“New York City is dead forever,” read that one headline. But the truth is, even though the coronavirus pulled the emergency brake and forced the city to a standstill, New York quickly got moving again.
Now millions of residents are entering a third pandemic summer, and sidewalks are teeming, happy hours are hopping and tourists are back.
How does the city feel now? What is the? appearance?
A five-day, five-borough vibe check found that New Yorkers described heightened concerns about normalcy, safety, security, finance and mental health, but also showed unwavering optimism.
The city has always been defined by the people who live here: it is a magnet for dreamers, a refuge for crooks, a perpetuum mobile in which the engine is driven by a human desire to strive. A week spent in barbershops and baklava spots, in sunny coffee shops and shady parks showed that the city was still very much alive.
On a muggy Monday afternoon in mid-June, at the intersection of East 149th Street and 3rd Avenue, the Bronx was abuzz. The sidewalks buzzed with commotion. Street vendors sold sliced mango, jewelry, hats and toys. Cars drove bumper to bumper along the avenue, honking their horns as the hoods glittered in the heat.
A few blocks north of the noise, Yolanda Hopson sat serenely on her shady sidewalk, her silver glitter eyeshadow twinkling. She said the “beautiful day” brought her out. Still, the city feels rushed to her right now.
“It feels like everyone is trying to rush and do things for ‘just in case’,” Ms Hopson said. “Everyone is now living on ‘just in case’.”
Friends and family call Ms. Hopson “The Mayor of Melrose” because she knows everything that goes on in her neighborhood. She will be 56 in July, got Covid in December and remains cautious. “I wear two masks. I just don’t think it’s over.” Then she smiled, “You’re still alive. You’re enjoying yourself.”
Down the street, at Chobby Flow Barbershop, the owner, Robin “Chobby” Tejada Rodriquez, 31, said business has been very slow since the pandemic.
He’s owned the store for eight years, and customers who used to get a weekly haircut don’t come in very often — or don’t come at all. “People don’t have money,” he said.
Businesses in the area that used to stay open late are now closing early, he said. “Robbery and crime – it’s insane now,” he said. And lately, when people sit in his chair, they talk about their problems: “Their mental health is not good.”
Not far away, a handful of men sat on the edge of the handball court in St. Mary’s Park in the South Bronx. Grandmaster Flash’s voice rapped “The Message” from a portable speaker. (“It’s like a jungle sometimes; I wonder how I can make sure I don’t go under.”)
“It feels more normal than when the pandemic started,” said Steven Montalvo, 23, after playing a quick handball game. He lives next door to the park and explained that when the virus hit, the area was “very dirty. A group of people were sleeping in the park. There were needles everywhere.”
Now, “It’s cleaner,” he said, but added, “The crime is the same.” He pointed west, past the fence, and referred to a rape that happened “at 8 a.m. on the other side of the park.” He continued: ‘I think they shot that side yesterday, or the day before. You know, regular city crime.”
“We’ll make it through with a smile.”
It seems an act of optimism to not just start a new business, but open it now, as the city recovers. On Tuesday afternoon in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Spencer Okada and Khanh Tran stood in front of the huge window of their new Doyers Street shop, ArtBean Coffee Roasters, as the breeze blew in.
The couple, who opened the store in May, got married a week before business shut down in 2020. “We basically spent our honeymoon in a small apartment in New York,” said Ms. Tran, who came to the city from Vietnam. They made that time productive: “This company was born during the lockdown – because we wanted to create something.” They roast their own coffee, work with artists and hang paintings in the shop.
mr. Okada, who grew up in Reno, Nev., shrugged about timing: “You can never time anything. Now is exactly our time to do it, and we just have to do our best.”
About nine miles north, in Harlem, another newly opened business welcomed guests. The strongly-scented NYC Zaza Exotics, owned by Antar Alziadi — better known to some as the rapper Yemen Chee$e — had only been open two days, but customers had already looked at it, he said. “I have a lot of followers on Instagram. They come from all areas.”
mr. Alziadi sells treats from other countries: Skittles from Japan; Crush cream soda from Canada; and rare, limited edition oddities like Flaming Hot Mountain Dew. KitKats in the Asian market will run you $20 or $30 here; chips, $15; soda, $10.
Despite the extremely fragrant smell in the store, Mr. Alziadi that no weed is sold. He is “in the process” of getting his permit for it. Until then, Mr Alziadi is optimistic about the prospects of an internationally produced snack shop: “Everyone has their own luck. Your happiness is your happiness, whatever you sell.”
Just a few blocks away, in Rucker Park, huge speakers vibrated with hip-hop beats during a streetball game. The man known as Ricky Superstar beamed as he skated and played basketball.
“We’ll make it through with a smile,” he said, just as the Basketball Beauties were about to hit the court. “The smiles are getting bigger and better, because the pandemic has abated.”
His first name is Ricardo Verona; he was born “around the corner from the Apollo”; he’s been coming to Rucker Park since the 1970s; he swims four times a week; and in September he will be 62 years old. “I feel the energy now,” he said. “People feel, ‘yay!'”
On Steinway Street in Astoria, Faieq Alnabulsi, the owner of Al-Sham Sweets & Pastries, sold baklava and biscuits by the pound on Wednesday. But things are inconsistent.
“Last year has been better than this year so far,” said Mr. Alnabulsi. “Now people are more careful” with their spending, he said.
The store is 12 years old. Mr. Alnabulsi, who is 53 and originally from Jordan, has recently raised his prices as the cost of ingredients and supplies – boxes, bags – have risen. He said he doesn’t charge as much as it costs him, which hurt his profits.
“But that’s okay. What are you going to do?”
At 35th Street and Astoria Boulevard, Tasnim Shawkat, 19, was walking home to East Elmhurst from a doctor’s appointment in Astoria, which was supposed to take about an hour. “It’s a long walk home, but it’s fun,† she said. However, walking at night is a different story. “I don’t know if it’s because I heard that, but I definitely feel less safe,” she said.
On a side street in Vlissingen, down a flight of stairs, flashing lights and squishy, colorful hugs in Anime Claw beckoned fans of Asian animation and video games. Vivian Hsieh, 25, who works at the store and loves “everything light,” said people came in to take pictures with the stuffed animal wall.
Despite the cheery interior, Michael Shao, 29, who runs the store, said there was a “security problem” in the area recently. “Stealing, petty robberies, something like that.” He said he could also see that some customers were under financial pressure, but the store was providing relief and entertainment: “We make people laugh.”
“It’s getting back to normal.”
As P-Funk and The Temptations blasted through the speakers Thursday afternoon, a slew of customers gathered at Royal Rib House on Malcolm X Boulevard in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, ordering fried chicken, mac and cheese and, of course, ribs.
Jason Barnett, 45, who runs the restaurant now that his parents passed the torch to him, has lived in Bed-Stuy for more than 25 years. “Every day I see more and more people coming out,” he said. “People are just happy to be outside, and things are getting back to normal.”
Cree Flournoy, 31, who started visiting the Royal Rib House as a child, picked up an order for her mother: “She got a slab of ribs and a different kind of ribs with kale,” she said. Ms Flournoy called the mood in the city “hopeful”. “I think we’re all just trying to come back to life and do all the things we used to do, and go to the places we used to visit – and enjoy†
In the Bushwick neighborhood, Luzclarita Velez, 25, and Marcella Jordan, 21, played tug with their dog, Biscuit, in the Maria Hernandez Park dog run. Ms. Velez said the town seemed “quiet,” but it got her thinking about all kinds of possibilities. Perhaps she would move from criminal justice to an emergency medical technician. Maybe she would go to Puerto Rico and Disney World. “Like, you only have one life,” she said. More direct and more local, she would like to go to a rooftop restaurant. “I’ve lived here all my life,” she said, but there were so many things she’d never done before. “I want to discover more of the city.”
“They’re ready to get out and live their lives.”
On Friday’s Staten Island Ferry, crowds flocked to starboard, snapping selfies as the boat passed the Statue of Liberty against a deep blue sky.
In the St. George neighborhood, Kesiah Kelly sat outside Sherri’s Kitchen, a soul food restaurant on Bay Street. “I’m actually from Brooklyn,” she said, laughing as she described how her neighborhood, Brooklyn Junction, was back to normal: “Normally, back to the ghetto, back to the fight, the dollar van — it had happened like nothing. But just, you see people with masks.”
Mrs. Kelley’s wife, Shanee Lewis, 34, now runs Sherri’s Kitchen. Lewis’ mother, Scherisce Lewis Clinton, who founded the restaurant, died earlier this year. She was known for giving free meals to those in need. Mrs. Lewis keeps her mother’s recipes and spirit alive: “We feed the homeless. I’ll keep working on that.”
She was getting ready to fry some fish. Beautiful, sweet-smelling red velvet cakes were waiting on the stove to be frozen. But prices will have to change, she said. “Let me tell you. Oxtails? for $200, you get something like a small bag. It used to be $100 for two large bags†
Down the street, on the top floor of the Empire Outlets, the frosé vending machine was churning behind the bar in the Clinton Hall beer garden. A little girl was throwing beanbags as lazy bees buzzed around the cupboards in the back roof garden.
The general manager, Jason Breska, said people really want to get out and about again: “Last year was like baby steps.” Mr. Breska, who, when asked about his age, answered “old enough,” commutes from Brooklyn for work and notices the difference: “Staten Islanders, they’re a different breed. They’re ready to get out and live their lives.” to lead.” And for him personally, “I think the pandemic has really taught me gratitude — appreciation for being around other people and being outdoors.”