The COVID pandemic has killed nearly 23,000 New Yorkers, sickened 229,000 more, destroyed businesses and put millions out of work. But the new metropolis that will rise on the ruins promises to be — is it permissible to say? — a happier place than the overcrowded, overheated mosh pit of a town that it had become.
I’d gladly take back the old city with all its in-your-face congestion if it would bring back a single life lost. But since that isn’t possible, I take comfort in the already apparent hints of a gentler, more humane future. There will be a new taste for breathing room once the bug is beaten.
I love crowds. They’re part of the city’s DNA. They exist because our wonderful museums, restaurants, parks and entertainment venues are so much in demand. But in the last two decades, unparalleled prosperity flowed in from around the globe. At the same time, City Hall turned streets into “plazas” and party grounds.
These twin phenomena made our public spaces dense to the breaking point, never mind the damage to neighborhoods — or people’s sanity. So many overlapping parades, street fairs, street races, fireworks shows and cycling events made every weekend a challenge to get anywhere, whether by taxi, bus or foot.
With everyone chasing the same thrill, it took forever to buy a street-truck taco in Midtown or to find room to splash in the kid-friendly fountains at Williamsburg’s Domino Park.
We all want tourists and business travelers back. But 70 million a year overwhelmed high-end stores, restaurants and the High Line Park. We depended too much on them to pump $45 billion into our annual economy. City Hall must find other ways to pay its bills.
The COVID aftermath will thin the compression of so many human bodies into a single space. My friend who recovered from a severe case of the disease believed she caught it on the East 53rd Street subway platform that was so dangerously overcrowded due to no-show trains that “I smelled disease in the air.”
Now, the subways are more bearable than they’ve been since Fiorello La Guardia was mayor, thanks to the bold stroke of shutting them down for cleaning between 1-4 a.m. — when they were used by a mere 1.5 percent of weekday riders. Let’s keep them that way, despite our nostalgia for “the city that never sleeps.”
At the final performance of “Company” at the Bernard J. Jacobs Theatre on the night before Broadway shut down, my intermission trip to the men’s room entailed a tense, 20-minute wait on a snaking, bodies-girding line in the house basement. It was unacceptable even pre-virus, but the kind of dehumanizing experience (at $300 a ticket!) we had all been forced to suck up. The current shutdown gives theater owners time to figure out how to fix this problem. (Already, New York park-goers are discovering the pleasures of having more space to spread out — surely, we can do the same indoors, as well.)
Pre-COVID, restaurant-going had become a chore to endure. Whether at 300-seat Cathedrale in the East Village or at 50-seat Ernesto’s on the Lower East Side, bodies were scrunched together without mercy. And did I mention loud? But today’s expanded al-fresco dining scene with safely-spaced tables is a joyful, high-summer antidote to the “dead city” narrative. It’s less pretentious and less rowdy than scene- and trend-driven indoor eating ever was.
The friendlier vibe should be allowed to prevail once we can go inside again. Social-distancing rules will tame the tumult, even if owners complain they can’t make money without squeezing in customers like anchovies in a can.
Our new normal will also benefit from the return of New Yorkers who fled to summer homes but quietly yearn to return. They’ll find a city forever changed from what they remember, and be glad for it.