Cities in general and New York City in particular are facing an existential crisis, if they’re not completely doomed. That’s what some of the news, opinion and navel gazing I’ve been reading lately would have us believe. The approximate cause is that once people realize they can work from home, in their slippers, they’ll be loath to return to the office. The reasons people have congregated in New York for the last four hundred years and the services that followed to feed, house and entertain them will become superfluous.
Given enough time Manhattan will return to the lush forest it once was. Or rather a swamp because sea level rise will inundate the island and working from home won’t be a choice, or a ploy by large corporations to no longer pay midtown rents and pocket the difference, but a grim necessity.
My hunch is that reports of New York City’s demise are greatly exaggerated. However, for the sake of full disclosure I probably ought to mention that I can’t be scrupulously objective because I was born in the city, grew up there and have lived there most of my life except for vacations. I’m not entirely sure where the city ends and I start, our nucleotides so completely coiled; except at the moment when I’ve temporarily disentangled them to shelter upstate.
The news stories warning about the city’s expiration date typically arrive with a caveat: it’s been declared ailing and perhaps mortally wounded before – after 9/11 and the Great Recession – but confounded the doubters and bounced back. But, the pundits add ominously: this time could well be different. A virus isn’t a one-off terrorist attack or a financial meltdown. Besides, once people, and more significantly their bosses, realize that you’re actually more productive not attending endless tedious meetings and kibitzing around the cappuccino machine the city’s raison d’etre will no longer obtain.
However, I’ve come up with a short list of reasons why I believe New York will rebound as robustly as ever:
@ My haircutter Carol. Carol has been cutting my hair since 1978. I’d be reluctant to let anybody else near my scalp. For years Carol told me I wasn’t losing my hair even though I clearly was. And once my haircut was complete and we examined it together in the mirror she’d stand behind me in her black sweater so I had difficulty seeing where my remaining wisps of hair ended and her cashmere began. Besides that, counterintuitive though it may sound it’s harder to cut a bald person’s hair. There’s less margin for error. So I’m returning to Carol as soon as possible even though I’m wondering whether she’d agree to cut my hair on the sidewalk.
@Evenings in the park with Aris. For the last thirty years or so I’ve been gathering in Central Park in spring and summer on a bench opposite Tavern on the Green to enjoy the sunset with my middle school buddy Aris. I drink while Aris… Well, it’s none of your business what he does except that it’s now punishable only by a fine. However, I secret my thirst squencher in an innocent-looking plastic water bottle since alcohol is not permitted in Central Park.
@The New York City Subway system. I know, I know. It’s not the most picturesque place on Earth. But it can get you from one part of the city to another with wonderful efficiency, especially if you manage to avoid rush hour. Also, as society becomes ever more stratified the subway remains one of the few outposts of democracy, a place where people of all strata come together, rub shoulders, share subway poles (even though that doesn’t sound especially appealing at the moment) and realize that what unites us is so much greater than our divisions.
@Vibrant neighborhoods. Upstate there’s only one neighborhood, at least if you live in the woods. It’s lovely. I’m not complaining. But chipmunks and squirrels become repetitive. New York City provides as much human-made stimulus in a single block as my beloved Hudson Valley does for a hundred square miles. There’s something to be said for keeping those synapses firing, for receiving a full dose of humanity on a regular basis. Besides, if you get bored you can board the subway and be in a different neighborhood with a different culture in a matter of minutes.
@ Thrift shops. My daughter, who’s sheltering with us, asked me to throw this one in. For all its virtues shopping online doesn’t provide the thrill of browsing and discovering a unique garment with your name written all over it for around twenty bucks. She tells me you can’t get that experience on the Internet or in the woods.
@Running around the Central Park reservoir. One of my main regrets about the virus, as fortunate as I am to be able to social distance in nature, is that I completely missed spring in the city. I don’t want to sound morbid but that’s one less spring I have left to watch the cherry trees, a gift from the people of Japan over a century ago, blossom in delicate profusion for a few days and then drop their light pink petals to form a magical carpet.
@Breakfast choices. One of the reasons to go running, besides the scenery, is that you feel you’ve earned the opportunity to have an unhealthy breakfast. I don’t want to suggest I eat nothing but fruit and nuts upstate but my options are limited. Returning from a run in the park, on the other hand, I can pick up a warm, fragrant baguette, a Danish (make that two Danish) from one of several reputable bakeries; or if I’m feeling flush a poppy seed bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese.
That’s one more reason to get out of bed, comb your hair or what you have left of it, and put your clothes on.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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