There’s one way to put even the mellowest New Yorker into a fit of rage: insinuating, in any way, that New York City is dead.
Last March, grief overtook the city I’ve lived in my entire life. Although the events of 9/11 caused me PTSD due to the trauma of almost losing my dad twice in the Twin Towers (first in the 1993 bombing, and then in 2001), the uncertainty we experienced for months in New York City was a new danger that no one in our lifetime had lived through. And as the nation surpasses 500,000 lives lost to Covid-19, the death toll feels like experiencing 9/11 every single day a count comes in. The magnitude is devastating.
During the height of the city’s Covid-19 cases, I clung to New York Governor Cuomo’s updates, knowing that an “apex” loomed that would take 16,000 lives before it was done in April. Like many New Yorkers, my family lives in the city. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t hop on the subway to make sure my mother was okay. And she felt the same; she could hear my wheezing over the phone and knew that I was struggling with my asthma due to masks. It pained her that I’d have to handle any asthma attacks alone.
As I said a prayer every night and tried my best to appreciate the fact that my parents were okay, I learned a lot — too much — about the cadence of ambulances. In Catholic school, we learned a prayer that we say whenever an ambulance passes, hoping it arrives in time to help: “Agonizing Heart of Jesus, have mercy on the sick, the dying, the poor, and the tempted.”
I started saying the prayer once an hour; in between, I could count at least 20 sirens in that period. I also learned that the volume on sirens is lowered after 11 p.m. I heard them muffled in my sleep before they were back to full volume at 8 a.m. Every wailing siren reminded me that someone was likely being ushered to Elmhurst Hospital, which became the ground zero for Covid-19 cases in the virus’ early days. It’s where a childhood friend, now a registered nurse, worked, terrified that she’d bring the virus home to her senior mother and small children.
Every time a newspaper or website published a story about young people fleeing the city, it bombarded us with the insinuation that New York was no longer worth saving.
Each day of health felt like a gift, even though supplies of toilet paper and basic food staples dwindled. A hearty meal depended on whether you could secure an Instacart time. Never having experienced food insecurity before, I became obsessed with securing spots for my mother. I didn’t want her to travel to the supermarket for anything.
Yet, even as this new reality challenged those of us who have lived in New York for decades, leaving was never a thought. It’s just not an option when your roots are here, when your love for this city spans generations. And it’s something we didn’t seem to experience in 9/11, a time when everyone banded together to keep New York strong and resilient. Then, we spent days posting photos of missing loved ones and made care packages for firefighters and first responders. There was a feeling like we were in this together. Now, every time a newspaper or website published a story about young people fleeing the city, it bombarded us with the insinuation that New York was no longer worth saving.
My family on my mother’s side has lived in New York City since the 1930s. The elders were raised in Harlem, after coming from The Bahamas and Central America through Ellis Island. My great-grandmother patented our family’s history of women doing the impossible — she changed her birthdate since she was under 18 and technically not allowed to board the ship off the island. She worked tirelessly as a single mom to ensure that her daughters would get at least a taste of the American dream. And they did: they became Black homeowners in a mostly-White Queens suburb in the 1950s.
From there, my parents endured blackouts, the crack era, 9/11, and, yes, racism. But leaving New York City was never part of the story. The cliché has always been that if you can make it New York, you can make it anywhere. And native New Yorkers, especially those of color, take that to heart. New York City resides in our DNA.
For months after the pandemic hit New York, essays filled Twitter from those who previously moved to New York and decided to leave. And that’s totally fine. No one younger than 102 had ever lived through a pandemic; we were all trying to figure it out as best we can. We were all just trying to do what’s best for our families.
That said, one thing is for sure: People can survive and thrive in New York City. They’ve been doing it for years, with fewer amenities than we, the white-collar, work-from-home set, could even imagine. Sweeping statements like “New York is dead” or “no one can survive in New York” erase the incredible strides made by decades of New Yorkers. It erases the experience of so many who have survived and thrived on far less.
In the words of Carrie Bradshaw, “I can’t help but wonder” if some who believe New York is no longer livable came to realize some cinematic dream. No, New York City is not Sex and the City. That much is obvious; if the HBO series was anything remotely like New York, Carrie would have at least one Black friend at the brunch table.
Nor is the city your personal Gossip Girl, Friends, Felicity, or any other New York-based show that danced in your teenage dreams. It’s more than a place to grab an expensive cocktail at a trendy rooftop; more than a selfie backdrop.
New York is a home with a storied history for people who have firm roots here.
The new frustration for native New Yorkers is now vaccine distribution discrepancies. At the start of the rollout, Black and Brown New Yorkers accounted for just 11% of vaccinated individuals. White residents got vaccinated at a much higher rate in Black and Brown communities. Yet, there were complaints from people needing to go into “bad neighborhoods” to be vaccinated. The pilfering continues, even with so many people leaving New York. Did we learn anything at all?
Anti-Asian racism also caused Asian elders to be afraid even to leave their homes for groceries — in the middle of a pandemic. Friends of mine found people wouldn’t sit next to them on the subway just because they are Asian. Did this make your “New York Is Dead” essays? Did you do anything to help?
Whether you left or stayed, there’s one hope that I have as we hit the first anniversary of the Covid-19 lockdowns: Let’s not forget.
“Never forget” meant so much in a city with a gaping burning hole at ground zero in 2001. Over the last 20 years, I’ve witnessed this statement become a hashtag and even a punchline. As someone who experienced acute survivor’s guilt (my dad made it home on 9/11), I have never forgotten the children who lost their parents that cloudless Tuesday morning. Every September, I have to preemptively steel myself against the conspiracy theories, jokes, and graphic images popping up on my Twitter and Instagram feeds without warning.
For those of us who stayed, for those of us who never even thought of leaving, let’s vow to truly never forget the lives we lost; the names we will never know; the family members who have empty seats at the dinner table.
We have survived the worst of days, and when the time comes, we will get through them again — and we’ll keep the stories, intersections, and tried-and-true New Yorkers as part of our history for the next century and beyond.