The streets of Manhattan are empty, the skyline brittle, and the subways populated only by healthcare workers, the mentally ill and homeless. The Covid-19 pandemic has cleared out wealthy parts of the metropolis, transitory at the best of times. On the streets, masked strangers treat each other warily, invoking a previous era of economic desolation and prudent social separation.
Yet as the new infection rate falls, and the horrific daily death toll begins to taper, the city is beginning to draw breath and imagine itself anew. But what kind of city will it be?
Along with more than 11,000 New Yorkers – public health workers, transport system employees, frontline staff, the elderly, the vulnerable – some of the city’s larger-than-life characters have died, cultural figures who are remembered as part of New York’s energy and resilience.
Among them are the music impresario and Saturday Night Live music supervisor Hal Willner, the Area-era disco star Cristina Monet-Palaci, and art historian Maurice Berger, all of whom died of Covid-19 in recent weeks. At the same time, unrelated to the virus but compounding the sense of a shift in era, the East Village rock ’n’ roll outfitter Jimmy Webb died, as well as the playboy photographer-conservationist Peter Beard.
In a 1978 essay, the New York writer Susan Sontag warned against freighting disease with metaphor, and the extensive obituaries and testimonials have largely avoided it. For the creative community, however, such losses have hit hard. “He was drawn equally to the danger of a fiasco and the magical power of illumination that his legendary productions held,” recalled Tom Waits in a moving tribute to Willner in Rolling Stone. An all-star SNL singalong celebrated his life and work.
After Webb’s death, Iggy Pop posted: “This is the kind of guy who you don’t think you would miss until you do and then you miss him a lot, kind of Proust in street wear, showing his asscrack.” The obituaries have spoken to a particular period in New York’s history: Beard had once described a Halloween party at Studio 54 as “pretty good anthropology”, recalled Women’s Wear Daily.
Musician Iggy Pop, left, with East Village outfitter Jimmy Webb. Photograph: Patrick McMullan/via Getty Images
The New York Times said Cristina’s hit, Disco Clone, was “a deceptively slick dismantling of disco’s sameness, sung in an aspirated and shrill voice: ‘If you like the way I shake it/And you think you want to make it/There’s 50 just like me.’”
For some, the crisis portends the opportunity for a reset. After the 9/11 attacks, for instance, New York entered a new stage: the Bloomberg mayoral administration focused on towering glass skyscrapers financed by Chinese investment deals. Property prices soared; once cinematically bleak districts came to resemble Singapore.
Minorities, artists and family-owned stores were pushed out. To some ways of thinking, the city lost energy that came from the interchange of commercial and cultural forces. But now the city is effectively shut down, both economically and culturally, it may be poised for another change.
“Art seems to thrive on adversity, and one of the charms of New York in the 1970s – though it didn’t seem charming at the time to walk past Avenue A – was when there was a sense of grittiness,” Patti Smith’s guitarist and co-writer Lenny Kaye told the Observer.
Kaye, who is finishing Lightning Strikes, a book about city-focused music scenes from London’s punk to Seattle’s grunge, said the loss of Willner at al felt personal because they were in a sense family members to any artistic New Yorker.
“Losing Hal Willner, a great assimilator who brought together so many varied streams of culture, or Jimmy Webb, who embodied why so many people moved to New York, is in a way the movement of finite time in the creative field.”
But the pandemic has also hit New York as it was coming out of a long period of economic expansion during which real estate values exploded. Covid-19 struck just as many New York prosperity indicators were already declining amid a population exodus.
I hope they stay scared. The worst part of 9/11 was when America decided they loved New York
Carlo McCormick, cultural critic
“This is killing New York physically, but also spiritually and metaphorically, and probably not in a good way,” said New York cultural critic Carlo McCormick. “If youth is losing a little of its love for New York, it’s because of the money situation,” he said. “It’s become unaffordable for so many people. Nowadays, people who’ve spent two years in Brooklyn, just say ‘fuck this’.”
At the same time, he said, the rest of the country may come to fear the city again for the same reasons that others loved it “as a thorny, cantankerous, down-on-its-heels” place. “Oh, I hope it does,” McCormick said. “And I hope they stay scared. The worst part of 9/11 was when America decided they loved New York. It was so much better when they thought we were a bunch of junkies and cocksuckers.
“What New York had going for it at its lowest point was to be a magnet for the disaffected or curious or progressive youth cultures and marginalised people – people who were not allowed in other parts of the country,” McCormick added.
New York artists, as they have in other cities, have been shedding armies of assistants as the art market, which contracted 30% last year, seizes up with the collapse of international art fair and auction-house traffic. “All the rich people have left town, leaving the commoners to die of the plague,” said artist-critic Walter Robinson.
Still, the idea that the cultural forces will abruptly shift, and the city return to the freewheeling ways Willner, Beard, Monet-Palaci and Webb represented, is probably misguided. Step out after midnight on the Lower East Side, it’s advisable to step carefully, said celebrated downtown performance artist Kembra Pfahler, who cautions against romanticising the past.
“I disagree that it used to be better. Maybe what we can hope for is that people realise we’ve been getting fucked completely since 9/11. This is nothing to do with romantic sentiment. Each city is bottoming out, not just New York,” Pfahler said, adding: “The revolution will not be monetised.”