I’m here to tell you that talk of New York City’s demise is premature. Contrary to President Trump’s characterization in Tuesday night’s debate, it’s not a deserted “ghost town.” I returned to the city for several days this week and the traffic, both human and vehicular, seemed almost back to normal.
That’s not to say the pandemic hasn’t taken a toll. There are lots of empty storefronts. That trend was already well underway but Covid has obviously accelerated it. And midtown feels different. Weekdays have the feel of weekends as many of the workers who once filled its skyscrapers continue to work remotely.
But the streets and avenues in my neighborhood feel as busy as they did in autumn last year. And what contributes to a sense of normalcy as much as anything is the sight of parents taking their children to school in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon.
I tend to take the presence of children as a given, but during a season where the fear of disease seems to lurk everywhere a freshly scrubbed kid on his way to school feels a walking remedy, a belief, no matter how aspirational, that the worst is behind us, that the future is ready to resume in earnest.
The pandemic has even sparked improvements in the city’s way of life. On Tuesday night we celebrated my daughter’s birthday at Melon’s, a storied burger joint on the Upper East Side. We didn’t even have to wait for a table. That seemed a bit odd since Melon’s is typically impassable by 6 p.m. But we attributed that less to the pandemic than to the threat of rain, which came just as dinner ended.
Drinks in Central Park with friends Wednesday evening – since the start of the pandemic the park, as well as Prospect Park in Brooklyn, have functioned as the city’s socially distanced Shangri-Las and become more popular than ever – was followed by dinner on the Upper West Side.
While it was the first night of the return of indoor restaurant dining few if any patrons seemed to be taking advantage of the option. Why would they when it remains warm enough to eat outdoors? Not just because the disease does better indoors but because outdoor dining feels more festive.
As we dined on pasta and pizza a five-piece jazz band provided the soundtrack, playing for a crowd on the corner of Columbus Avenue. They’d stopped by the time we paid the check but just as we were departed a female soloist broke into song at a restaurant across the street.
For all its attractions the one thing New York previously lacked was an established outdoor dining scene. There were always tables outdoors, here and there, but New York isn’t a city that lends itself to outdoor life the way Paris does with its wide, tree-lined boulevards and intimate side streets.
Now it does. Restaurants have thrust their footprints onto the sidewalk and even into the street making up for some of the graciousness the city has always lacked. Also, the pandemic has slowed down the pace of life not only physically but also psychologically. Most of the great world cities I’ve visited are distinguished by a proper work/life balance. Covid has thrust that distinction onto New York as well.
People wonder whether New York will ever return to the way it once was? The answer is yes. We’re social animals. Art and commerce require a critical mass of people to succeed. Zoom meetings only go so far. True cross-pollination can only occur in person. Spontaneity is the underappreciated currency of urban spaces as well as of human interactions. New ideas are created in the alchemy of conversation.
But why ask whether New York will be as good, as bustling and lively as it once was? Why aim so low? Why shouldn’t it emerge from this crisis not just intact but more enlightened? In the same way that Covid has underlined our humanity and what’s most precious about it, as it’s driven us physically apart – who will ever take a hug or even a handshake for granted again – why not integrate those lessons to make our cities more humane, more healthy and livable.
Outdoor dining should be but the seeds that grow into flourishing pedestrian malls. No disrespect to Broadway, but people watching has always been New York’s greatest spectacle. And it’s free. But unlike European cities where people watching is way of life, where cafes and restaurants double as bleachers to watch the human parade pass by, in American cities people watching is treated as a guilty pleasure, if it’s treated as a pleasure at all.
Perhaps that will change now. Never let a pandemic go to waste.
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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