• New York Notes

    June 11, 2022 // 6 Comments »

     

    Coming home to New York City after over a year away is like performing cunnilingus on an electrical socket. You’re shocked, and the socket doesn’t feel a thing.

    I was driven by that same curiosity that makes you slow down passing a wreck on the highway. I’d read the stories of zombie homeless armies in Midtown, the subway system gone feral, the deserted office blocks, and crime stepping in for Darwin to take care of what was left. Like a last visit to a hospital Covid bedside, I didn’t want to but I needed to see it.

    Inevitably someone will say this is all an exaggeration, that they live in NYC and it’s great, or the 1970s were way worse, or they just saw Lion King at Times Square with their grandma. Good for you.

    The overall of feeling one gets is a place used up, a failed place that somehow is still around. It’s the ultimate irony; it was Wall Street dealers who manipulated the economy of the 1970s and 80s to create the Rust Belt out of the once prosperous Midwest and now the brokers are gone, too. Pieces of them all left on the ground, too unimportant to sell off, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, left scattered like clues from a lost civilization. Might as well been the bones of the men who worked there. Now the same way in Weirton or Gary you drive past the empty mills and factories left to eventually be reclaimed by the earth they stand on, so to Wall Street. There are no trading houses left, just one last international bank and it will soon be leasing new space uptown.

    The whole “financial district” is empty. On a weekend morning I found myself alone on the old streets off Wall, the ones that went all the way back, Marketfield, Beaver, Pine, Stone, to near-primitive times. There just were no people, nothing open. Most of the old gilded era banks and trading houses are in the process of being converted into condos, though who would want to live there is an unanswered question.

    You do see a fair number of homeless in the shadows; the city commandeered empty hotels in the area for them during the worst of the three Covid winters. Left out of the place it created is the famous Stock Exchange. The building is still there and there are people inside, but near-zero trades are done there anymore, nearly everything is remote/online, a trend started after 9/11 and completed by Covid’s arrival. On my next visit it wouldn’t surprise me to see the space has been converted into a Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Across the street there’s already a TJ Maxx.

    Like some elaborate joke about canaries in the coal mine, the condition of New York’s subway system often points the way the rest of the place is headed. With parts of the system still in use that were built 118 years ago, the thing is a testament to just how far the least amount of maintenance will go. Meh, NY grit. You expect it to be too cold in winter, too hot in summer, with no public toilets, and layers of filth which may be what is actually holding it all together.

    But the purpose of the subway has changed. With fewer people working out of offices, and more and more of those that do now driving private cars in the city (parking is a new thing to complain about, car theft is up double-digit percent from pre-Covid times) it is no longer common ground for New Yorkers. Most of the real passengers are blue collar t-shirted, and most everyone else is homeless. Vast numbers of visibly mentally ill people inhabit the subway system. It is their home, their kitchen, and their toilet.  The person in Union Square Station pushing a shopping cart and yelling racial slurs may not physically hurt anybody but is a symbol of a city that just gave up caring while lying to itself about being compassionate. There is no compassion to allowing thousands of sick people to live like rats inside public infrastructure.

    Not surprisingly, the subway is an angry place. Last year there were more assaults in the subway system than anytime for the last 25 years, including a Covid-era trend of randomly pushing people into the path of an incoming train just to watch them die. I didn’t see that, but I saw the secondary effects: passengers bunched up like herbivores on the African savanna, most with their backs against a wall or post for protection. Fewer people looking down at their phones so as to stay more alert.

    If you need to use the subway, you need to acknowledge that you must share it with the predators, under their rules. Like everywhere in this city, navigating around the mentally ill, the homeless, and the criminal is just another part of life. People treat each other as threats, and just accept that, but to an outsider it seems a helluva way to live. The new mayor says he’s gonna clean it all up. so far, four months in office, not so much.

    My old Upper East Side neighborhood hadn’t changed as much as mid- and downtown. The doorman at my old building said there were many more renters than owners resident now, and the masking and fear of catching Covid had done away with the lobby chatter that served as a palliative when heading in from the street.

    Across the street at the projects the drug dealers were in their usual places; seller, runner, overseer. I knew generally where to look for them so it was an easy spot, but they may have been just a little more obvious than last year. I don’t know where they were during the old “stop and frisk” days but I didn’t see them then. Nearby a good number of the mom and pop restaurants are closed, along with about every other chain drug store outlet (ask a New York friend how many Duane and Reade’s there used to be.)

    A couple of those “only in New York places” are holding on, but the effect is grim not scrappy given the gray around them. Passing the United Nations compound, you’re left with the memory that in the 1950s this was once the most powerful city on the globe. My favorite pizzeria, the original Patsy’s at First and 117th in Harlem, is still open and somehow still staffed by old Italian men in an otherwise all-black neighborhood. Nearby Rao’s, an old-school red sauce joint and still one of the hardest-to-get reservations in Manhattan for those of a certain age, is in much the same state, both places in some sort of time-vortex, the old DNA someone will someday use to genetically re-engineer New York for a museum.

    The good news is that the NYPD seems to have reoccupied Times Square, as the city is betting big tourism will someday save it. The problem is Times Square shares a border with the rest of New York, and a block or two away places like the Port Authority bus terminal are decaying back into their primordial state. No obvious hookers like in the 1970s, but their space in the ecosystem is taken by the homeless and those who provide them services, usually quick, sharp, young black kids selling what the cops told me was fentanyl, NY’s current favorite synthetic opioid.

    Some of the least changed areas were on the Lower East Side. These have always been mean streets, and post-Covidland is far from the first challenge they have faced. It’s not nice but it’s stable, it is what it is and it doesn’t ask for much more. Go tread lightly on the area’s terms and you stay safe.

    Covid did its share to the City but every measure of Covid was made worse by bad decision-making on the part of the city. Lockdowns decimated whole industries while leaving New York still one of the red zones of America. Defunding and defanging the police, coupled with no-bail policies drove crime deeper into the fabric of neighborhoods and decent people out to the suburbs. The tax base crumbled. Pre-Covid the top one percent of NYC taxpayers paid nearly 50 percent of all personal income taxes collected in New York, accounting for 59 percent of all revenues. Property taxes add in more than a billion dollars a year in revenue, about half of that generated by office space. Those folks are bailing out and the tourists are largely staying home.

    Left is the largest homeless population of any American metropolis, to include 114,000 children. The number of New Yorkers living below the poverty line is larger than the population of Philadelphia, and would be the country’s 7th largest city. More than 400,000 New Yorkers reside in public housing. Another 235,000 receive rent assistance. They live in the Third World, like a theme park torn out of the Florida swamps unlike its surroundings. You look at it and you cannot believe this is the same country as where you live. New York does that, puts it all right in your face.

    New York, at least in the guise of its elected leaders, chose this, participated in its own end game decision by decision. Former mayor and once Democratic presidential candidate Bill De Blasio, who presided over the NY apocalypse, still had the moxie to claim not diversifying the city’s elite public schools was one of his only real mistakes. No one seems to know what to do, how to unwind what was created.

    Don’t let anyone tell you New York died. It was murdered. The last time I was this happy to get on a plane and leave somewhere I was in Baghdad.

     

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