Tuesday, 27 Oct 2020

Is N.Y.C. ‘Over’? These Brand-New New Yorkers Don’t Think So

Thousands of Americans move to New York each year, many of them seeking a fresh start. Even a pandemic couldn’t totally stop that.

By Jazmine Hughes

Victoria Gruenert went through a sudden, ugly breakup this past spring, so she did what many 20-somethings have done before her: She picked up her things and moved to New York City, eager for a fresh start. But the city she had pictured in her head — a high-paced office life, a jam-packed social calendar, the bustling Manhattan she’d seen on TV — was gone.

Ms. Gruenert forged ahead, despite reports that scores of spooked residents had skipped town. New York had become a global epicenter of the virus, but new transplants like her were determined to make the city home.

“Very few people empathized,” Ms. Gruenert said. “But there will never be a perfect time to do it, so we might as well just brace ourselves, and go right through this, and see how we come out on the other end.”

Every year, just over 150,000 Americans move to the five boroughs, according to the Department of City Planning. While the city doesn’t track when new residents arrive, double-parked moving trucks and wedged-open building doors are as endemic to warm New York weather as the jingle of an ice cream truck or the illicit thrill of a nutcracker.

This spring, public schools had closed, offices had started sending employees to work from home, and restaurants had closed indoor dining. Newcomers had to adjust their expectations for a New York that could be dissatisfying, disappointing or even lonely.

Ms. Gruenert, 25, found an apartment on her drive down from Maine, and didn’t leave it for 14 days. Her social life was limited to walks along Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway, Atlantic Avenue and Empire Boulevard — thoroughfares of the Crown Heights neighborhood that are usually packed with pedestrians, all turned quiet.

Many people took the rumors of an exodus from the city as an invitation: If New York was really “over,” rent must be pretty cheap.

“It’s a perfect moment for young people to come to the city,” said Stephanie Diamond, who runs The Listings Project, a listserv of open apartments and work spaces. “It’s definitely easier, because of decreased rent and increased vacancies, and there are apartments that are furnished, so you don’t have to move with moving trucks and all of your belongings.”

When Jessica Masanotti moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan from Charlotte, N.C., in May, she and her husband transported everything themselves, still nervous to hire movers. “We could pull our U-Haul straight up to our apartment building, which was probably unheard-of before Covid,” Ms. Masanotti said.

She and her husband had lived in Charlotte for 14 years. She said she felt that New Yorkers took the pandemic more seriously than other Americans. “We actually felt safer being in the city than we did in the South,” she said. “We were still surrounded by people who thought it was a hoax or not a big deal.”

Jon Gunnell, a nurse from Arkansas, moved to New York purely to help at the height of the crisis — and ended up never leaving. One day, he was listening to “The Dan Le Batard Show,” his favorite podcast, and found himself so moved by the interview with Dr. Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist at N.Y.U. Langone Health, that he decided, right there, that he’d move up and do whatever he could to help.

With the assistance of an agency, Mr. Gunnell, 53, moved to Brooklyn in early March, and started working at a wound care clinic in the Bronx. He wasn’t worried about contracting the virus himself. “I just rationalized a lot to convince myself that I’m invincible,” he said. “The reason I came to New York was to disappear and become anonymous and you can do that real easy up here.”

He said he had recently gotten divorced. “I think I’m doing it for selfish reasons more than anything else,” he said. “Each time I faced my fears, my depression went away.”

It was a rough transition. His agency housing wasn’t what he was promised, and he spent more than one night sleeping in his car. He never felt like he quite belonged in New York, even in a shrunken version of itself, devoid of so many of its lively hallmarks. But then again, he never quite felt like he belonged in Arkansas, either. So he stayed put.

For others, the spread of the virus and the sound of sirens exacerbated the feelings of dread.

Tiana Miller-Leonard arrived in the city at the beginning of March, relocating to her company’s New York office. There were a few coronavirus cases in the Bay Area, where she previously lived, but, according to her, no one was taking them seriously.

She lasted in her office for a week and a half before the company started sending people home. There, Ms. Miller-Leonard said, she listened to ambulance sirens wail all day, every day. “I wasn’t sure if it was an New York thing or a pandemic thing,” she said.

After staying with her grandmother for a few weeks, Ms. Miller-Leonard attempted to move into an apartment of her own in April. Most of her belongings were still in California, and furniture and homeware stores were still closed, so she paid about $3,000 to have her belongings transported to New York, an expense she didn’t foresee.

The roommates Ms. Miller-Leonard left behind couldn’t find anyone to fill her room back in California. She had to continue paying rent there, too, until they found someone.

Ms. Miller-Leonard was happy with her decision, though she bemoaned the New York she could’ve had. “I had so many dreams for what I’d do here: friends I’d be making, different shows I’d see,” she said. “That’s the thing I’ve been saddest about: it’s hard to make friends during a pandemic.” But during the summer, she said, she joined protests against police brutality, making her feel like she was “part of the city.”

Some newcomers did not travel far, but at the beginning of the pandemic, New York felt like another world.

Omari Evans, a public relations executive, had long planned to move to Manhattan, about 20 miles from his hometown, Teaneck, New Jersey, in order to cut down on his commute to work downtown. Despite stay-at-home orders, he moved to Harlem in early April.

“Part of me wanted to naïvely not accept that everything was going to be shut down by the time I headed over,” he said. “I wanted to leave New Jersey. However Covid was going to impact the city, I was still going to find a way to enjoy it.”

But alone in his new apartment, he found himself looking forward to the 7 p.m. cheers for essential workers. “It got really bleak and insular and isolated,” Mr. Evans said. “It was the highlight of my day for a couple months, just because there wasn’t anything else going on.”

Emma Boden’s friends started to drop off, one by one, deciding that a move they were supposed to make with her to a locked down New York wasn’t worth it. But she had long dreamed of moving to the city, having grown up in Waccabuc, N.Y. She had planned for months to move after she and her friends graduated from Amherst College.

Ms. Boden, 22, moved to the Upper West Side this summer. She said she found a vibrant New York that others could not see.

“A lot of people saying that New York was wiped out were very wealthy older people who, if they can’t go to the super expensive restaurant and sit inside, then it’s not worth it for them, but that’s not what it’s about for me,” Ms. Boden said.

“I just didn’t believe that New York was dead.”

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