State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

New York City Will Be Back

I live in New York City, the one-time epicenter of the coronavirus, which is now slowly and carefully coming out of hiding. We’ve made mistakes along the way and we will make some more before this is over. But we will come back. New York is buildings, parks, rivers, shorelines, streets and sidewalks. But at its core, New York is people. It is people from all over the world creating opportunities for themselves, their families and yes, our entire community. The xenophobic horror of Stephen Miller and the racist, ‘America First’ ideology of Miller and his patron, the president, are an old story here. New York’s been there, done that, and come out on the other side. Every group that came here was attacked by whoever came before. Each group made a neighborhood their own: Astoria, Harlem, Little Italy, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, Washington Heights, many others in every borough. Each corner of the city was a collection of cousins and hometown friends, and then in the next generation some moved out and some moved over, and some moved up.

What emerged was what my colleague, professor and Mayor David Dinkins, once called a “gorgeous mosaic.” Not a melting pot, not a stew, but a beautiful picture that close-up is made of distinct individual tiles, but from a distance is a gorgeous, thrilling and distinctive work of art. New York City is global, diverse, energetic, noisy, unique, sometimes idiotic, but always distinctly human. Sometimes its edges are rough but it’s always surprising and often emotionally moving. New Yorkers guide tourists, carry baby strollers up subway steps, buy groceries for older neighbors, and look you in the eye. New York is tough on the outside, tender on the inside and it is my home. It is built for ambition and opportunity and in its own way does its best to take care of those left behind. It is far from perfect. But New Yorkers know what they need to do even if they can’t always do it. At the height of the pandemic in March and April, first responders, health care workers, grocers, bike delivery guys and druggists made sure we were safe and fed. So many heroes. It wasn’t America first, it was humans first. Whoever you are, wherever you were from, people helped people. While the rich were better cared for than the poor, our public and private health care facilities did amazing work, and all of us will forever be grateful for their selfless sacrifice.

The greatest description of New York City was written by E.B. White in his classic 1948 essay “Here is New York.” As White observed:

There are three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last — the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.

White’s tripartite division remains unchanged, and a million meetings on Zoom will never replace the energy and tradition those three parties bring to the table, face-to-face. And that is why I know that while we may be down, we are far from out. People come to New York City from other parts of the world because someone in this place speaks their language and probably knows their family. Its informal cash economy continues in the face of electronic commerce, and someone showing up here with ambition and energy is soon put to work by someone somewhere. The price of entry is low. You don’t need a car and can get anywhere with mass transit.  Our transit system may not always be convenient or comfortable, but it can get you to where you need to go. And the visuals of this city from New Year’s Eve, July 4, Thanksgiving and thousands of movies are impossible to avoid or ignore. New York remains a magnet and its images are hardwired into the world’s culture.

Growing up in Brooklyn during the 1960s, I assumed that politics took place everywhere, including the streets. Politics was loud. My mother and her friends picketed the Board of Education for more classrooms, unions struck for better deals, and students marched for peace and justice. There was no social media; our media included paper leaflets handed out on corners or from card tables set up on the sidewalk. We signed up volunteers and sold political buttons and tee-shirts. And today, I feel that same energy I grew up with in the young people I teach and those I watch on the web. New York is in synch with that energy and is designed to feed off it and change with it.

There is always a danger of intolerance and reaction and some change agents may get carried away, stop thinking and move to extremes. That happened before. Some peaceful protests descended into violence and disorder and then we saw hard drugs, crime and fear. The New York I grew up in lost a million people and nearly went bankrupt in the mid-1970s. But through 9-11, Hurricane Sandy, the crash of 2008 and now the pandemic, it keeps getting knocked down but keeps getting back up. We have a chance now to reshape the city, to modulate the force that has been displacing working families who have not managed to accumulate wealth. We have a chance to build back better since some of the business models that brought us here, will not survive the economic downturn we are now struggling with.

Some of New York’s comeback will require help from the federal government, and I hope at some point we get a functioning national government. New York’s neighborhoods are built on small businesses: bodegas, delis, bars, restaurants, hardware stores, barbershops, salons, florists and a wide variety of businesses that have been decimated by months of lockdown. These businesses need a break in the form of cash. Possibly a no-interest long term loan program coupled with subsidies to state and local governments for property tax and mortgage relief for landlords to permit long-term rent discounts. We will also need to provide resources to allow schools to reopen safely before a COVID-19 vaccine is developed. If the federal government does not step in, we will need to be even more creative and develop a way to help small businesses recover and figure out how to take care of school children when they are not in school buildings. Everything will cost money, but the large number of unemployed people in the city could be trained and paid a living wage to help those who need care get through the slow-motion pandemic catastrophe.

Since mid-March, New York has suffered and struggled. We walk in the parks, masked and focused more on the trees than other people. Support systems that enabled us to live and work have been replaced or eliminated and our ability to engage and enjoy our city has been compromised. We are waiting to be delivered back home by a magical medical technology that billions of dollars have been spent to develop. The overwhelming strangeness of life in our city is difficult to convey, but nearly everyone who lives here feels it. When this crisis ends, we will be transformed in ways we cannot predict. But the one prediction I can and will make is that yes, we will be back. New York City will come back.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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