A city ruptured
By Ashley Gilbertson and Nelson D. Shwartz
New York City, the country’s largest metropolis and an engine of the U.S. economy, is more than just another victim of the coronavirus. It is a canvas upon which nearly every element of the pandemic played out, from the collapse in tourism and employment to the rise in crime and the strain on city services.
We spent months documenting the changing city as its economy frayed and split during the pandemic.
How we shopped, what we ate and how we worked immediately shifted. Office employees learned to take video calls from home, as restaurant and shop owners desperately tried to stay connected to customers, separated by screens and windows and other barriers. Armies of service workers were deemed “essential” but often went unseen and unprotected.
In a city with gleaming penthouses and decrepit slums, the pandemic made the extremes of rich and poor stand out even more.
The most fortunate residents were among the first to abandon the city. Over three months, the residential population in affluent neighborhoods like the Upper East Side, SoHo and Brooklyn Heights decreased by 40% or more. Midweek felt like the weekend.
But in large swaths of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, there was nowhere to run or hide. The death rate was higher, and hospitals and morgues became overwhelmed as hundreds of people diedevery day across the city during the brutal first wave.
As the months went on, stores closed down one by one. Sometimes you could see whole neighborhoods seemingly change overnight.
The city’s unemployment rate spiked to 18.3% in May, the highest level in the 44 years that the data has been collected. With no end in sight for lockdowns, a flood of New Yorkers sought unemployment insurance, food stamps and other aid.
Still, life went on. Products moved off the shelves of Amazon and FreshDirect warehouses as quickly as they moved onto them. Vendors hustled their merchandise down the sidewalk, even if there were fewer cars to dodge when they crossed the street. Masked and socially distanced, they were symbols of New York’s enduring resilience amid the carnage.
In a city famous for never sleeping, the subway stopped running 24 hours a day.
It is one of many services that have been cut during the pandemic. Trash began to pile up after $100 million was stripped from the sanitation budget in June. Stuyvesant Cove Park along the East River turned to goats to trim back weeds after it became overgrown following staffing changes.
By summer, the frustrations of shutdowns and economic collapse had burst into the open. Counterfeit goods, once hawked with an eye out for the police, were sold openly. Robberies and hit-and-runs increased.
The city recorded more than 1,000 shootings by Labor Day, making it the worst year for gun violence since 2015, with four months left to go. Most shootings were concentrated in the areas hit hardest by the coronavirus and unemployment.
“The fact that the court system is not working, the economy is not working, people have been penned up for months and months — so many issues underlying this challenge,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in July about the rise in shootings.
New York City is heavily dependent on tourism: 66 million people visited in 2019, when the hospitality industry generated $46 billion in spending and supported hundreds of thousands of jobs. The disappearance of this revenue was among the first economic jolts of the pandemic, and this sector has been among the slowest to return.
One day last fall, as a lone pedestrian crossed Times Square, it was quiet enough to hear the sound of the traffic lights changing.
The economy’s downturn has seemed bleakest at the airports, which once throbbed with activity. At various moments, the terminals of Kennedy Airport and La Guardia have felt like grand, forgotten monuments to the age of travel. Unused planes have often been parked on tarmacs in neat rows.
Luxury hotels can still barely fill rooms. And there is little clue of when the footlights in Broadway theaters will shine again or when the crowds will return fully to destinations like the Bronx Zoo.
In December, more than 1 in 10 New Yorkers who wanted to work still didn’t have a job — almost twice the country’s average.
But as the vaccine rollout picks up speed, people have begun trickling back into public life.
Schools are reopening. People have started dining indoors again, albeit with restrictions. And tourists and New Yorkers have begun to rediscover old pleasures, like the view of the Manhattan skyline from the Brooklyn Bridge or the quiet calm of a bench to yourself at the Museum of Modern Art. Or a hug with someone who has been 6 feet away for the past year.