I went home to New York for a visit with that same curiosity that makes you slow down passing a wreck on the highway. I’d read of a city gone feral, zombie homeless armies in Midtown, the deserted office blocks, and crime stepping in for Darwin to take care of what was left. Morbid, harsh, cynical, curiosity, right?
The overall feeling one gets is a place used up, a failed place that somehow is still around, like an abandoned industrial park. The irony; it was Wall Street dealers who manipulated the economy of the 1970s and 80s to help create the Rust Belt out of the once prosperous Midwest and now the brokers are gone, too. Pieces of us all left on the ground, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, left scattered like clues from a lost civilization.
Now as in the same way in Weirton or Gary you drive past empty mills, so to Wall Street. There are no trading houses, the last international (Deutsche Bank) left and is leasing space uptown. I found myself largely alone on the old streets off Wall, the ones that went all the way back, Beaver, Pine, and Stone. Most of the old gilded era banks are being converted into condos for people who aren’t here yet and may never come. Recent Census numbers show a 300,000-person population drop through last summer. Even now, more are moving out than in.
At the same moment in New York time-space as empty condos you do see a fair number of homeless in the shadow. The city commandeered empty hotels in the area for them during the worst of the Covid winters. Left out of the place it created is the famous Stock Exchange. The building is still there but near-zero trades are done, most everything is remote, a trend started after 9/11 and completed by Covid. On my next visit it wouldn’t surprise me to see the space converted into a Target.
Like some elaborate joke about canaries in the coal mine, the condition of New York’s subways points the way the rest of the place is headed. With parts of the system still in use that were built 118 years ago, the thing is a testament to just how far the least amount of maintenance will go. You expect it to be too cold in winter, too hot in summer, that rare mix of urine and street gravy smell, and layers of filth which may be what is actually holding it all together.
But the purpose of the subway has changed. With fewer people working out of offices, and more and more of those that do now driving private cars in the city (parking is a new thing to complain about, car theft is up double-digit percent from pre-Covid) it is no longer common ground for New Yorkers.
Vast numbers of visibly mentally ill people inhabit the subway. It is their home, their kitchen, and their toilet. Is that liquid on the floor Gatorade or is it…? Did it leak from the guy nearby, a silent poet of this apocalypse, or will it be what consumes him? The almost obscene level of noise from the tired machinery begs you to contemplate these things as a distraction.
The person in Union Square Station pushing a shopping cart and yelling racial slurs may not physically hurt anybody but is a symbol of a city that just gave up caring while lying to itself about being compassionate. There is no compassion in allowing thousands of sick people to live like rats inside public infrastructure.
The subway is an angry place; assaults are up 50 percent over last year. And last year there were more assaults than at any time in the last 25 years, including a Covid-era trend of randomly pushing people into the path of an incoming train just to watch them die. I didn’t see that, but I saw the secondary effects: passengers bunched up like herbivores on the African savanna with their backs against a wall for protection. Fewer people looking at their phones so as to stay more alert. Unlike in any other city in the world, the five subway shootings during my stay were not remarkable, which itself is remarkable.
If you use the subway, you acknowledge that you must share it with the predators, under their rules. Like everywhere in this city, navigating around the mentally ill, the homeless, and the criminal is just another part of life. People treat each other as threats, and just accept that, but to an outsider it seems a helluva way to live.
A couple of those “only in New York places” are holding on, but the effect is grim not scrappy. Passing the United Nations compound, you’re left with the memory in the 1950s this was once the most powerful city on the globe. Where’s the value now?
My favorite pizzeria, the original Patsy’s at First and 117th in Harlem, is still open and still one of the oldest, the last, and the best, somehow still staffed by old Italian men in an otherwise all-black neighborhood. Nearby Rao’s, an old-school red sauce joint, is in much the same state, both places in some sort of time-vortex, the DNA someone will someday use to genetically re-engineer New York for a museum.
The NYPD has reoccupied Times Square military-style (I’m sure many of the cops are Iraq and Afghan vets.) The problem is Times Square shares a border with the rest of New York, and a block or two away places like the Port Authority bus terminal are decaying back to their primordial state. No obvious hookers like in the 1970s, but the girls’ space in the ecosystem is taken by the homeless and those who provide them services, usually quick, sharp black kids selling what the cops told me was fentanyl, NY’s current favorite synthetic opioid.
Some of the least changed areas were on the Lower East Side, where so much happened, so much began. These have always been mean streets, and Covid is far from the first challenge they faced. Lots of images are public yet intimate as lovers kiss. It’s all fine if your interest is in bars and coffee shops, a playground for young people. They sketch out their areas the same way the drug dealers mark out theirs. But you can’t feel the global city in artisanal pickle stores where 90 percent of the conversation is about somebody’s boyfriends. A hedonistic group who convince themselves they are artists waking up to say good morning to the night, imagining stamina is energy.
Every measure of Covid was made worse by bad decision-making. Lockdowns decimated whole industries while leaving New York still one of the red zones of America. Defanging the police, coupled with no-bail policies, drove crime deeper into the fabric of neighborhoods. The tax base crumbled. Pre-Covid the vacating top one percent in NYC paid nearly 50 percent of all personal income taxes. Property taxes add in more than a billion dollars a year in revenue, about half of that once generated by office space. Who’ll pay for any comeback? Disney? The Chinese? It won’t be the Russians this time.
Left is the largest homeless population of any American metropolis, to include 114,000 children. The number living below the poverty line is larger than the population of Philadelphia, and would be the country’s 7th largest city. More than 400,000 reside in public housing. Another 235,000 take rent assistance. They live in the Third World, like an evil theme park torn out of a Florida swamp. You look at it and you cannot believe this is the same country as where you live. New York does that to you because looking away just means looking at more of the same.
The relief only comes on an individual basis. Doormen keep the riff-raff out (you betcha residents ponied up for the new contract to avert a strike,) money for Uber instead of the subway, money for exclusive clubs and restaurants, money for private security, your building’s thugs against theirs.
Yes, I hear your sigh. Yes, I get it. Yes, every generation proclaims New York dead or dying. Yes, it was better under Giuliani, or Bloomberg, or Bourdain. And sure, some of what you read today is exaggerated, writers unfamiliar with “New York Normal,” the things we — they — take sadly for granted in a city that perpetually has seen better days.
Why do we live this way? Only in America do we accept this. While NYC is worse, “nice” places like Denver and Honolulu suffer from the same, albeit scaled down. Why do we accept that our subways are where homeless drug users live, instead of the public transport our taxes paid for and our society needs? “Go Green” we’re told but that means risking your life. It isn’t this way in Europe and it isn’t this way in Asia.
Like a last visit to a Covid bedside, I needed to see it. It was a good place to live for a while, a kind of an adventure, but its time is over. I said goodbye like an old friend.’t felt like this in a departing plane since I left Baghdad.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.