New York City must be one of the few places on earth where chaos nostalgia is widespread. Many were the laments, in the Giuliani-Bloomberg era, that the city was “too sanitized,” “too gentrified,” “too boring,” “anodyne,” “suburban.” Often you’d hear people saying, or declaiming, that their ideal vision of the city was the 1970s–1980s one — oh, for the New York of CBGB, of Lou Reed, of the Tompkins Square Park riots. Occasionally people would sneeringly express revulsion that the sidewalks were teeming with strollers. What have we done, we’ve made this place safe enough for babies! And yet the population, which was smaller in 1990 than it was in 1940, boomed. More than a million more New Yorkers squeezed in between 1990 and 2010. It was as if a city the size of Austin grew atop the existing city.
On a return visit this weekend to the Upper West Side neighborhood where I’ve lived for more than a quarter of a century, the fear in the air was palpable. The population seemed to be reduced by about half. New Yorkers steer around each other on the sidewalks, some of them walking in the street to avoid passing near a stranger. A lady declined to ride the elevator with me and my children. People are especially terrified of the subway, whose ridership is down 80 percent from normal levels. Friday night, at a time when there would ordinarily be 50 or more people riding on any given car of the 1 train, there were about seven. Downtown was morose, grim, broken. Graffiti (the anarchists’ symbol, “ACAB” for “All Cops Are Bastards”) was much in evidence.
Mask compliance is almost universal on the Upper West Side: easily 90 percent. The area is defined by college-educated white folk over 40. These are rich people, they’re rule-followers, and if following one more rule might help them ace the virus the way they aced every other test in their lives, they’re going to follow it to a T. Mask wearing, like every other habit, is also a kind of class signifier. Less affluent-looking people are far more likely to wear them pulled down like a chin strap. When it’s 85 degrees out and you wear a mask out of doors for any length of time, though, your face starts to sweat, and breathing can become a chore. Because there are so many people on the sidewalk and you can’t avoid passing close to others, you have to spend much more time with a mask on here in the city than in a more sparsely populated place, which makes mask wearing a kind of extra New York tax or burden, along with all of the others. I spent more time wearing a mask in the city this weekend than I did the entire summer on Long Island, which was irritating. Some of the most irritable people on earth now have a major additional reason to be irritable.
Restaurant interiors remain closed, so New Yorkers fill the outdoor tables at lunch and dinner, dining in some cases on the sidewalks but in others actually in the street, protected only by wooden barriers from passing traffic. Happy, chatty (unmasked) diners crowded all of the better Upper West Side places Friday night — inches away from trucks rumbling by, sprinkling the invisible or not-so-invisible contents of their exhaust pipes on people’s Cobb salads.
Several blocks are frozen in time. The multiplex at 84th and Broadway is still festooned with posters from March movies that were never to be released theatrically. But there wasn’t a lot of looting in this area because the stores aren’t luxurious enough. “Today’s generation of looters have very refined taste,” a lifelong resident sardonically tells me. Still, several storefronts are boarded up, and scores more in the neighborhood are vacant. At 85th and Broadway, the Victoria’s Secret and a luxury shoe store are boarded over, and so is a third business on the block, leaving only a lone cupcake shop on the block cheerfully trying to stay afloat amid the desolation.
Because there is scaffolding over the sidewalk related to repairing the stonework above, this is one of many such sheltered blocks where homeless people sack out on the sidewalk. Sunday afternoon, two homeless women had built up a small encampment in front of the plywood walls of the Victoria’s Secret. Nearby, in the middle of Broadway, a disheveled and mentally ill man familiar to neighborhood residents walked in traffic, muttering to himself. At 78th and Broadway, the Cuban-Chinese restaurant La Caridad, a neighborhood favorite for more than half a century, has gone out of business. A few blocks south, on West 72nd Street, where there was a socially distanced line of people easily 100 yards long awaiting entry to Trader Joe’s in the early afternoon, a homeless encampment extended for 20 feet. A ragged man slept on a filthy mattress in the open air.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has filled three Upper West Side hotels that previously catered to European tourists with hundreds of homeless people, drug addicts, and sex offenders, and the New York Post’s wood on Sunday was UPPER WEST SLIDE. The Post isn’t making this up. Outside one of the hotels, the Belleclaire, a dazed-looking man stood on the corner in a bathrobe and slippers. A few yards away, a perky half-dozen or so leftists responded to the Post story by bringing a large box of colored chalk and scrawling welcoming slogans to the homeless in several colors on the sidewalk in front of the entrance to the Belleclaire.
Even in this exceedingly well-heeled corner of Manhattan, the disorder is in your face, everywhere. In my building, someone has been sneaking in, grabbing people’s mail and packages from the lobby where they normally sit unmolested, and opening them in the stairwell, discarding whatever items have no interest. Walking down the stairs, I found an opened envelope containing two new passports, and delivered it to the addressee in the building.
Manhattan has been reduced to a diehard remnant of true believers. Often wealthy New Yorkers get accused of being NIMBYs and hypocrites, but I don’t think that’s always the case. I never tire of reminding non–New Yorkers that the era-redefining election of Rudy Giuliani was a squeaker. Half of New Yorkers evidently were unwilling to part with ideology over interests, and Giuliani got less than 51 percent of the vote against the disaster merchant David Dinkins, his margin of victory delivered by white working-class voters in the outer boroughs. That cohort has mostly gone, replaced with immigrants and hipsters.
There is no push for law and order in New York. The next mayor of the city will likely be to de Blasio’s left, not his right. He or she will argue that New York’s troubles are the fault of the plutocracy, the patriarchy, and white privilege, and whatever Upper West Siders remain behind will enthusiastically applaud. New Yorkers aren’t hypocrites; they’re masochists.