Letter from Occupied New York City
Every state has now begun lifting coronavirus restrictions. New York City alone remains locked down from the bloom of spring waiting for Judgment Day. Here’s what it’s like.
No wrinkles around my eyes the first time I saw her, and she wasn’t just a bubble tea shop then. When people could roam the streets of New York City without harassment for failing to tie a talisman of a mask across their face, I used to walk regularly past the old San Remo Cafe in Greenwich Village. In the day regulars included giants like James Agee, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Miles Davis, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollock, and William Styron. Bob Dylan lived nearby, having come to the neighborhood to meet Woody Guthrie.
The property was most recently a bubble tea shop for Asian tourists. Do history a favor and skip the tea; just down Bleecker Street is Fiore’s Pizza, named after a New York firefighter killed on 9/11. It’s hard not to remember those sharp blue September days when we took care of each other before we became so afraid. Heat can forge, or it can melt. Men who ran into a fire were NY’s heroes then instead of people who, however necessary, stock shelves.
The cafe can’t be there anymore, nor the Asian tourists, and neither can I because a good idea to implement social measures to slow the virus in line with our capacity to deal with it morphed into fear driven shelter in place aiming at zero-death. Arbitrary standards have been set for the whole of the place, some eight million people spread over a vast landscape. Available hospital beds to reopen the city must be 30 percent; it’s now at 29 percent. Number of hospitalizations misses the market by two-thirds of a person per day, so to go out for milk now we have to look like Billy the Kid, a bandanna as pointless a defense against dumb ideas as it is against a microscopic virus.
But there is little of the virus in Manhattan, including near the cafe. Most of the deaths are clustered in in the Bronx and distant Brooklyn, separated from the old San Remo by walls of class and money.
It’s an old story. The city always goes too far — too many handouts, too much poverty displaced by too much wealth, too much public housing instead of jobs, a broad lockdown where surgery is needed. Everybody knows the city periodically has to be culled back like weeds out of control.
The 1970s and early 80s saw the place turn into Beirut, with hard lines to navigate. There is OK during the day, up there never, over near the park only if you had some street smarts. The Bronx burned, the cops windshield wipered between giving up and turning vigilante. We did it again not too long later, with stop and frisk. Then back down to where a year ago or so the mayor ordered the police to stop arresting people for what he defined as minor crimes in the subway and then declared the subways safe (again) while minor crimes enmassed into just crime. Each stumble cuts through life here and the city walks around with the scars.
The deal you made with New York was that you put up with stuff like that, liberal think pieces actually acted out (free methadone to replace cheap heroin, what could go wrong when a “clinic” replaces a grocery store in a neighborhood) in return for the old San Remo Cafe you could not get in South Bend or Allentown. You’re welcome, but the city is like a sunset, you don’t expect it to admire you back for watching.
Then it all went to hell in 2020. Those same political thinkers said they needed to put the city into a medically-induced economic coma to top the virus. The solution hit hardest on the poor. They’ll need to become poorer to save them.
The public school system, which in another social experiment gone too far had been largely turned into a massive outbox for free meals, free daycare, free birth control, and free medical care, just gave up education as a function completely and closed. The one single only solitary thing that has any chance of helping a poor kid do better than his parents — education — was shut down.
The rich abandoned the public school system long ago. They also had the comfort of closing their private schools earlier to protect themselves (their schools being used primarily for education not as charity distribution centers; a mega-irony was that the schools still being part of the last social experiment meant they had to stay open longer until alternate food distribution could be worked out) and will exercise the option of reopening their private schools sooner.
A good friend taught public high school in the deranged South Bronx under “Teach for America,” another sociology project, based on the hope if you stuck enough privileged kids in front of enough poor kids something decent might come of it. My friend eventually quit, realizing how much time he spent in his classroom on things not related to teaching science. Charter schools, less grades, more Chromebooks, more African history, free college, lockdowns, quarantines, masks, call Bill Gates, let’s try it.
The conclusion — you can’t fix the schools in the South Bronx until you fix the South Bronx — isn’t anyone’s current project. It reminds me of my nation-building days in Iraq, when any dumb idea could find a sponsor, only the people in NYC care even less about the results. It’s about a good idea that doesn’t accomplish much. One imagines the Amazon frontline worker thinking about all this the way he thought about the flyover honoring him about the same way he thought about people thanking him for his service after Afghanistan.
New York, however, mostly seems content with this mashup of pseudo-socialism inside the greatest concentration of capitalism ever known enforced by near-fascist decree to enact the social experiments while the cops keep the rich and poor safely apart. Extreme forms of mitigation can have diminishing returns, but only in real life. A virus will crush an already broken society faster and more efficiently than a working one. What is happening here is a culmination not an event.
And we are most certainly not all in this together. At first glance it seems the rich areas are held hostage in lockdown now to the poor. But across the city the richest areas are about 40 percent empty. They have other homes, suburban panic rooms from which to see how long this time it will take NYC to surface again. You can track their flight by the drop off in garbage collected in certain neighborhoods. Two of Manhattan’s wealthiest areas have had zero COVID deaths while fatalities in public housing outrank all others.
Heat can forge, or it can melt. New York’s mayor is a knucklehead, a jaboni who imagines himself a Caucasian blend of Cesar Chavez and Dr. King. Nobody really likes him, but the people who vote (by mail, from their second homes) generally endorse his policies even as they wish for someone a bit more elegant. They like the idea of feeling good, and so love the idea of a handful of “lower income” apartments (separate entrances, ‘natch) mandated into billion dollar residential towers. They tolerate human trolls in the subway system because it adds “grit” to their city while they take Uber. Quaint shops needed for Instagram are kept alive via tax breaks, not customers. The rich mandated a city without public toilets, customers only! and then seem surprised everything smells like urine.
Of course no one talks much about how the good ideas never seem to improve the lives of those they are aimed at. Despite the lockdown, plenty of people keep getting sick and dying in New York. The South Bronx is still poor. Despite the economic coma NYC still has a higher virus death toll per million than any other state in America. New York City also has some of the nation’s most restrictive gun laws yet tolerates the deaths which persist. Most of those who die are in the same category as the virus deaths, poor and of color and from another part of town.
It will take years to sort out where the Venn diagram circles overlap among social distancing, natural processes like herd immunity, and just plain exaggeration, but it is clear today COVID is not the most dangerous thing here.
This is again a dismal city, by choice really, ravaged by a virus of bad ideas and delusional political experiments that laid in wait for a new trigger event, COVID for now. Same as 9/11 ended civil liberties and the 2008 recession deepened inequality. Nobody found solutions. Rather than think things through this time we seem to prefer to die stupid. Hard to imagine the poets at the old San Remo Cafe wishing away a lovely spring to hurry it up until November but that’s where we are now.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, 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.