New York City, then-mayor Mike Bloomberg famously boasted in 2003, is a “luxury product.” It was then a plausible way to think about this famously high-priced city, where many things are terrible but many other things — theater, restaurants, museums, nightclubs, shopping — are the finest the world has to offer. The feel, the buzz, the action is addictive.
Usually, anyway. These days NYC is about as buzzy as Ponca City, Okla., on a Sunday.
New York will probably always draw the young and the gung-ho, interesting people looking to make their mark. And any city that has that going for it must be a force to be reckoned with. It will never settle for second-tier status. The big bets Facebook, Google, and Amazon have recently made on the city promise to bulk up its primary strength: dynamic people. Amazon used some pocket change to buy the old Lord & Taylor building — a grand Fifth Avenue edifice that epitomized the upper-middle-class ladies’ department store until the business was bankrupted by competition from companies like Amazon — in order to move 2,000 tech employees into it. It’s a classic instance of how New York grows on the ashes of its own history.
The 2021 boom sure hasn’t hit yet, though. A year into the pandemic, New York City is no more threatened by coronavirus than the surrounding areas. Some three million of its citizens are already vaccinated, and nearly all of the most vulnerable people have had their chance to get a vaccine.
Yet the city still feels badly wounded. Eerie, even. My Upper West Side apartment building, judging by the lobby traffic, appears to be two-thirds, or maybe even three-quarters, empty. Normally the place is bustling with college-educated professionals, exactly the kind of people who have lots of potential living options and are likely to be able to telecommute, and most of them are evidently doing exactly that.
The city’s residential neighborhoods aren’t exactly abloom, but at least they’re alive. Even when indoor dining was verboten for nearly two months this winter, ruddy-cheeked New Yorkers simply shrugged, put on their finest skiwear, and dined al fresco in 30-degree weather as though nothing was amiss. Now that the weather has warmed up, sidewalk cafes are booming and half of indoor tables are eagerly being taken up. There are plenty of people on the streets and in the parks.
Midtown is still dead, though foot traffic is no longer at an absolute nadir; the level is more like nadir-plus. The subway trains, even at rush hour, are closer to empty than full. Lots of businesses that cater to Midtown office workers, notably lunch places, closed last March and still haven’t reopened. Some percentage of office workers simply won’t be coming back. They’ve proven that they can still be productive away from the office, and companies that rent space in Midtown will therefore be rethinking this colossal expense. More firms are going to operate the way NR has done for years, with most work done remotely and a few generic workstations kept available for whichever employees show up on any given day. That will free up office space as leases run out, and tenants that couldn’t previously afford Midtown office space will flow in. But the process of refilling the prime Business District real estate will take years. Perhaps some older office buildings will follow the lead of the Financial District and convert their interiors to housing.
The lack of Midtown workers, theater, and nightlife, combined with Bill de Blasio’s decision to fill up hotels with homeless people and shrug at sidewalk encampments and junk heaps until the New York Post calls attention to them, has created pockets of unease that evoke the creepy early 1990s, when some areas were effectively no-go zones after dark for those who felt vulnerable to muggings. Early one recent evening, 40th Street between Seventh and Eighth was a fright. One man was urinating in a doorway and others looked menacing. A sure sign that a block has become dangerous is when upscale, well-educated women avoid the place, and I didn’t see anyone around who fit that bill. On Eighth Avenue, there was a distinct aroma of human feces. On 9th Avenue and 39th Street, two squeegee men were running in and out of a small restaurant to get water, then harassing drivers. At an Italian restaurant nearby, my NR colleague Andrew Stuttaford and I got a table. Only one other table was in use, and the place closed early. At the time, thanks to one of Governor Cuomo’s many nonsensical edicts, restaurants were required to shut down at 10:00 p.m. (It has since been extended to 11:00 p.m., because as we all know, viruses typically strike at 11:01.)
In this particular place, though, the neighborhood is so dismal that there would have been no need to stay open past 10:00. “Last year, you would have had to fight for a table here,” Andrew pointed out. The stretch between (deserted) Times Square and (deserted) Penn Station has predictably turned seedy and grimy. Street rubbish, always a problem even in New York’s best days, is more noticeable than usual. The ratio of productive people to loiterers is way off. New York City really only works when it draws sufficient numbers of the well-heeled, so that it becomes risky for anyone to dare a mugging. Dead streets are a mugger’s ideal. It’s unclear what the per capita crime rate is right now because it’s unclear how many people are actually living and working in Manhattan. Certainly there are far fewer commuters, far fewer tourists, and far fewer residents than there were 18 months ago.
Until recently, I thought that New York City’s most pressing problem was the precarious fiscal situation it created with out-of-control spending, but thanks to a federal bailout, the city is flush again, and many endangered New York institutions are gratefully watching their coffers refill. The real problem today is that New York’s Cartier spending is giving people a Dollar Tree experience. It will be some time before anyone brags that this city is a “luxury product” again.