New York City in the Time of COVID: Tragedy and Farce

Photograph Source: Skyline photo of Midtown Manhattan – CC0

Undoubtedly one of the most quoted of Marx’s many quotable lines is the opening of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, where Marx quipped ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’ Such a wonderful observation is timeless and is certainly applicable in the present day. It is easy to see Trump as the reincarnation of Nixon, simply copying the ancient dog-whistle playbook of protecting the suburbs from urban chaos. Back in October 1975, the New York Daily News published the headline ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead’, the most infamous headline in New York’s history. If Ford had real power over a city in crisis at the time, the Trump administration now futilely threatens to withhold federal funding for ‘anarchist cities.’ Back in June 1975, the city’s police unions, in protest of large proposed cuts to the department’s budget, were part of the brief Fear City campaign. That campaign featured leaflets emblazed with a hooded gothic skull titled Fear City: A Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York, which advised tourists to ‘stay away from New York City if you possibly can.’ That campaign was quickly squashed due to public outrage. Today police unions openly applaud the threat to cut federal funding to the city they are meant to protect and serve. In July, Ed Mullins, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, the second-largest police union in the city, gave at least two television interviews with a mug emblazoned with QAnon imagery clearly seen in the background.

Since the appearance of COVID-19, it would be impossible to keep track of the number of news stories declaring the demise of New York. As the city continues to flub the reopening of its public schools (now delayed for a second time), the New York Post features op-eds titled ‘De Blasio’s latest school retreat sends clear message to parents: Give up on NYC.’ For months, stories of a potential real estate apocalypse have filled the news with the fear that office workers will never return to business district. Of course, the requisite fleeing to the spacious suburbs narrative has also been prominent.

Stories about fleeing the city almost exclusively focus on the wealthy. The thing with the well-off is they tend to be well-off, thereby safe from the calamities that haunt the commoners. Such was the case from the beginning of the pandemic. Manhattan is by far the densest borough of the city by population yet per capita it saw the fewest COVID cases. This being a product of the fact that a decent percentage of Manhattan is empty most of the year as the global billionaire class has used its housing as a place simply to park money, as well as wealthy residents taking off for their luxury villas in the Hamptons.

Hysteria about New York’s destruction is nothing new. Destruction, in cinematic and literary form, is something New York has gone through countless times. In his epic Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis remarked regarding Los Angeles: “No city, in fiction, or film, has been more likely to figure as the icon of a really bad future (or present, for that matter).” He could have added “except New York.” Choose a time period, find its apocalyptic threat, and the destruction of New York by said threat is a given.

Back in 1881 Park Benjamin Jr’s The End of New York had the city meet its fate at the hands of the ironclad ships of the Spanish Navy. Benjamin was apparently concerned about American naval defenses, the book an attempt to drum up support for increased military spending. This was a mere 17 years before the US delivered the coup de grace to the decrepit Spanish Empire in 1898. In 1890 Ignatius Donnelly published his bestselling novel Ceasar’s Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century. Donnelly, who would go on to write the platform for the Populist Party, had New York’s destruction the result of a proletarian uprising by the Brotherhood of Destruction against the ruling oligarchy (the action takes place a century forward in 1988). Ceasar’s Column refers to a mass grave emanating from Union Square seen by the main character, Gabriel Weltsein, fleeing the city in an airship. In 1907 the great HG Wells, in The War in the Air, gave New York over to German air bombardment ironically foreshadowing the fate of German cities at the hands of the allies during World War II.

Hollywood of course has this destruction feature down to assembly line efficiency. New York has seen its end due to aliens (Independence Day, along with other much resented cities LA and DC), every kind of climatic/ecological event (The Day After Tomorrow, Category 7, Volcano in New York), asteroids, and turned into a maximum-security prison (Escape From New York). In The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fear, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction, Max Page writes:

We destroy New York on film and paper to bound the fear of natural and manmade disaster…to escape the sense of inevitable and incomprehensible economic transformations, by telling stories of clear and present dangers, with causes and effect, villains and heroes, to make our world comprehensible than it has become.

If there is one thing Hollywood can be said to have mastered, it is cheap escapism. And obviously skyscrapers and other iconic urban markers make greater spectacle for disaster porn than sprawl. Still it is not difficult to see the Freudian aspect to it all. As if the destruction of the country’s largest city would have zero national implications.

Calamities have a way of not only producing tragedy, but also exposing the underlying rot that was there all along. The dominant fantasy of New York for the past forty years is of a city rescued by conservative politics of law and order and austerity, embodied politically in the form of a hideous cretin (Giuliani) and a supposedly nonpartisan, technocratic billionaire (Bloomberg).

In reality New York is now a poorer, more unequal city than it was at the start of the urban crisis that began in the mid-1960s. A study by the Brookings Institute some years ago showed only 16 percent of the city’s families have a ‘middle income.’ The homeless population, generally seen as more of a nuisance to polite society than a social ill, is up over 58,000 according to Coalition for the Homeless. A 2019 study by Advocates for Children showed that one in every ten students in the city’s public schools was homeless at some point during the academic year (totally more than 114,000 students). In that light, what the city is experiencing is not a repeat of the 1970s, but the festering result: the resurgence of capital over labor, the hallowing out of the middle class, gentrification as urban policy.

For years a debate has raged in the city and state about the possibility of a slight raise of the tax rate paid by millionaires, an idea that has always been resisted by the current liberal icon Governor Andrew Cuomo. Frankly it is not difficult to see why the governor refuses to yield. According to the city’s Independent Budget Office, in 2016 32 percent of the city’s reported income, over $100 billion, came from just 1 percent of New York’s 2,630,550 taxpayers. More than $43 billion of that came from the 1,412 residents who reported an income over $10 million a year. Such is the fallout of neoliberalism: the rich get richer, poverty multiplies, inequality widens, and the rich become indispensable for a city’s finances. The Cuomo administration fears the gilded class will retreat to lower tax havens, which advocates of the tax increase argue that fear is overstated. When progressive politics amounts to simply calling the bluff of the super-rich perhaps it requires a new, less worthy label.

After years of record lows, shootings have spiked in recent months, much to the delight of the conservative media, which has longed for such a thing for years. Since de Blasio took office conspiracy theories have been floating in certain circles that crime in fact was spiking all along and official news of it was somehow kept under wraps by very scrupulous bureaucratic actors. Spurious explanations for the actual spike have been quickly thrown around: the BLM protests have demoralized the police and set off the ‘Ferguson Effect’; the end to ‘stop and frisk’ and the partial decriminalization of marijuana; the state law, passed late last year and since scaled back, that ended cash bail for most misdemeanors; the release of some prisoners from Rikers Island earlier this spring to limit the spread of COVID-19 inside the jail; the police commissioner’s elimination of the city’s anti-crime plainclothes units in June.

All of these can be picked apart. In the wake of the Eric Garner killing and protests, the police staged an obvious work slowdown and crime didn’t move a millimeter. In 2015, then police commissioner William Bratton publicly stated there was no evidence of any Ferguson Effect. Stop and frisk was substantially scaled back when de Blasio took office in 2014, it was declining somewhat in Bloomberg’s final two years, and the city saw record lows in homicides as late as 2019. Data at this point shows that only a miniscule number of the released prisoners have been involved in crimes. Even with the recent spike, murders remain at the level they were in the 2010s (other crimes including rapes and grand larceny have continued to decline in recent months), a good decade after the city was being billed as ‘the safest big city in America.’

As for the rest of it, it is true that vacancies are up in Manhattan and sale prices are slightly falling, but this is happening before the pandemic, the result of a vastly over built luxury sector. The Financial Times reported in November 2018 that from January through September 2018, inventory in the top 10 percent of Manhattan’s apartment market increased by 27.2 percent, while the number of closed sales fell by 11.3 percent. According to a report by real estate company Douglas Elliman, in the last quarter of 2018 the median price for a Manhattan apartment sunk below $1 million to an awful $999,999, the first time that had happened since it crossed the threshold in 2015. It remains right around there. As for Brooklyn and Queens, there is no evidence of a real estate exodus and gentrification appears to be ongoing.

Due to the shutdown, the city is staring at a budget deficit of up to $9 billion. The city cannot borrow the money without the state’s permission, another leftover from the 1970s, and its yet to be seen what sort of funds will come from the federal government. Furloughs for city workers are being rolled out. It is true, as conservative critics have pointed out, that the city’s payroll has expanded in recent years. The largest increased came for teachers due to the implementation of the popular universal pre-K program, one of the few lasting reforms the feckless de Blasio administration enacted.

In other words, the chorus both praying for and dreading the collapse of New York’s status quo can sleep easier.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).