As a pandemic steamrolls us, media voices have expressed grave concern about the fate of New York City. Some have even called it a “ghost town.”
How foolish. Of course we care about—and must care for—the people of New York, especially those who earn their daily bread in healthcare, restaurants, building services, and other labors. But let’s get, as the expression goes, “hunnit.” The City’s fate is not contingent upon anyone’s joy or misery, life or death, presence or absence.
We don’t make the City what it is. The City makes us what we are.
History is natural
The piece of Earth we think of today as New York City has been exercising its will upon those who inhabit it since before White Europeans showed up to exploit and colonize it. In fact, before any humans at all lived here, the region’s rivers, wetlands, and woods teemed with biotic richness largely unmatched anywhere else.
The Lenape and other First Nations that settled here found themselves in near-Edenic environs: temperate climate, convenient grab-n-go fishing, plenty of construction materials, and easy transport. It’s a shame that anyone came along to trouble them.
But come along they did, immediately commencing to turn Manhattan—not only the region’s central island, but also what author Russell Shorto called “The Island at the Center of the World”—into a hub of global commerce.
Why New York, though? Boston, Baltimore, and Charleston also boast fine natural harbors that gave rise to cities. Why did we so dramatically outswell our coastal peers?
Shorto convincingly argues that the City had (and has) something those other harbors lack—a complex of inland waterways that perfectly complement its vast oceanic harbor. At a time when water transport was the only practical means of moving large volumes of goods and people over any distance, these inland waterways proved vital. Merchants could not only get large ships laden with goods to the City, they could also then use smaller vessels to easily distribute those goods to innumerable other locations around the island, up the Hudson, along Long Island Sound, and elsewhere inland via smaller rivers like the Hackensack and Raritan.
As James Fenimore Cooper wrote in his 1830 novel The Water Witch:
Nature has placed the island of Manhattan at the precise point that is most desirable for the position of a town. Millions might inhabit the spot, and yet a ship should load near every door.
Construction of the Erie Canal 150 miles north in 1825 further advantaged the City by making it the gateway to the entire Midwest, as well as to its more proximate water-fed sprawl.
Once so established, New York’s primacy simply continued by other means after water transport was supplanted. Rail lines radiated from where watercraft once converged. Roadways then did likewise—abetted by bridges and tunnels that were built as soon as we could figure out how to engineer them. Air routes followed thereafter.
Then the City got wired. Other cities may have taken advantage of digital’s location-independence to muscle in on the City’s markets, but the City stubbornly remains the City.
Its waters have been flowing for a long, long time. Its bedrock goes deep. Its paths are well trod. The outbreak of a virus is a small thing to such a piece of Earth.
Always dying, always alive
We’ve always had anxieties about the City. We worry when the quarter-Brooklyn that passes as our nation’s capital tells us to “Drop dead!” We worry when gentrification disorients and dislocates us.
But that anxiety isn’t actually about the City itself. It’s about losing our personal versions of the City. These versions are typically reified at a time in our lives when we’re most intensely urban, when the City most owns us and we’re sweetly but briefly deluded into imagining that we own some little swath of it.
For me, that period was the late 70’s-early 80’s and that swath stretched across SoHo, the Village, and the Lower East Side where in a single evening I could hear Dexter Gordon at Sweet Basil, Oliver Lake at Ali’s Alley, Monty Waters at Tin Palace, and still make the last show at CBGB—all on foot—before taking the heroic wee-hours ride home to 92nd and First, where a fourth-floor one-bedroom walkup cost me $250 a month.
That beloved City-version is four decades gone. Interestingly, though, much of it was at least as barren as the COVID-stricken City of today. I’d walk blocks without encountering a single gainfully employed soul. And there were plenty of empty places to squat or start an impromptu music venue, rent-free.
Even my home neighborhood (did we call it “Yorkville?”) felt empty, despite being fully populated by working folk. But the density was low because at the time there were no high-rises—and there was no Q train on Second.
The City, in other words, was a perfectly wonderful “ghost town.” What better companions could a young man have in those thin-aired hours before dawn than ghosts, anyway?
The City is always dying and always alive. It is beautiful and ugly. It is the signified that defies our signifiers. You can’t argue with Derrida in the City. Well, you can—but you’ll lose.
What, NY worry?
The version of the City contemporary Cassandras apparently fret about is one beloved by real estate speculators, landlords, and tourist-trappers. I’m less concerned about such people than perhaps I should be. But it seems hideously reductionist to assess the City’s circumstance with economic metrics alone. You might as well marry for money—which I’m sure many have done without realizing it.
After all, the City isn’t just rents and occupancies. I mean, look. My Mom grew up in the Bronx during the Great Depression. Was she worse off because she didn’t live in a glass cube and have concierge service? My Grandfather was able to support a wife and three kids on his single inconsistent income as a union painter. Is that awesome or what? And what about the education and culture his daughters experienced in a bygone City-version that—according to the reductionist metrics of capitalist Cassandras—was essentially comatose?
By the way, data-driven doomsayers seem oblivious to the fact that the City is actively growing a sixth borough. That borough may not be considered as such politically or legally, but it’s booming and it’s ontologically as New York as Staten Island or the North Bronx.
I’m referring to the stretch of municipalities on the west side of the Hudson from Edgewater to Jersey City. One is even called “West New York.” Look down your snooty provincial nose if you want, but that stretch is ethnically diverse and closer to Manhattan than most of the other four boroughs, thanks in part to the recently deceased Arthur Imperatore, Sr.—who saw the future and built a ferry to get there.
And please don’t take this the wrong way. 9/11 was a tragic, horrific day for thousands of us. But the City took the insult in stride. Twenty years later, subways still underserve commuters, Wall Street still sinks its vampiric teeth into the jugular of the global economy, and you can still spend on dinner what was once my monthly rent. Somewhere behind the City’s billion windows, human ova are being fertilized, agonies large and small are being suffered in isolation, and someone is hatching a million-dollar idea that someone else is going to totally rip off. The City goes on.
Our City, you see, is not like other cities. It is itself. Seattle is rainy. LA is sunny. But our City doesn’t give a good gotdam whether it’s raining or sunny or snowing or flooding or you’re winning or losing or living or dying or moving to Scarsdale or arriving from Sheboygan.
New York City is based. It may be the most based city that ever was.
The long, long run
It’s probably not a coincidence that my second favorite city is Venice. Venice is also a water city. And that’s putting it lightly. People have been predicting its demise for centuries. In fact, its heyday is so far in the past that it has been in decline since before the Dutch stole Manhattan with their transactional sleight-of-hand.
But Venice is also based as hell. Its ghosts are so badass that they’ll keep living there after the rest of us are long gone. I can only assume that anyone who counts New York City out has never been to Venice—or has failed to retain its central lesson.
So spare me your pearl-clutching. The City’s gonna be just fine. I don’t say that because I’m an optimist. I say that because I’m a realist. Of course, we’re doomed. But we’ve always been doomed. We’ve never been anything but doomed. But between now and such time as that doom manifests, there’s lots to be done. And you can have it all done to you in New York City.