New York is dead ... to whom?

It’s true that rental vacancies in New York City are at historic highs, that some streets are eerily sparse when juxtaposed with their pre-coronavirus “City that never sleeps” persona. And the city’s unemployment rate, which stands at about 20 percent, according to the state labor department’s latest calculation, is a tragic fact, particularly since Congress let the federal unemployment supplement expire in July. Yet it’s also true that New Yorkers—the majority of whom do not live in the wealthiest corridors of Manhattan—don’t seem particularly injured about, or engrossed by, the perceived loss of Manhattan as a playground for the rich.

The consulting and finance bros of the Village, Murray Hill, and the Lower East Side may be stuck at their family home in North Jersey or Connecticut (if they’re younger), or lodged in some Instagrammable enclave (if they’re older). But the Rockaways, on the southern edge of Queens, 16 train stops from the edge of Manhattan, have been whizzing on any given weekend with a welcoming middle-class medley of energy. If you walk, as I did, to the beach there, and (in accordance with New York regulations) take off your mask, nap in the hot sand, and splash into the cool sea, then it can almost feel as if there is no pandemic. The Atlantic Ocean water coursing in between your toes in that moment is no different from the Atlantic Ocean waves brushing up against the affluent shores of Fire Island or the Hamptons…

New York was plagued by cycles of inequality long before it was plagued by COVID-19. “Wealthy white people may be leaving cities for the suburbs, just as they did decades ago,” Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University, told me. “And the horrible thing for Black and brown urban communities is that they suffer either way.” When white families fled cities in the ’60s through the ’80s, crippling divestment followed. A “renewed appetite for urban amenities” brought cities back to life, Klinenberg said, but that growth was racially exclusionary, as anybody who has read about gentrification or been on the wrong side of its effects knows. “We’re all watching something similar play out now,” he said, with the caveat that it is too soon to know whether the current outflows are “temporary” or “durable” relocations.