Even as the coronavirus is ravaging the country and the world, a new reality is emerging in New York City.
Nowhere is that more evident than on a stretch of 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, that is now a lively symbol of renewal in a neighborhood where the virus infected one in 22 people and claimed 260 lives.
Residents began trickling to the partially closed-off street soon after the deadliest days had passed. Strollers and wheelchairs appeared. A retired nurse planted purple corn and sunflowers in the median, and a group took up a daily bingo game. Regular Zumba classes cropped up, then English-language lessons. Families bicycled in packs, and neighbors cheered one day when a boy finally got to remove his training wheels. Artists sketched murals in chalk next to picnics while children zipped through makeshift obstacle courses.
The renewal in New York City comes roughly six months after it became the epicenter of the virus in the United States. Six months of hardship and numbness: Nearly 24,000 people in the city have died during a pandemic that beat down into it, preyed on its vulnerabilities and sent its identity reeling.
The virus soon spread everywhere. On Tuesday, the nation’s coronavirus death toll surpassed 200,000.
Still, in the city, where the infection rate has on some days dropped to only 1 percent, there have been small transformations that have revealed the grit and gifts of those who stayed as others scurried to second homes.
During a crisis that has not disappeared, there are signs of resilience and innovation — vibrancy in unusual places and a reimagining of community, resources and opportunity. And a distinct sense of resolve: Our landscape was profoundly altered. But we remain. We will endure.
It is not a tale of triumph. There is no presumption that any sorrow or despair will be erased. Industries, pastimes, institutions, systems, livelihoods and families have been broken. The trauma of the last six months will play out for lifetimes. And fear about what lies ahead persists. (On Tuesday night, city health officials warned about a troubling uptick in virus cases in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.)
Yet this is a moment of adaptation and improvisation. When people pool what they have to create something new. When they take unfamiliar steps away from what was to what can work now.
In Central Park, weddings and birthday parties, once tucked away in rented halls, have spilled out into the open — the celebrations jubilant though everyone is wearing masks. A struggling Greek restaurateur in Queens has added ambience to curbside tables with lanterns and bouquets. Top designers like Christian Siriano and Naeem Khan have included mask-making in their repertoire.
In Brooklyn, a trio of D.J.s throw digital parties to raise money for the owners of dance lounges, while a coffee shop in Bedford-Stuyvesant stocks four community refrigerators with fresh fruits and vegetables for the needy. An opera singer performs every night while standing on a ledge of the Mansion House in Brooklyn Heights.
“There are still these beautiful moments that you don’t have in any other place in the world, like walking in Prospect Park and stumbling upon a jazz concert or a brass band,” said Dominique Nisperos, 37, a comedian and sociologist from Bedford-Stuyvesant who spent two months recovering from Covid-19. “The lows of the pandemic have been really low, but what’s been my saving grace has been the people of New York.”
Even the subtlest shows of coping can be lifelines in a city pummeled and suffering: Roughly half of New York State’s 2.8 million people collecting unemployment benefits are in the city, where long lines overwhelm food pantries and homeless shelters are strained. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city’s subways, buses and two commuter rails, is facing the largest financial crisis in its history, one that could cripple the system (although it has never been more clean and roomy).
The 1.1 million students who attend New York City’s public schools have found their year upended, with poor families thrown into impossible situations. The divide between landlords and housing and retail tenants has become even more vast. Tourism has been wiped out, and Broadway has been shut down until next year. Nightlife establishments have been annihilated, restaurants shattered.
Also, winter is coming. What will we do in winter?
If faith exists in anything, it is in the clever and enterprising ways that people have managed to pivot from their routines and devise new ones.
When Alicia Ramos lost her job at a clothing factory where she made $410 a week, her options as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, with limited English skills and health issues, were few.
So, three months ago, she started rising at 3:30 a.m. every day to prepare five dozen tamales to sell at a train stop in Brooklyn. She had never attempted street vending, and the first outing was tough. But by the third day, her sales went up.
Ms. Ramos, 55, soon added champurrado and arroz con leche to the menu. The venture has been fulfilling financially and emotionally. She’s her own boss now. “We’re hardworking and persevere,” she said of immigrants like her. “The city needs us.”
Many others have turned to street vending to sell goods like homemade yogurt, wheels of chicharrón, birria tacos, face masks and hand sanitizer.
Some make their way to the open street in Jackson Heights where joggers and dog walkers move with a sense of freedom and airiness.
“Within increased isolation you’re still seeing people navigate by building community, which is crazy,” said Justino Rodriguez, 39, a Latin American studies professor who meets a friend every morning for a walk around the concourse.
Jim Burke, 54, who helps coordinate events on that street, added: “It shows we crave to make the best of any situation. How do we start over, but not the same? You see that after anything New York has gone through.”
That attitude has been apparent in the volunteers rallying around Chinatown, where initially some xenophobia surrounding the coronavirus cut into the already thin margins at shops and restaurants. The offers of help, particularly from Asian-Americans around the city, have meant a resurgence of energy for the area, a cultural institution.
“These are immigrant-owned businesses. This is how they started,” said Jennifer Tam, the co-founder of Welcome to Chinatown, a grass-roots initiative established during the pandemic to support businesses. “They’re scrappy and hard-working. Despite the challenges, they feel like there’s a chance.”
Entrepreneurs in Manhattan have also been improvising like never before, crushed by the lack of foot traffic and tourists.
Liana Pai’s clothing boutique on the Upper West Side, in her family for nearly four decades, did not have a website at the beginning of the pandemic, so she rushed to snap photos of her inventory, sometimes using her daughter as a model. She FaceTimed with customers, parading out shirts and dresses as her husband held the phone up for hours, his arms shaking. She drove to people’s homes to drop off purchases and mailed out boxes of garments that clients could sift through and then decide what to keep.
The shop has done about one-third of its usual business, and Ms. Pai, 53, may have to close it soon. But she believes she’ll find a way to reopen somewhere in New York City. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” she said.
Others have been similarly resourceful. David Bogoslaw, 58, was laid off from a Manhattan-based financial publication and has since taken a job as a census worker. “New Yorkers are always strong. They’re not ones to feel sorry for themselves.”
He added, “There’s a lot more pleasant environments you can live in. To live here, you’re going to have to have inner fortitude.”
When Vel Levon’s pole dancing studio in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, could no longer safely host classes or bachelorette parties, she turned to selling watermelons that her boyfriend drove up from out-of-state farms and that were especially sweet. She announced the endeavor on community Facebook groups in July. Business boomed.
“It’s indicative of a New York hustle,” said Ms. Levon, 47. “I’m not ever embarrassed to do something that looks odd.” While other pole dancing studios closed, she was able to keep the lights on.
The deeper change taking place in the city goes beyond individual feats.
Walking his dog Melo along Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights last week, Ade Chike Torbert reflected on what feels like an emotional shift.
“New York is such a city where it’s eat or be eaten, everybody kind of becomes lone rangers,” said Mr. Torbert, 33, who works in film production.
“This moment allowed us to realize we’ve become a community. And I just see more compassion. I’m more willing to say hi to my fellow stranger because we survived something together. If I see you, we make eye contact, I wave.”
María Figueira, 32, from Brooklyn, said it has been heartening to see people offer their skills and resources to others. “People have been very realistic about what they can provide, like their time as a result of the loss of jobs,” she said.
Ms. Figueira has a steady income from her work in real estate development and has been donating to area organizations. The experience of watching so many battle hardships related to the coronavirus has given her perspective.
“We need to remember as a city we went through a huge traumatic experience — the ambulances that were ongoing constantly,” she said, adding, “I’d say for the most part, New York steps up and has been successful when it embraces that we are in this together.”
As the city reopens, it’s not clear what things will look like and how they will work in the future. The prospect of a second wave is frightening.
Already, attempts at returning to what we know — offices, schools, sports — have been problematic. Signs of real progress have been slow. And yes, many have left.
But even in the face of a devastated economy and an insecure future, there is a persistence, a sustained, indefatigable pluckiness. It says no less of those whose dire circumstances send them elsewhere, but there is a feeling that those who stay put, who dig in, will represent the best of us.
Jonathan Schnapp, co-founder of the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club in Brooklyn, which has been closed since March, likens it to those gatherings held on dreary nights when the weather is terrible. Those who decide to make the effort to trudge across town seem particularly special.
“Maybe that’s what New York City’s going to be,” he mused, “that snowy-night party with the people who really want to be here.”
Graham Bowley, Stefanos Chen, Jo Corona, Annie Correal, Arielle Dollinger, Vanessa Friedman, Christina Goldbaum, Matthew Haag, Elizabeth A. Harris, Nicole Hong, Winnie Hu, Patrick McGeehan, Sharon Otterman, Matthew Sedacca, Eliza Shapiro and Nikita Stewart contributed reporting.