‘Maybe We Can Be Friends’: New Yorkers Re-emerge in a Changed City

Even as many left the city for the Fourth of July weekend, pockets of activity provided a glimpse of post-pandemic life.

This Fourth of July, Iyabo Boyd did two things that she said would have been unthinkable a year ago. She went to a barbecue in a stranger’s yard, and she met new people.

Reading on a blanket in Franz Sigel Park in the South Bronx on Monday, Ms. Boyd, 36, said she had kept mostly to her pod during the pandemic. Finally, over the weekend, that changed. “Getting to know people again was really lovely,” Ms. Boyd said. “It was like, ‘Hey, maybe we can be friends.’”

In Times Square, Ryan Bowen, 28, was making his second pandemic-era visit from Tampa. Last October, he said, he and his girlfriend found little to do because everything was shut down. Now there were restaurants, fireworks, the tram to Roosevelt Island — not exactly a return to old times, but a distinct step in that direction.

“It feels great to be out,” he said.

It was once possible to envisage the city coming back entirely. Now, whatever lies next for New York feels more like a giant collective improvisation, a city taking shape on the fly. The holiday weekend was a time to rediscover what New York was, and glimpse what it might become.

For many, the three-day weekend came as an occasion to do things they had not done for more than a year. Tourists arrived, while New Yorkers themselves crammed into airports, highways and sought-after getaway spots. Some parks were empty and street parking was plentiful. But for those who stayed and gathered, nothing beat the sheer cathartic joy of being able to hug friends or elders again.

People enjoyed the International African Arts Festival at Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn on Sunday. 
Laylah Amatullah Barrayn for The New York Times

For some, the holiday was an opportunity to leave home. Close to 50 million Americans were expected to travel in the first five days of July, the second-highest Fourth of July volume on record, according to AAA Northeast. Air travel has climbed back to 90 percent of prepandemic levels.

The city, once the epicenter of the pandemic, with thousands of new cases daily, last week saw a daily average of 193 new cases and only three deaths per day. The Delta variant, which has spread through much of the country, accounted for 17 percent of the new cases.

But the city is not the same. The pandemic killed 33,000 New Yorkers, and some question whether the city could ever truly recover. In the South Bronx, Daniel Derico, 43, a photographer, said despite the “big change” of seeing fewer masks, he does not feel like New York will ever return to the way it was.

“For instance, getting into an elevator with 10 or 15 people, I don’t think people are ever going to do that again without thinking about it,” he said. “And I think the second we forget and get too comfortable with that pre-Covid normal, it’ll be a wake-up all over again.”

So much remained in flux: Those new dogs, new cars, new jury-rigged outdoor restaurants, new inches around the middle — how much is permanent, how much destined to go the way of double-masking and “unmute yourself”?

Offices are still deciding how and where people will work. The city’s fiscal hole — and what it means for your commute, your park, your child’s school — seems to change daily. The next mayor is still unnamed. Is it time to ride the subways — every day? Return to church, synagogue, mosque? Is crime heading back to the bad old days? A year after the confluence of Covid-19 and the protests following the murder of George Floyd, the city is a changed and changing place, with scars and fears and hopes all competing for primacy.

Crime has remained a concern — for New Yorkers, but especially for people looking at the city from afar, wondering whether it is safe to visit.

Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

Year to date, a wave of gun violence is still making the city uneasy. The number of shooting victims in the city has increased by more than 30 percent compared to the same time period last year, from 670 to 885 as of Sunday — the highest since 2002, though well below the highs of the 1990s. In Times Square, a recently-commissioned U.S. Marine was shot by a stray bullet last month.

But after last year’s Independence Day weekend, which started one of the bloodiest 12-month stretches in New York City in nearly a decade, this year’s holiday was somewhat more peaceful. In all, 26 people were shot this July 2 to 4, compared with 30 last year.

Signs of an awakening city were easy to find. In Carroll Gardens on Monday, the sidewalk outside Dolce Brooklyn, a tiny homemade-gelato shop, felt like a pop-up party.

“People in Brooklyn really want to get out,” Kristina Frantz, the shop’s owner, said, expressing relief that the business had survived and even thrived through the pandemic. “People are feeling like the pandemic is on the other side. We’ve watched this occur day by day.”

Anna Watts for The New York Times

Business is way up from a year ago, Ms. Frantz said — but it was also up last year, as people from the neighborhood, stuck close to home, flocked in. “Gelato is a comfort food,” Ms. Frantz said. “People want to treat themselves a little bit.”

In Branch Brook Park in Newark on Monday, Michael Casares and Gabriella DiGenova spoke wistfully about the feeling of community that had grown strained over the last year.

The couple, both 24, started dating during the pandemic, but they said that among the people they knew in their New Jersey towns, many were not comfortable socializing yet.

The previous night, setting off fireworks in front of Mr. Casares’s home in Belleville, they said people stayed on their own lawns, watching, keeping their distance instead of coming together.

“Nobody talked to each other,” he said. “People aren’t as social as they used to be.”

In an uncharacteristically empty Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, two friends from Houston, Claire de Blanc, 23, and Mary Brodeur, 22, were enjoying the open space and the catharsis of finally traveling again, after such a dark year.

Both had contracted the virus, they said, and both were now fully vaccinated. Still, when they went bar hopping with friends over the weekend in Manhattan, they were pleasantly surprised at the number of people still wearing masks.

“Houston is a lot different,” Ms. de Blanc said. Back home, they had to chase down customers who refused to wear masks in their restaurant, even at the height of the pandemic’s wave in Texas. People in New York seemed to be more conscientious.

“People are just less,” she said, continuing, “Texas.”

David Manzano, 36, in the South Bronx, celebrated the holiday with a friends and family, indoors and unmasked. At one point, he said, he wanted to reflect on what he had done the year before, only he couldn’t. The pandemic had been such a blur he could not even remember the Fourth of July.

Still, he was not ready to say that New York was back to normal. But it was a good start.

Anne Barnard, Nate Schweber, Tracey Tully and Ali Watkins contributed reporting.

Author: John Leland
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