Empty streets around Madison Square Garden during the pandemic
Flickr/Creative Commons License/Dan DeLuca Empty streets around Madison Square Garden during the pandemic

In March 2020, on the morning after the NBA suspended its season, I unexpectedly became one of the people I love to hate. Like the billionaires who sporadically occupy their apartments in the tall, skinny towers of W. 57th Street, or the globe-trotting condo owners in the Hudson Yards enclave on Manhattan’s far west side, I joined the pied-a-terre class. My husband, my dog, and I packed up and left our fourth-floor Brooklyn walk-up for an extended stay in what had been our weekend place in the Catskills, 150 miles northwest of New York City.

Suddenly we were much like the stock characters who have animated countless recent profiles in The New York Times real estate section: city dwellers fleeing for outlying communities, establishing new home offices and growing herb gardens. Worse, we were evidence that Joel Kotkin was in fact right. The same month that we escaped north, he wrote a piece for Tablet magazine titled “The End of New York”:

“Like their Renaissance predecessors during typhus and bubonic plague outbreaks, contemporary wealthy New Yorkers are retreating to their country homes where they struggle with the local townies over occasional short supplies of essentials.”

Kotkin, a professional advocate for the virtues of suburban living, went on to point out the obvious, or what felt obvious at the outset of COVID:

“What’s particularly ominous for New York’s future is that the best way to slow the spread of the virus—social distancing—works against the very things that make Gotham so appealing. The very pleasures and crowded realities of urban life, such as mass transit, are particularly susceptible to pandemics.”

The question is how this moment should and can be the impetus for a course correction, a rethinking of our collective values, a chance to reexamine the question of who actually owns New York.

As it turned out, New York City wasn’t uniquely vulnerable to the virus. The entire country was soon overrun. (In fact, for much of the past year, my rural upstate county had a higher infection rate than my urban downstate one.) Nor was the disease specifically transmitted by the cosmopolitan nature of city living, or even by subway riding. In fact, there were real advantages to being in the city. The very coziness that the Kotkins of the world initially blamed for the spread of COVID-19 also helped many New Yorkers cope with the pandemic.

Kotkin, of course, was not the only one salivating over the death of the city. There have been no shortage of stories—many in fearful reaction to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests—anticipating a replay of the 1970s and 80s, when crime was rampant and graffiti plentiful: a return to the era of the Tompkins Square Park riots and the Central Park Jogger rape case, which seemed emblematic of the city’s downfall and was famously—and erroneously—pinned on marauding Black youths. While 2020 did see a spike in some violent crimes—shootings nearly doubled and murders were up over 40%—the raw numbers are still small compared to the apex: 462 murders in 2020 vs. 2,605 in 1990.

The Standard Hotel showing its support for health care workers
Flickr/Creative Commons License/Anthony Quintano The Standard Hotel showing its support for health care workers

What those “End of New York” stories missed was the city’s resilience in the face of the pandemic. During COVID, my husband and I remained part-time New Yorkers. We spent a night or two in Brooklyn when one of us had a dental emergency or needed to be in the city for work. I couldn’t help but notice how most people in my neighborhood supermarket or on the subway were wonderfully conscientious about masking and distancing. Never mind the protests in “real” America over mask-wearing as an affront to “freedom”; a majority of New Yorkers seemed to grasp that we were taking precautions, not just for ourselves, but also for others. American cities in general, and New York in particular, have been long been portrayed as dysfunctional, but it turns out they’re held together with a considerable amount of social glue.

Yes, for much of the pandemic, midtown Manhattan was eerily depopulated—I kept thinking about that scene in Vanilla Sky where Tom Cruise drives through an empty Times Square. But my neighborhood, at the confluence of South Park Slope and Windsor Terrace, and other Brooklyn neighborhoods like Sunset Park, Williamsburg, and Bed Stuy, as well as the East Village and Lower East Side in Manhattan, were all still bustling. More importantly, they were alive with community spirit. One Park Slope real estate broker organized deliveries of lunch and dinners to local hospital workers, purchased from struggling neighborhood restaurants and paid for by over $138,000 in GoFundMe donations. Similar drives popped up across the city. Food banks served hundreds of millions of meals, but there were also smaller, more personal efforts to feed the hungry, like sidewalk refrigerators stocked with donated food that were lovingly maintained by grassroots organizers. On front stoops across the city, people played live music for their neighbors or, in one case, sold fresh pasta because supermarkets were in short supply. There were—and still are—a multitude of streeteries, outdoor restaurants that are examples of architectural and entrepreneurial improvisation.

Even my vaccination experience felt like an affirmation of New York’s inherent vitality. I got my shots at a public-school gymnasium in a relatively unhip corner of Bushwick. The process, run by the city’s Department of Health, was managed with remarkable efficiency and kindness, a combination that I’d never before associated with local bureaucracies. When I got my second shot—on an evening when second shots were the norm—the mood was celebratory, with plenty of contact-free high fives. It was New York City at its best: diverse, joyous, and yes, resilient.

Pandemic dining on St. Marks Place in the East Village
Flickr/Creative Commons License/Eden, Janine, and Jim Pandemic dining on St. Marks Place in the East Village

All told, it’s been a year of heart-breaking tragedy. A shocking number of people have died: Nearly 33,000 New York City residents have lost their lives to COVID so far and well over 100,000 have been hospitalized. But the question inspired by this cataclysm isn’t whether the city will survive—because it will. The question is how this moment should and can be the impetus for a course correction, a rethinking of our collective values, a chance to reexamine the question of who actually owns New York.

Big Tech's Big Bet
Recently, the discussion has focused on what to do with central business districts like Midtown Manhattan, where office vacancy rates are the highest they’ve been in decades. No one really knows the extent to which in-person office life will return. Although it’s revealing that the industry that gave us the means to work remotely has been snapping up plum Midtown office properties: Amazon now owns the Lord & Taylor building, and Facebook leased 730,000 square feet in the Farley Post office building, home to Moynihan Station. Even if work does remain stubbornly decentralized, however, Midtown will survive. After all, New York City’s obsolete neighborhoods have always found new uses: the artistic reimagining of SoHo, for instance, or the residential conversion of much of the Wall Street area. Many of the disused office buildings are prime examples of midcentury Modernism and are ripe for adaptive reuse as inexpensive micro-studio apartments (perfect for young and old alike) or small businesses that couldn’t previously afford to set up shop in Midtown. Empty post-war office towers could emerge as the new loft buildings.

New York's future vitality also hinges on our ability to revive and improve mass transit. Current weekday ridership is about 60% less than it was pre-pandemic. Federal money can prop up the system temporarily, but its long-term survival requires the return of paying customers. Of course, having an administration in Washington willing to invest in transit projects, including a new set of rail tunnel under the Hudson River, bodes well for urban and suburban commuters.

Other questions about the city's future will be much harder to solve. We desperately need to reevaluate the ways that development happens here and figure out how to build a New York that is less for the people who figure prominently in the imaginations of real estate developers, and more for the people who actually live and work here, people we’ve lately come to realize are essential: health care workers, supermarket clerks, restaurant delivery guys. Maybe we can conceive of a city that makes more room for them. Bringing sandwiches to hospital staffers is lovely, but making sure they can afford to rent—or even own a home—is transformative.

New York City is all shook up now, like the rest of the world. It's up to us to take advantage and re-organize what we can to seed better outcomes over the next 20 years.

I recently spoke with Majora Carter, a former South Bronx community activist who has reinvented herself as a developer. Her philosophy is summed up by the title of her book that will be published by Berrett-Koehler next year: Reclaiming Your Community: You Don't Have to Move Out of Your Neighborhood to Live in a Better One. As she told me, “New York City is taking a pause, but this is hardly the first time we've been declared ‘dead.’ ”

The pessimism that’s passed for conventional wisdom in the past year “gives you room to work under the radar and build wealth and connections among people left out of most economic booms," Carter argues. "New York City is all shook up now, like the rest of the world. It's up to us to take advantage and re-organize what we can to seed better outcomes over the next 20 years.” Carter has pursued numerous projects in the South Bronx, including one that would have promoted low-income home ownership and light manufacturing, but her biggest to date is outside the city: a 100-unit affordable mixed-use development in Indianapolis.

Majora Carter lecturing about the South Bronx
Flickr/Creative Commons License/Columbia GSAAP Majora Carter lecturing about the South Bronx

The architect and planner Vishaan Chakrabarti, FAIA, shares Carter’s view of the present moment in New York—and many of her ideas about development—only his work has been on a larger scale. “I look at this through the lens of having been Manhattan planning director after September 11,” Chakrabarti told me recently. “And there was the same kind of drumbeat about New York being dead and how many attacks will there be and density is over. There were several articles about how no one will ever build a tall building again … We all know what happened. I just think that New York is remarkably resilient.”

During the first months of 2020, as COVID-19 was quietly seeping into New York City, I was at work on an essay about the “good mega-development.” I was searching for a reason to rehabilitate the kind of big ticket urban strategies that had—rightfully—earned a terrible reputation during the second half of the 20th century. My thought was that, because we’re deep into a shortage of affordable housing, not just in New York but in most American cities, we must find ways to build massive numbers of affordable apartments without obliterating the neighborhoods we love.

My conversation about the good mega-development began with Chakrabarti (who is now a pied-a-terre guy himself, dividing his time between his Manhattan-based firm, PAU, and the University of California at Berkeley, where he’s the dean of the School of Environmental Design). I sought him out because, while a principal at SHoP, he’d been involved with the design of some of the city’s better large developments: Domino, named for the sugar refinery it replaced on the Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn, and Essex Crossing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Both were notable for the ways they forged connections to the surrounding neighborhoods, incorporating public space and including local merchants. At its heart, Essex Crossing features an updated version of the Essex Public Market, established in 1940 by Mayor LaGuardia.

I wanted to discuss a master plan PAU completed last year for Sunnyside Yard. In a way, Sunnyside is the bookend to Hudson Yards. It’s another hugely ambitious mixed-use complex to be constructed atop working rail yards in Queens. But unlike Hudson Yards, where the median sale price for apartments was $3.9 million, this project was to be developed under the auspices of the city’s Economic Development Corporation and would be sensitive to community input and the local economy. The plan PAU drew up, released in early March last year, was so bountiful it seemed like a fairy tale: “12,000 new 100% affordable residential units, 60 acres of open public space, a new Sunnyside Station that connects Western Queens to the Greater New York region, 10 schools, two libraries, over 30 childcare centers, five health care facilities, and 5,000,000 square feet of new commercial and manufacturing space that will enable middle-class job creation.”

A Sunnyside rendering depicting a living street, known as a “woonerf” in Dutch.
Practice for Architecture and Urbanism A Sunnyside rendering depicting a living street, known as a “woonerf” in Dutch.

Sunnyside is a prototype for the kind of mega-development that New York desperately needs, one that won’t displace anyone and that is intended to benefit local communities. PAU’s design seems nuanced, with the size of new buildings cued to the scale of the existing neighborhoods. One rendering in particular telegraphs the vision, showing a street that’s configured as a “woonerf,” a Dutch word, now fashionable in planner circles, that means “living street.” The idea is that there’s no real separation between street and sidewalk; there are no curbs or other territorial divisions. In the Sunnyside rendering, kids play around an open fire hydrant, a man in a motorized wheel chair cruises unimpeded, a tiny electric Mr. Softee truck sells ice cream, and a diminutive MTA bus and a pizza delivery bicycle peacefully co-exist. The scene is as busy as Bruegel painting, but happier. To me it suggests that a mega-development every bit as ambitious as Hudson Yards can be a place that supports and prioritizes the ordinary life of the city.

I checked in with Chakrabarti in April of last year, as COVID hospitalizations and deaths spiked in New York City. Even at that grim moment, he was remarkably upbeat about the future of the Sunnyside plan. He envisioned a growing need for affordable housing and anticipated a Democratic administration in Washington that would be willing to fund it. A year later, Chakrabarti remains guardedly optimistic: “I’m sure the city is going to recover from this. For me the bigger question is can the city escape the binary we’ve been living in for 50 years. The city is either the bankrupt city of the ‘70s or the bougie city of the 2000s. Those are our choices. Have a tax base and sell your soul or have no tax base and be this crime-ridden place. I think this is a chance to say there’s actually a third path that is this generous city, that understands that it is wealthy enough city that it can support its neediest while also having a strong economy.”

The War with Robert Moses
It’s not clear that Sunnyside will offer that third path any time soon. While the EDC still seems interested in one aspect of the project—Sunnyside Station—it has no immediate desire to construct a deck over the railyards. Rather, it regards the master plan as more of a conceptual framework for future development. And then there are the plan's critics. In a letter to the EDC, Queens City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer and New York Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez argued that Sunnyside would exacerbate the “housing crisis that displaces communities of color and parcels off public land to private real estate developers.”

I understand why politicians and activists will invariably object to almost any major planned development. No matter how well intentioned, they all have consequences. Real estate values rise and demographics shift. The question is whether the benefits of a mega-development priced for working-class people outweigh the potential downsides.

Remarkably, a park that struck me as too precious and fastidious when it opened, in 2018, has metamorphosed into someplace … essential.

It's anyone's guess where the future mayor will land on the issue. All the current candidates—the primary is in June—have ambitious ideas about housing. Some talk in numbers of affordable units: Kathryn Garcia says 50,000, Andrew Yang 250,000. Or they talk about zoning and regulation changes (Eric Adams) or an end to evictions (Maya Wiley). There is broad support for rehabilitating substandard housing forms, like basement apartments and single room occupancy hotels. But nothing has emerged from the campaign with the big-vision potential of Sunnyside.

As a city, we’re still suffering with the PTSD left over from the urban renewal of a half century ago, when vibrant neighborhoods were destroyed in favor of housing projects, highways, and other ill-advised schemes. We are still fighting a war with Robert Moses, who died nearly 40 years ago. Maybe, as we recover from this more recent trauma, there’s an opportunity to think constructively about the future instead of fearfully about the past.

Domino Park in Williamsburg last summer
FLickr/Creative Commons License/Shinya Suzuki Domino Park in Williamsburg last summer

The New Normal
On a cool March evening, after we’d all been at least half-vaccinated, my best friends and I ate dinner together for the first time in a year on the outdoor patio of a Williamsburg Italian restaurant. After dinner, we went for a walk along the East River, through the waterfront park, designed by James Corner Field Operations, that forms the edge of the Domino mega-development. Remarkably, a park that struck me as too precious when it opened, in 2018, has metamorphosed into someplace … essential.

The park's improvised social distancing mechanism—carefully spaced white circles drawn on the artificial turf—were faded but still in use, and the park itself was the liveliest place I’d been in a year. Runners, roller skaters, dog walkers, and chatty little social pods populated the promenade along the river. Kids were playing with an installation by artist Jen Lewin, an array of discs that change color when stepped on. My friends and I joined in and started hopping from circle to circle. That spring evening, in a park I’d previously written off as contrived, the city felt tantalizingly close to its former self. For the first time since the day we’d fled, I could glimpse the new normal. At the same time, I think we need to take all that we’ve learned during this, the worst period many of us have lived through, and use those lessons to make sure the new normal is better than the old—to make sure we live in a more generous city and a more generous country.