Remembering the Strange Dream of Lockdown New York

It took a pandemic to imagine a more humane city.

An empty Times Square
Gregory Halpern / Magnum

New York City in the early days of pandemic shutdowns was a horrible place to be. As fatal chaos unfolded in the hospitals, a gloriously noisy soundscape was replaced by terrifyingly constant sirens and the thrum of refrigerated morgue trucks. Anyone on the sidewalk, many of them essential workers who had no choice but to be there, moved away from other passersby in a fearful overshoot of the recommended six-foot separation. A famously packed city became a fraught place where it felt like getting too close to anyone might send both of you to a mass grave.

Despite being painful, these things are simple to talk about. They are morally clear: Death is awful; fear is awful. What many New Yorkers admit more gingerly is that when the pure terror began to subside in late April 2020, we ventured out and discovered that some things about the city were better. No tourists, no crowds, wealthy New Yorkers–by-convenience gone to the Hamptons or upstate. Left behind was everyone who couldn’t afford to leave or didn’t want to. New York felt more neighborly, like a city half its size.

This transformation was best experienced on a walk with a friend. What might previously have been a casual hangout felt not life-affirming but life-confirming, proof that COVID hadn’t killed either of you yet. Among the New Yorkers who picked up this walking habit during lockdown is Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic of The New York Times. Six days after then-Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency, Kimmelman invited a slew of friends and colleagues to give him tours of their neighborhoods, which he proceeded to write about in a series of columns for the paper. These offerings urged New Yorkers not to abandon one another or our city, to go outside with friends when we couldn’t be inside, and to peacefully visit usually miserable places such as Times Square and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Last month, he published The Intimate City: Walking New York, a collection of these essays. Many New Yorkers will appreciate the book for immortalizing a peculiar time when the coronavirus pandemic “opened a window through which to see New York, if only briefly, in a new light,” as Kimmelman writes in the introduction. He wanted to “capture a precarious, historic moment when New Yorkers found strength in their shared neighborhoods and one another.”

Two years on, this period of desperate togetherness feels like a strange dream as New Yorkers suffer through the long tail of what the writer and activist Naomi Klein calls the shock doctrine—when those in power take advantage of a crisis to impose austerity measures and privatization. The new mayor is hollowing out his own workforce and slashing public budgets despite projections of a surplus. Landlords are raising rents to record highs while keeping affordable apartments off the market. But for a few months, many New Yorkers experienced the opposite: widespread welfare, free COVID-related health care, a pause on most evictions, and proof that what many people would like to do is not work in an office but spend time with, take care of, and stand up for one another. Looking back at the spring of 2020 is a reminder that a more humane world is possible, but we got there only because of a pandemic, and only for a moment.

When Kimmelman conceived the walks, it was hard to imagine that we would eventually find a way out of our isolation. Given the opportunity to dream of reemergence, Kimmelman’s guides end up talking more about human connection than architecture, which is a good thing. One of the best chapters follows the author Suketu Mehta through Jackson Heights, commonly considered the city’s most diverse neighborhood, as he revels in the containment of the whole world in just under half a square mile. In Mott Haven, the environmental activist and curator Monxo López took Kimmelman to an environmentalist mural, three community gardens, and an Oaxacan restaurant whose owners use their own undocumented status to support other immigrants. These two chapters celebrate the solidarity that flourished in some of the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID.

The book’s first chapter is the most striking, reconstructing New York’s topography and biosphere before the Dutch colonized Manhattan. It also makes an unforced error in featuring a tour guide who talks about the Lenape people in the past tense, when their descendants are very much alive, including in their New Jersey and Delaware homelands. Narrow perspectives plague much of the book: Nearly all of Kimmelman’s guides have fancy pedigrees, and he devotes 14 of the 20 tours to Manhattan (a chapter titled, simply, “Brooklyn” treats an anodyne slice of the area as a synecdoche for the city’s most populated borough). The Intimate City thus tells an incomplete story. The protests that dominated the summer after the killing of George Floyd are mentioned just once, and by López, not Kimmelman. Absent is an acknowledgment that the tourists weren’t the only people whom many New Yorkers were glad to see gone.

These particular missing pieces are the focus of Jeremiah Moss’s Feral City: On Finding Liberation in Lockdown New York, a memoir that establishes the first wave of the pandemic as a brief, magnificently unruly undoing of New York’s corporatization. It is animated by Moss’s grumpiness at seeing the city’s edges sanded down for decades, a phenomenon he has spent the past 15 years documenting on his blog, Vanishing New York. The book begins with a detailing of his “Before Times” misery at watching disengaged Millennials take over formerly rent-stabilized apartments in his East Village building. He calls them “New People”—not new to the city, but what he sees as a new type of person: “ideal neoliberal subjects … walking advertisements exerting influence.” (The writer Sarah Schulman describes an almost identical process in her 2012 book, The Gentrification of the Mind, of blithe 1990s yuppies overtaking queer neighborhoods ravaged by AIDS.) When these people begin fleeing the city in March of 2020, and in many cases later leave for good, Moss is elated in spite of the awful events that prompted their flight.

The ensuing book is too long, oversaturated with quotes by other writers and self-examining asides (Moss is a therapist) that add little to the narrative. But it is also a loving, vivid, near-perfect detailing of the alternate world of connection, possibility, and freedom that opened in the early months of the pandemic, amid overwhelming tragedy and suffering. Not since Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell has a book so thoroughly explored the camaraderie that blooms from disaster. Moss writes of a New York returning to what he sees as its rightful entropy, energy “heaving up from under pavement” to reveal “a dirty, spontaneous city” where “anything can happen.” What ultimately happened was free fridges, outdoor dance parties, and, after Floyd’s murder, tens of thousands of people flooding the streets to demand justice for Black people killed by the police. Moss joins the protests, spending many hours in an Occupy-style encampment outside City Hall and in Washington Square Park, which during the shutdowns came alive with parties.

His enthusiastic dispatches from these scenes are transportive—a walking tour through recent history. Every chapter is full of tender portraits, especially of young people who found meaning or a home in these places. As a trans man who came to New York to feel safe in its embrace of the strange and subcultural, Moss is glad to see another generation of weirdos filling the city in the absence of his loathed neighbors. One raucous August night in Washington Square, he hears a break-dancer shout, over a fight by the fountain, “You wanted old-school New York, you got old-school New York!”

Then fall arrives, and although Moss keeps marching with Black trans activists, he bitterly watches the city return to pre-pandemic orderliness. Outdoor diners stare blankly at the winnowing number of protesters. Tourists once again crowd the city. Moving trucks deposit new New People into Moss’s neighborhood. In his eyes, it’s all over. The temporary utopia is gone.

Pining for a lost city is a favorite pastime of New Yorkers, and both Kimmelman and Moss are good at it. Not that they would want, necessarily, to live in each other’s ideal version of their home. The Intimate City, ultimately, is about a place that still exists: Readers can expect the tours to map cleanly onto the streetscape as it stands. The conceit of the book makes clear, too, that Kimmelman, and some of his guides, yearned more than anything for reopening, no matter what form it took. But what Feral City captures is more powerful, and accessible only through first-person histories like Moss’s. Today, there are no monuments to the uprising or remaining traces of a wilder place.

For those whose loved ones have died of COVID, or whose disabilities continue to keep them inside, these books might read as callous romanticizations of trauma and terror. Those of us lucky enough to experience this version of our home as a silver lining will be nostalgic, and those who weren’t here will learn that the pandemic at no point destroyed the city. If not for accounts like these, the canonical narrative of COVID in New York might only be about the suffering, erasing a brief period of transformation and intimacy. It was a version of the city we couldn’t hold on to. But it’s one that’s worth remembering.

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