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New Life In New York’s Stead

New York City, an emblem of urban life in America, continues to wither away. What does that mean for local culture?

A fellow Marylander shared with me a story from New York City this past summer, when those who lauded the vaccine still maintained that Covid could end if only all would “take the jab.” (Recall, for example, Biden’s promise that July Fourth could mark a return to normal life and his subsequent declaration of the virus’s defeat.) In typical out-of-towner fashion, my friend wanted to try that old achievement—along with Broadway, Wall Street, and the historical beacon of welcome epitomized by Ellis Island—responsible for New York’s fame: the New York bagel. Due to her unvaccinated status, however, she was denied entry to a famous bagel shop and the hallmark of a city that once stood for welcome and liberty.

In a few short months, such denials have become commonplace, especially in New York. A city of open arms, that once prided itself on its diversity, has become a city of closed doors and covered faces, reveling in a uniformity born of anti-Covid militarism. This uniformity manifests both in personal choices and the actions of the private sector: As of December 27th, businesses may not “allow any unvaccinated workers to come to their workplace.” Virtually all indoor establishments, too—from gyms to grocery stores to bowling alleys—require proof of full-vaccination for visitors aged 12 and up. Beginning on January 29, the same full-vaccination requirement will extend to children as young as five years old. 

If my friend now returned to New York, she would be left to roam Central Park all day and night, shut out of every N.Y. pizza parlor and museum. A card signaling full-vaccination has become a ticket to life in the “Greatest City in the World.” Meanwhile, “full-vaccination” is a status whose definition is constantly in flux. The booster shot will, undoubtedly, represent yet another component of this ticket to life: The Met Opera will soon ask for proof of a booster vaccine for all staff and audience members, as will all state colleges in New York. 

But ever-widening vaccine requirements represent just one symptom of the sickness poisoning New York, leading some to deem the city dead. New York City’s attitude towards Covid has, since the dawn of the virus, pushed the city’s businesses, culture, and “charm” to the edge of oblivion. Peggy Noonan noted the disappearance of “Old New York” in February 2021, citing the Partnership for New York City’s research that the city had lost 500,000 private sector jobs since the beginning of the pandemic, along with tens of thousands of small businesses and several thousand restaurants.

In early November, the Partnership for New York City reported that 8 percent of Manhattan office workers went into the office five days a week, with 28 percent present on an average workday and 54 percent still entirely remote. Even before Omicron latched onto the nerves of New Yorkers—who, like many across the country, have re-embraced the regulations of 2019 and 2020 without a second thought—Manhattan’s offices have stood empty overtop an emptying city. 

The culture of New York has likewise emptied itself, as Noonan recognized. Broadway and the museum scene have repeatedly shrunk to fit with Covid policy. Tens of thousands of small businesses and several thousand restaurants have shut their doors for good, unable to keep up with militant anti-Covid measures. Meanwhile, chain restaurants and large department stores have and will outlast anti-Covid militarism: With 300 Starbucks shops, NYC has suffered no true loss of Pike Place coffee. Yet New York has lost countless corner cafes where familiar baristas know the neighborhood’s orders and the locals’ names. It is these small, local, familiar businesses and their friendly supporters that have suffered. 

The locals themselves are leaving the city. In 2021, 406,257 residents departed the city, many of whom likely left for states like Florida and Texas, which saw high in-migration last year due to their lower taxes and in-person schooling policies. The cultural charm of the city—imbued by writers and artists from Wharton to Fitzgerald—has disappeared, as my own recent visit hinted. The late Joan Didion’s understanding of New York as “no mere city” but an “infinitely romantic notion” could surely no longer be uttered in a city where industry and culture, once booming in lurid color, have rotted like the city’s ever-present trash. 

Widespread masks and double-masks would likely motivate Holly Golightly to avoid eating her croissant in front of Tiffany’s, I mused, meandering through Manhattan. When walking past boarded-up shops beneath empty offices and empty apartments, I could not help but wonder if Nick Carraway’s sight of the “city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps… in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world” could possibly be seen today. 

Beyond Covid, though, the city has fallen into a “homogeneity,” as Kari Jensen Gold wrote for First Things. Drugstores and banks replace small businesses and “a bubble of progressive group-think” ousts humor and openness. Deathly uniformity reigns. America can thus no longer reasonably behold today’s hollowed New York as hallowed. 

New York City, an emblem of urban life in America, continues to wither away. Yet perhaps its sickness is not altogether a reason for despair: If New York no longer dominates the cultural life and imagination of the country, perhaps a revival of local culture is possible. Through Broadway, the art world, and the culinary, entertainment, and music industries of the city, New York has dominated the imagination of the nation for the past century. In its wake, perhaps the return of local culture that Wendell Berry envisions in his essay “The Work of Local Culture” is possible. 

Berry longs for a return to simplicity in entertainment, to fascinations fixed more firmly in place and time: 

By television and other public means, we are encouraged to believe that we are far advanced beyond sitting till bedtime with the neighbors on a Kentucky ridgetop… most of us no longer talk with each other, much less tell each other stories. We tell our stories now mostly to doctors or lawyers or psychiatrists or insurance adjusters or the police, not to our neighbors for their (and our) entertainment. The stories that now entertain us are made up for us in New York or Los Angeles or other centers of such commerce.

The traditional enjoyments of community life, such as telling stories to each other rather than receiving them from the nation’s elite urban centers, have long since been labeled as too simple, traditional, and, as of the past two years, risky. But a pale New York cannot gleam in our cultural imagination for much longer. If urban cultural centers are indeed faltering across the nation, local life may blossom.

Unfortunately, our national imagination has not rediscovered localized concerns so much as it has become disembodied. Consider, for example, the predominance of streaming services and the death of the movie theater. Somewhat-communal cultural practices, like attending a local theater or a live show, have succumbed to Netflix, Disney and Amazon—companies who turn a profit by isolating individuals from local life and infusing them with Hollywood’s values

Still, hope may remain for a revitalization of local culture instead of a continued capitulation to group-think city centers like New York and entertainment tyrants like Netflix. A ticket to life will not be needed for such renewal, but a commitment to truth, goodness, and beauty will. Local cultural renewal must, at first, be a quiet revitalization, not one pronounced on national news or social media but between neighbors on a tangible town street. “Telling stories” may not rescue us from national group-think but will resurrect thinking of each other “as more important than [our]selves.” 

Revitalization in the wake of urban death must be, as Berry concludes in “The Work of Local Culture,” accomplished “from the inside by the ancient rule of neighborliness, by the love of precious things, and by the wish to be at home.” Love of the good and of home—not love of the loud nor of the culturally relevant, not love of a dead and distant city—will resurrect our cultural and communal imagination. Such neighborliness is, as St. Paul writes in Romans, the obligation of “we who are strong.” From it, too, our communities may once again draw strength.

Sarah Soltis is studying English and classical studies at Grove City College. She hails from Annapolis, Maryland and currently works as Front Porch Republic’s editorial intern. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.




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