Remember the strange dream of Lockdown New York City

New York City in the early days of the pandemic shutdown was a horrible place to be. As the fatal chaos unfolded in the hospitals, a gloriously noisy soundscape was replaced by terrifyingly constant sirens and the rumble of refrigerated hearses. Anyone on the sidewalk, many of them essential workers who had no choice but to be there, moved away from other passersby in an egregious breach of the recommended six-foot separation. A famously packed city became an anxious place where getting too close to someone felt like it could send you both to a mass grave.

Although painful, these things are easy to talk about. They are morally clear: Death is horrible; fear is terrible. What many New Yorkers more cautiously admit is that as the sheer terror began to subside in late April 2020, we ventured out and discovered that some things about the city were better. No tourists, no crowds, rich New Yorkers – out of convenience headed to the Hamptons or upstate. Everyone who couldn’t afford to leave or didn’t want to was left behind. New York felt more neighborhood-like, like a city half the size.

This transformation was best experienced on a walk with a friend. What might have previously been a temporary hangover felt not life-affirming but life-affirming, proof that COVID hadn’t killed any of you yet. Among the New Yorkers who picked up this walking habit during lockdown is Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic of The New York Times. Six days after then-Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency, Kimmelman invited a series of friends and colleagues to give him tours of their neighborhood, which he went on to write about in a series of columns for the newspaper. These offerings urged New Yorkers not to abandon each other or our city, to go out with friends when we couldn’t be in, and to calmly visit usually miserable places like Times Square and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Last month he published The Intimate City: Walking New York, a collection of these essays. Many New Yorkers will appreciate the book for immortalizing a strange time when the coronavirus pandemic “opened a window through which to see New York, if only briefly, in a new light,” as Kimmelman writes in the introduction. He wanted to “capture a precarious, historic moment when New Yorkers found strength in their divided neighborhoods and each other.”

Two years later, this period of desperate togetherness feels like a strange dream as New Yorkers suffer through the long tail of what author and activist Naomi Klein calls the shock doctrine — when those in power exploit a crisis to impose austerity measures and privatizations. . The new mayor is hollowing out his own workforce and slashing public budgets despite forecasts of a surplus. Landlords are raising rents to record levels while keeping affordable apartments off the market. But for a few months, many New Yorkers experienced the opposite: widespread welfare, free covid-related health care, a pause in most evictions, and evidence that what many people would like to do is not work in an office but spend time with, care for about and stand up for each other. Looking back at the spring of 2020 is a reminder that a more humane world is possible, but we only got there because of a pandemic, and only for a moment.

When Kimmelman thought about the walks, it was hard to imagine that we would eventually find a way out of our isolation. Given the possibility of dreaming to be resurrected, Kimmelman’s guides talk more about human connection than architecture, which is a good thing. One of the best chapters follows author Suketu Mehta through Jackson Heights, generally considered the city’s most diverse neighborhood, as he enjoys the whole world contained within less than half a square mile. In Mott Haven, environmentalist and curator Monxo López Kimmelman took to an environmental mural, three gardens and an Oaxacan restaurant whose owner uses his own undocumented status to support other immigrants. These two chapters celebrate the solidarity that flourished in some of the areas hardest hit by covid.

The book’s first chapter is the most striking, reconstructing the topography and biosphere of New York before the Dutch colonized Manhattan. It also makes the unforced error of presenting a tour guide that talks about the Lenape people in the past, when their descendants are very much alive, including in their homelands of New Jersey and Delaware. Narrow perspective plagues much of the book: Almost all of Kimmelman’s guides have handsome pedigrees, and he devotes 14 of the 20 tours to Manhattan (a chapter titled, simply, “Brooklyn” treats an anodyne part of the borough as a synecdoche for the city’s most populous district). The intimate city thus tells an incomplete story. The protests that dominated the summer after the killing of George Floyd are mentioned only once, and by López, not Kimmelman. Absent is an acknowledgment that the tourists weren’t the only people many New Yorkers were glad to see gone.

These particular missing pieces are the focus of Jeremiah Moss Feral City: On Finding Liberation in Lockdown New York, a memoir that establishes the first wave of the pandemic as a brief, magnificently unruly settlement of New York corporatization. It’s animated by Moss’s grumpiness at seeing the city’s edges grind down for decades, a phenomenon he’s spent the past 15 years documenting on his blog, Vanishing New York. The book begins with a detailed description of his “Before Times” misery as he watched disengaged Millennials take over formerly rent-stabilized apartments in his East Village building. He calls them “new people”—not new to town, but what he sees as a new kind of person: “ideal neoliberal subjects … walking advertisements that exert influence.” (Author Sarah Schulman describes an almost identical process in her 2012 book, The gentrification of the mindAs these people begin to flee the city in March 2020, and in many cases later leave for good, Moss is upbeat despite the horrific events that prompted their flight.

The subsequent book is too long, oversaturated with quotes from other authors and self-examination (Moss is a therapist) that adds little to the story. But it’s also a loving, vivid, near-perfect detailing of the alternative world of connection, opportunity, and freedom that opened up in the first months of the pandemic, amid overwhelming tragedy and suffering. Not since Rebecca Solnits A paradise built in hell has a book so thoroughly explored the camaraderie that blossoms from disaster. Moss writes of a New York returning to what he sees as its rightful entropy, energy that “lifts from the pavement” to reveal “a dirty, spontaneous city” where “anything can happen.” What eventually happened were free refrigerators, outdoor dance parties and, after Floyd’s murder, tens of thousands of people flooded the streets to demand justice for black people killed by the police. Moss joins the protests, spending many hours in an Occupy-style encampment outside City Hall and in Washington Square Park, which during the shutdowns came alive with parties.

His enthusiastic dispatches from these scenes are transportive – a walking tour through recent history. Each chapter is full of tender portraits, especially of young people who found meaning or a home in these places. As a trans man who came to New York to feel secure in his embrace of the foreign and subcultural, Moss is happy to see another generation of weirdos populate the city in the absence of his loathsome neighbors. On a blustery August night in Washington Square, he hears a break dancer shout, over a fight at the fountain, “You wanted old-school New York, you got old-school New York!”

Then comes fall, and though Moss continues to march with black trans activists, he looks bitterly at the city’s return to pre-pandemic order. Outdoor seating stares blankly at the overwhelming number of protesters. Tourists again crowd the city. Removal trucks deploy new New People in the Moss district. In his eyes, everything is over. The temporary utopia is gone.

Longing for a lost city is a favorite pastime of New Yorkers, and both Kimmelman and Moss are good at it. Not that they would necessarily want to live in each other’s ideal version of their home. The intimate city, ultimately, is about a place that still exists: Readers can expect tours to be mapped purely on the streetscape as it appears. The book’s conceit also makes clear that Kimmelman, and some of his guides, longed more than anything to resume, whatever form it took. But what Feral City Captures are more powerful and only available through first person stories like Moss. Today there are no monuments to the rebellion or remaining traces of a wilder place.

For those whose loved ones have died from covid, or whose disabilities continue to hold them back, these books can read as emotional romanticizations of trauma and terror. Those of us lucky enough to experience this version of our home as a silver lining will be nostalgic, and those who weren’t here will learn that the pandemic at no point destroyed the city. If not for accounts like these, the canonical story of COVID in New York might just be about the suffering, erasing a brief period of transformation and intimacy. It was a version of the city we couldn’t hold on to. But it is one worth remembering.

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