and privatization. . Despite his overestimates, the new mayor is hollowing out his own workforce and slashing public budgets. Landlords are raising rents to hit record levels while keeping affordable apartments off the market. But for several months, many New Yorkers experienced the opposite: widespread well-being, free COVID-related healthcare, pauses in most evictions, and proof that many people want to spend time, not work in an office. take care of each other and take care of each other. Looking back to spring 2020, we are reminded that a more humane world is possible, but we got there only for a moment and because of a pandemic.
When Kimmelman designed the walks, it was hard to imagine that we would eventually find a way out of our isolation. Given the opportunity to imagine re-emergence, Kimmelman’s guides finally start talking more about human connection than architecture, which is a good thing. One of the best episodes follows writer Suketu Mehta as she enjoys packing the entire world into a little less than half a square mile in Jackson Heights, often considered the city’s most diverse neighborhood. In Mott Haven, environmental activist and curator Monxo López took Kimmelman to an environmental mural, three community gardens, and an Oaxacan restaurant where the owners used their undocumented status to support other immigrants. These two episodes celebrate the solidarity that has developed in some of the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID.
The first part of the book is the most striking, reconstructing the topography and biosphere of New York before the Dutch colonized Manhattan. It’s also a necessary mistake to feature a tour guide who mentions the Lenape people in the past tense when their descendants are very much alive, including their homelands of New Jersey and Delaware. Narrow perspectives bother much of the book: Nearly all of Kimmelman’s guides have ornate pedigrees, and he devoted 14 of the 20 tours to Manhattan (simply, a chapter titled “Brooklyn” treats an anodized slice of the area as a synthesis of the city’s most populous borough. ). Intimate City thus telling an unfinished story. The protests that marked the summer after the murder of George Floyd are mentioned only once and are mentioned by López, not Kimmelman. The absence is an acknowledgment that tourists aren’t the only ones many New Yorkers are happy to see go.
These particular missing pieces are the focus of Jeremiah Moss. Feral City: On Finding Escape in Quarantine in New York, a memory that marked the first wave of the epidemic as the brief, spectacularly rebellious return of New York’s corporatisation. It’s animated by Moss’s grumbling to see the city’s edges being sanded down for decades, a phenomenon he’s spent the last 15 years documenting on his blog Vanishing New York. The book, “Before Bygone Times” begins with details of the agony of watching the disconnected millennials take over the previously rent-fixed apartments in the East Village building. He calls them “The New People” – not new to the city, but whom he sees as a new type of person: “ideal neoliberal subjects … walking advertisements that make an impact.” (Author Sarah Schulman describes almost the same process in her 2012 book, Gentrification of the MindThe jovial yuppies of the 1990s are leaving AIDS-ravaged queer neighborhoods behind.) Moss is elated when these people begin fleeing the city in March 2020, and in many cases leave for good afterward, despite the gruesome events that caused them to flee.
The next book is too long, oversaturated with quotes from other authors and self-examining aspects (Moss is a therapist) that add little to the narrative. But it’s also a loving, vibrant, near-perfect elaboration of the world of alternative connection, possibility and freedom that opens up in the first months of the pandemic, amid overwhelming tragedy and suffering. Not since Rebecca Solnit. A Heaven Built in Hell There is a book that explores the friendship that blooms from disaster so deeply. Moss talks about a New York City returning to what he sees as its correct entropy, the energy “rising from under the pavement” to reveal a “dirty, spontaneous city” where “anything can happen”. What eventually happened was free refrigerators, open-air dance parties, and after the murder of Floyd, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand justice for the Blacks killed by the police. Moss attends the protests and spends hours in an Occupy-style camp outside City Hall and in Washington Square Park, which comes alive with parties during the shutdowns.
The enthusiastic posts he receives from these scenes are as impressive as a recent walking tour. Each episode is filled with tender portraits of young people who find meaning or home, especially in these places. As a trans man who comes to New York to feel safe in his queer and subcultural embrace, Moss is delighted to see a new generation of weirdos populate the city in the absence of his hated neighbors. During a fight by the fountain in Washington Square on a noisy August night, a break-dancer shouted, “You wanted old-fashioned New York, you got old-fashioned New York!”
Then autumn comes and Moss painfully watches the city return to pre-epidemic order, even as he continues to march with Black trans activists. Outdoor diners stare blankly at the growing numbers of protesters. Tourists once again populate the city. The transported trucks drop the new New People into Moss’s neighborhood. In his eyes, everything is over. The temporary utopia is gone.
Longing for a lost city is New Yorkers favorite pastime, and both Kimmelman and Moss are good at it. Not necessarily because they want to live in each other’s ideal homes. Intimate City, about a place that ultimately still exists: Readers can expect the tours to map the streetscape as cleanly as it is. The arrogance of the book also makes it clear that Kimmelman and some of his guides yearn more than anything to reopen in whatever form. But what Wild City captures are stronger and only accessible with first-person histories like Moss’s. Today, there are no monuments to the rebellion or any remaining traces of a more savage place.
For those whose loved ones have died of COVID or whose disabilities continue to keep them in, these books can be read as emotionless romanticizations of trauma and terror. Those of us lucky enough to experience this version of our home as a beacon of hope will be nostalgic, and those who are not here will learn that the epidemic did not destroy the city in any way. Without accounts like these, the canonical COVID narrative in New York could only be about suffering, erasing a brief period of transformation and intimacy. It was a version of the city we couldn’t hold onto. But one worth remembering.