The “Why I’m Leaving New York” essay genre began in the 1960s with Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” an elegy about her leaving Manhattan behind because, as she wrote, “at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore.” The category was brought to life again in the late 2000s and 2010s, largely by the city’s blogging creative class, as the pay cuts and layoffs of the recession lingered and the cost of living soared. During the coronavirus pandemic, a new iteration of this essay has arisen, tilted toward health concerns, but nevertheless imbued with class privilege—which, in American cities, always intersects with race. The New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen considers this intersection with their own entry into the “why I’m leaving” genre, writing: “‘Do we want to be those people?’ my daughter, Yolka, asked. She meant, Do we want to be the rich white people who leave the besieged city because they can? ‘Yes,’ I said.”
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New York was plagued by cycles of inequality long before it was plagued by COVID-19. “Wealthy white people may be leaving cities for the suburbs, just as they did decades ago,” Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University, told me. “And the horrible thing for Black and brown urban communities is that they suffer either way.” When white families fled cities in the ’60s through the ’80s, crippling divestment followed. A “renewed appetite for urban amenities” brought cities back to life, Klinenberg said, but that growth was racially exclusionary, as anybody who has read about gentrification or been on the wrong side of its effects knows. “We’re all watching something similar play out now,” he said, with the caveat that it is too soon to know whether the current outflows are “temporary” or “durable” relocations.
Regardless of the result, pre-pandemic New York is as likely to come back as Sex and the City New York—or the Do the Right Thing, Taxi Driver, or Mad Men New Yorks before it. More than 19,000 people here have had their life cut short by the coronavirus, and a third of the city’s businesses may close. In the crannies of every borough, several memory-filled neighborhood staples are already gone. But New York isn’t dead—it’s as vital as ever, just changing, for a while or forever, like always. Perpetual shift is the only rhythm this city knows.
In his wrenching post-9/11 essay, “The Way We Live Now: 11-11-01; Lost and Found,” Colson Whitehead wrote, “No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, ‘That used to be Munsey’s’ or ‘That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge.’” He argues, “You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.” The city feels indeterminate this summer, but that has only heightened the appreciation of the constants that remain. The large playgrounds at the Marcy Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, are still home to an interplay of children’s laughter and 20-somethings’ music. In Liberty Park, Queens—where my barber, at last, can give me a haircut—the old blue-collar white guys still nod to passersby as they mow their front yard. At Brooklyn Bridge Park, I saw how happy hour has moved outdoors, and I eavesdropped on picnic rendezvous between young couples and circles of friends. In Central Harlem, ’80s and ’90s R&B still thumps from the late afternoon to the late evening, vibrating in your chest.
But the cold will come, the outdoor recreation will end, and the virus won’t be gone. What form of life arrives after that, no one knows. For now, residents linger outside for a while longer at dusk, soaking up as much of summer as possible. Inhaling what still feels like their city, as though they can make it through this winter if they absorb enough of what’s left.