NEW YORK CITY — Harlem is golden, as it often is in summer, the uptown sun shining a bit brighter and the sky seeming a bit wider than in other parts of Manhattan. The sidewalks are not packed, but they’re far from empty, and the streets have their usual rhythm: buses groaning and cars zipping around them. It’s a beautiful, ordinary day in the neighborhood.
Four months after the height of the pandemic and just over three months after I left New York for Boston while both cities were at a standstill, I returned to Manhattan for the first time. And so on Tuesday, I set out in search of the city COVID-19 had created, and the city I had known before — the one to which I’d never quite had a chance to bid farewell.
They turned out to be more similar than I had imagined.
I caught glimpses of emptiness: a handful of vacated restaurants and nail salons, a slightly overgrown park, a drained city pool. There were also new symbols: shop windows reading “MASKS REQUIRED” and tiles on the subway platform reminding people to stay 6 feet apart. But throughout the day, while I traveled by train, foot, and bike, I was most struck by all that had not changed.
My last two months in New York, in March and April, I did not venture farther than five blocks from my building. I rarely made it past my own front door. My roommates and I split bulk grocery deliveries. We went to nearby Riverside Park twice, both times after we had reached our wits end and decided it was worth risking the three-minute walk.
Our neighborhood was hit hard. Hamilton Heights is brown, Black, and heavily immigrant. Outside my window, I saw proof of how essential — and unprotected — my neighbors were. While I worked from home, interviewing epidemiologists and chronicling the spread of the pandemic in another city, a steady stream of people trudged to the bus stop and train each morning, waiting as ambulance sirens blared around them to be taken to hospitals, grocery stores, and other work that demanded they carry on. I looked forward to 7 every evening, when we would lean outside of our windows, banging pots and pans and competing with our neighbors to say thank you the loudest. It was never loud enough.
This week, when I returned to Hamilton Heights for the first time, I was stunned by a different view of my former neighbors. Everything seemed shockingly lively, normal even. I arrived on a Monday evening, and the sidewalks were packed with groups of teenagers out for strolls, older men laughing and playing checkers under the trees, couples and families eating and drinking outside of all the usual places. It was disorienting, like closing your eyes in the middle of a horror movie and opening them to a sunny romcom.
The next morning, I started my day on the subway, where any normal weekday would begin. The city set up a rigorous sanitizing routine in March, one that includes shutting down the previously 24-hour trains overnight for deep cleaning. From what friends had told me, I almost expected the seats to sparkle, and I certainly expected half of them to be empty.
They weren’t. At 9:25 — rush hour for the chronically late like me — my car on the downtown 1 train certainly wasn’t shoulder-to-shoulder as it used to be, but almost every seat was full, and at least a dozen of us were standing. Still, it felt less tense than in early March, when our employers and political leaders were still saying everything was fine as we suspected and feared it wasn’t. We had experienced more of the virus’s awful toll since then, but we also knew more about how it spread. Less afraid of unknowns and of one another, people touched the poles now and sat right next to one another. No one scrambled for hand sanitizer as soon as they left the train.
I stopped by my favorite coffee shop, in Central Harlem, and just like always, I watched nervously as the last seats filled up while I ordered. The only difference was that the seats were now outside. People still peered at their laptops and books. A couple exclaimed when they saw a friend walking down the street, and she stopped to congratulate them on their engagement. The most difficult part of my coffee stop was ordering, when the barista and I kept apologizing for not hearing one another correctly. We were out of practice, we joked, and muffled by masks.
On my favorite walk, 30 blocks from Central Harlem back to Hamilton Heights, the biggest changes I noticed were new Citi Bike rental stands. Before the pandemic, they went no farther than 125th Street. The Black and Latino neighborhoods to the north had to walk or take public transit. Now, they advertised $5 per month memberships for people who received public benefits. At 11 a.m., most of the stands were empty.
Uptown, New Yorkers were on their way to where they needed to go, perhaps biking instead of taking the bus or being more careful than usual to avoid getting too close to strangers, but seemingly at ease with the new normal.
I knew that the seeming normalcy masked an unfurling crisis. New York has emerged from the public health terror of the virus for now, with positive test rates and per capita deaths and cases even lower than in Massachusetts. But the financial impact is still sending shock waves through the city.
More than 80 percent of restaurants surveyed in the five boroughs said they could not pay their July rents in full, including almost 40 percent that didn’t pay at all. New York City’s unemployment rate hit 20.4 percent last month, twice the national rate. Apartment vacancies are up 26 percent over last summer. In some ways, the lively outdoor crowds are a testament to how many of the city’s indoor spaces remain shuttered: gyms, classrooms, indoor dining, theaters, museums.
But for anyone who doubts that New York can and will recover, the streets of Manhattan offer a strong rebuttal.
I opted to bike downtown instead of passing through the city underground. In Harlem, the Upper West Side, Midtown, Herald Square, the Flatiron District, Chelsea, the West Village, and SoHo, people walked and worked and shopped and ate. I found only two eerily deserted places: Columbia University’s campus and Times Square. In other words, places where few New Yorkers live.
On my short list of beloved places to pass by — a bookstore, an ice cream shop, the places you get attached to when you live in a city — I was relieved to find that all but one remained open. Some spots were so crowded that I did not even pause to take photos, too nervous about idling in crowds where too many people seemed to wear their masks above their chins or below their noses.
Toward the end of the day, my old roommate joined me for a late lunch. We biked around until we saw a familiar place with a large, mostly empty outdoor dining area. It was my friend’s first time eating a meal out since March, and my second. At first we glanced nervously around at the other diners and hesitated to take off our masks. But soon, we were laughing and chatting, reminiscing on things we had done before COVID-19 and making promises about what we’d do again.
I told her I hoped some of our new adventures would take place in Boston, with the new friends I’m still waiting to make, in the places I’m still waiting to know. I thought forward to a time when I have new bookstores and ice cream shops to call favorites, new neighbors who make me feel proud.
On our table, my friend and I found a time capsule, a card advertising half-off wine bottles from Jan. 1 to Feb. 29, 2020. We jokingly asked if the discount still applied. Our waitress smiled and shook her head. “Nope, but come back in January!”
I believe we will.