New Yorkers survived the coronavirus. But will they stay for what comes next?
Times Square on Monday. (Press / View Corbis via Getty Images)
Brett Tiede stood alone in the cavernous main hall of Grand Central Station on Wednesday morning, throwing his hat up in the air with one hand and catching it with the other.
As a usher for the Metro North S-Bahn line, he is used to being bumped into, shouted at, and asked for instructions by many of the approximately 750,000 transit drivers who run through the station on a normal day.
But the Corona virus outbreak had turned Grand Central into a ghost town. The famous sky ceiling towered over just a handful of masked horsemen and two National Guard troops stationed in front of a closed ticket counter.
New York City missed its people - and Tiede wasn't sure if they would all come back.
Life here has always been a no-brainer, a compromise that sacrifices space and privacy for endless cultural offerings, food from anywhere on the menu and the feeling that you are the center of attention - in the bright, beating heart of the universe.
But when New York started the first phase of its reopening this week and the residents cautiously emerged from the block, they found a changed city.
The main drivers of the economy - Broadway, museums and many hotels, shops and restaurants - remain closed.
Subway and buses are still largely empty, without office workers, students and tourists. In areas where protests against Black Lives Matter have taken place every day, stores are being boarded up to protect against burglaries.
Many of the city's richest residents moved to their country houses a long time ago. Now the less fortunate are considering whether there is still a place for them here.
Police officers notify a man that Coney Island, Stillwell Terminal is closed on May 6th. (Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)
The virus has already killed more than 17,000 New Yorkers, and Tiede wonders what will happen if it rises again.
He wonders if some jobs could be lost forever and whether it makes sense to pay the rent for New York City if he doesn't have access to the New York City perks.
"You tell me I can't go to a bar, show, or ball game? Come on, man," said Tiede, whose railroad carried 300,000 people out of the suburbs every day, but this week had only 20,000 drivers a day.
Tiede lived in the city for eight years and planned to stay at least two more to receive a pension before returning to his home town of Buffalo. But the corona virus that killed people he knew convinced him to end it earlier. He plans to move home in July.
New York has not changed completely. It is still a magical meeting place for people from all over the world.
If you go to one of thousands of bodegas, you may still hear an old woman born in Russia barking orders - "More Butter"! - to a young man behind the counter who was born in Mexico while a customer born in Vietnam orders his bagel sandwich in Spanglish: "El Bacon Crispy Por Favor".
You will still hear people speaking loudly on the phone without noticing those around them: "I was wearing the mask, right? But this guy sneezed. A lot of. What could that mean now? "
But there is also fear.
Kitchen workers wear masks in the Little Tong Noodle Shop. (John Minchillo / Associated Press)
A nationwide eviction moratorium has existed since March. However, tenants are expected to pay a return rent after August 20.
Soup kitchens say that they now feed not only homeless people, but also doctoral students and actors who are unlucky.
Lenci Licona, a 40-year-old construction worker from Honduras, said a prayer Monday morning when he boarded a train to Manhattan. Construction and manufacturing were officially reopened, and Licona, who had spent three months in his cramped Bronx apartment watching the bills pile up and his account waning, was grateful to be back on the job.
But the subway, which was thought to be a major vector for the virus, startled him.
"People are so stressed out," he said. "That is the truth, we are all afraid."
In Times Square, street vendors who used to give tourists bells and whistles now sell Black Lives Matter t-shirts and face masks. Corporate advertising has shifted to news about the corona virus and national race relations.
A message from Samsung flashes on a towering digital billboard: "We will do it together."
But some here are wondering: will we?
New York has recovered from harrowing events. Less than 20 years ago, it was the primary target of the worst foreign attack on American soil.
But September 11th and the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center were a single event that served to unite much of the city.
The corona virus is different. It requires people to keep their distance. And it has helped fuel a passionate civil rights movement that has somehow divided the city.
Protests against the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in police custody in Minneapolis have conflicted with some New Yorkers.
Lily Ng, 36, who runs a vegan grocery store on the outskirts of Chinatown, said she has many black customers and agrees with the protesters' demands - but she also has police officers in her family and feels uncomfortable with calls to disappoint the NYPD .
So she tries to avoid the topic altogether.
The demonstrations taking place here, like similar actions across the country, are raw and often painful.
At a recent event held in Lower Manhattan, family members told their stories of more than a dozen police gun victims, their voices bouncing off the limestone walls of the town hall. Hundreds of demonstrators listened to the 87-degree heat for two hours before they started marching.
As they turned north on Broadway and passed the shops of Lululemon and Prada, many drivers who were forced to stop honked and raised their fists in support. A woman parked her car and climbed through her sunroof to hoist a sign that read “Black Lives Matter”.
Yannik Stevens, 27, was overwhelmed.
As a florist from the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, who moved to New York three years ago, he said he never knew how long he would stay in the city, in part because of the national political climate, a strange black man , made you unwelcome.
But the protests, which at times had a hopeful, even festival quality, had given him hope. Every unemployed young person he knew had become a full-time change organizer.
"Maybe there is a future here for people like me," he said.
Life has changed less in the city's four outskirts, where residents linger on their bends until late at night, play dice and drink beer while the first fireflies light up the sky in summer.
But the island of Manhattan, which has always been a commuter mecca, is quieter than ever.
A nailed-up store can be seen in Times Square on Monday in New York City. The city began its first phase of reopening after nearly three months of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I never thought I'd miss tourists, but I do," said Michael Brogan, 68, a former Broadway artist who lives in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, a normally busy area.
Loneliness set in during the closure.
"I would start drinking at 3 or 4 p.m. and then watch or stream things until 3 or 4 a.m.," he said. "And then I would repeat."
For the first time since the pandemic, he got on the subway one afternoon and took the E-train to Washington Square. The subway was cleaner than ever in its 50 years in New York, thanks to the city's overnight disinfection to fight the virus.
He strolled to one of the city's oldest gay bars, Julius', which serves drinks to customers who order on the sidewalk.
"Make it extra strong!" he implored the bartender Adan Garcia. He didn't have to say what he wanted - Garcia knows that his drink is gin and soda.
In nearby Christopher Street Park, Brogan greeted Simone McKay, a drag performer who spontaneously performed there.
"We all feel like we're in the Twilight Zone as if an atomic bomb hit the city," said McKay. "People miss their lives. They want their lives back."
When Brogan went on to speak to someone else, McKay turned back to her boyfriend Michael Strachan and explained why the closure had been so difficult.
"I mean, I was trapped in an apartment with someone I hate," she said.
"It's a hell of a time for you to realize that you hate someone!" Exclaimed Strachan.
A third-generation New Yorker, Strachan, 62, has survived cancer and HIV. He had COVID-19 and survived.
He said New York City would do the same.
"This city survived the 1918 civil war and pandemic," he said. "It has survived stock market crashes, World War II, blackouts, several financial crises and September 11th.
"We have survived more than any other city in the country," he said. "And we're still standing."
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