Wednesday, 28 Oct 2020

Opinion | New York, a City on Its Own

What a year it has been in New York City.

In the latest blow, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday stunned exhausted parents and teachers by delaying the start of in-person classes for most students in the country’s largest public school system — for the second time, and only a few days before they were supposed to begin. Asked whether he wanted to apologize for the last-minute change to working parents who rely on the schools for child care, the mayor declined, saying that lower-income families in the city’s outer boroughs “understand the realities of life.”

A week earlier, a group of New York business leaders shared a letter they wrote to the mayor. “We urge you to take immediate action,” they wrote, describing what they called, “widespread anxiety over public safety, cleanliness and other quality of life issues.”

The business leaders did not — in the long tradition of civic leaders helping to shore up the city during difficult times — offer any concrete assistance. Instead, the letter bore the whiff of people who rode out New York’s darkest days from the safety of their vacation homes, and returned to find that the traumatized city they left behind was not as tidy and orderly as they would prefer.

Watching these deeply uninspiring scenes play out, my anger grew. I wondered if the mayor or the city’s moneyed elite understood what everyday New Yorkers had just been through — what they are still going through.

An estimated 24,000 people in this city have died of Covid-19, and thousands of others — like me — ­ are still fighting their way back to full health. Over one million jobs have been lost.

There are roughly 114,000 homeless children in this city, so many of them somehow expected to learn remotely without access to broadband internet in one of the richest countries in the world.

For months, restaurants, bodegas and other small businesses, powered by immigrant workers, gallantly stayed open during the worst of the pandemic. Now, many of them face extinction. That is their thanks for serving up a bit of normalcy to New Yorkers who were so desperate for it — for fighting to keep people employed with little or no federal help.

In the 1960s, when riots gripped the country in the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., New York City avoided that fate, soothed in part by Mayor John Lindsay, who walked the streets of Harlem, mourning with devastated New Yorkers.

In the 1970s, when the city teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, New York’s business titans stepped up. In a campaign led by the developer Lew Rudin, they prepaid $600 million in property taxes, helping the city avert disaster.

“We had to do something,” Mr. Rudin once said of the effort.

Where is that sense of urgency and commitment to New York now?

Do the chattering classes from City Hall to Wall Street who so richly enjoy thinking of themselves as civic leaders have any idea what the past six months have been like here? The terror of wailing ambulance sirens followed by a terrible silence. The righteous roar of protesters beating drums through the streets, pouring out their agony over the unjust death of yet another Black American. The endless, punishing drone of police helicopters that kept an already traumatized city from sleep. The pop-pop-pop of illegal fireworks, and the police cars that raced through the streets on hot summer nights, headed to one shooting scene after another. Shootings have more than doubled this summer compared to 2019.

Can they comprehend how maddening it is to see so many of those police officers, uniformed but without masks, loitering on street corners as New Yorkers hurry by?

Do they know the name of Christopher Ross, the man killed by a stray bullet on Aug. 9 while playing handball in a Brooklyn park? “He was the love of my life,” his wife, Veronica Peters, told The Daily News. “The guns are killing us. Get the guns off the street. I can’t take it no more.”

Left to die by President Trump, largely neglected by leaders closer to home — New Yorkers know they are on their own. Yet life in this city has gone on.

Gritty roadways were transformed into outdoor restaurants and socially distanced dance parties, New Yorkers relishing what the streetscape could look like all the time with just a little imagination.

Doctors and nurses already warring against the coronavirus joined protests against police brutality on their lunch breaks, kneeling in the middle of Union Square in their white coats, their fists raised in the air.

I met a Parks Department worker who made sure to arrive early on steamy days to turn on the sprinkler for the city’s restless children. Her young niece had died from Covid-19, and as I recovered, able to run a little farther every day, she cheered me on.

One day this summer I made for a city beach and floated in the Atlantic Ocean, trying to flee my heavy lungs. I had been recovering from Covid-19 for months already, yet my chest still felt like concrete.

Nearby, I watched a father and his young daughter play in the surf. Each time a wave came, the little girl, no more than 5 years old, reached her arms up toward her father, pretending to be scared but squealing in delight. Again and again, he lifted her above his head, high above the water. Finally, he pulled her tiny brown body to him and hugged her, letting the waves roll by around them. “We needed this,” I heard him say.

New York isn’t dead. But its people are suffering. They need help, compassion and leadership. They shouldn’t have to do this alone.

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