Is New York still a helluva town?
Photo by Barrie Kreinik: 5th Avenue at 56th Street
I wanted to see the angels.
It was a chilly afternoon in early December and I’d decided to take a walk after recording a voiceover in midtown. I passed through the Bryant Park Holiday Market, where I paused to buy my usual giant gingersnap. I grinned at the sight of the lions that guarded the library, adorned with enormous wreaths. Then I wound my way up 5th Avenue, admiring the twinkling lights and lushly decorated windows the way I’ve done every year of my life.
When I approached Rockefeller Center, I didn’t at first spot them. I wondered if they might be another casualty of this year that has taken so much away from us. Then, rounding the corner, I caught sight of a lighted wing, a golden trumpet, a twisted halo. I smiled at the familiar view. I started to take out my phone to snap a photo.
Then I saw the tree.
I knew it was there. It’s always there in December. The angels are merely the lead-up to it, the fanfare that lights a path in its direction. But this time, the sight of the towering branches dripping with colored lights, topped by a star that seemed brighter and more vivid than any of its past iterations, took my breath away. Moments later, I realized that tears were meandering down my cheeks, disappearing behind my mask.
Maybe it’s because I was wearing that mask, like everyone else around me—including the lions. Maybe it’s because the sidewalk was so much emptier than usual. Maybe it’s because my father is no longer here to walk with me, or because my mother can’t come into the city for fear of exposure to the virus that’s shuttered it. But mostly, I think, it was a moment of mourning intersecting with a moment of great joy. Which is what makes this holiday season in New York City so very complicated.
Though I grew up in Connecticut, my family is full of New Yorkers and the city has always featured prominently in my life, so I consider myself a near-native. Living here for ten of the past thirteen years has given me a cynical edge: the noise gets to me, the subway delays drive me bonkers, and the irritating habit tourists have of walking three abreast and perpetually stopping to look up can start me ranting. But the holiday season always brings back vibrant memories of the New York I first encountered when I was a little girl, when my parents and I spent a week here every December—when the city itself was brimming with enchantment.
When I first fell in love with it.
It was a golden age of sorts, the 1990s, when a still-sane Rudy Giuliani had begun to “clean up” midtown, but Disney had yet to move in. The subway was improving, taxis were affordable, and theater tickets didn’t cost two arms and a leg. I used to tiptoe past the Jekyll and Hyde Club on 6th Avenue, afraid one of the skeletons draped across its façade would jump down on me. I loathed the pickled tomatoes and relished the corned beef sandwiches at Wolf’s Deli. I gazed longingly at the colorful displays at Lee’s Art Shop, sipped bottomless egg creams at the Brooklyn Diner, browsed the narrow aisles of Colony Music, and held my parents’ hands as we strolled down Broadway past camera shops and souvenir boutiques. We bought accessories on the mezzanine at Henri Bendel, shoes on the second floor of Lord & Taylor, makeup in the checkered maze of Saks Fifth Avenue. We bustled down 57th Street, window-shopping at Mackenzie Childs and Rizzoli, stopping for lunch at the original Café Europa. We saw Nutcrackers at Lincoln Center, movies at Lincoln Plaza, musicals at the Belasco, the Gershwin, the Booth. And every December we strode through the Palm Court at the Plaza to pay homage to the portrait of Eloise and admire the elaborately crafted gingerbread houses.
My memories of that time are encased in crystal. Every year I walk those selfsame streets trying to recapture them. But that shining city has been vanishing for years now: the pandemic has simply made the disappearing act complete.
Rizzoli now occupies digs near Madison Square. Saks destroyed its first floor in the name of renovation. The Brooklyn Diner still holds court on 57th Street, but Lee’s Art Shop, Mackenzie Childs, Café Europa, and nearly every other store and restaurant in a three-block stretch is gone—as are almost all of the other places I just mentioned. Department stores sacrificed on the altar of the internet. Specialty shops bulldozed by big-boxes. If you’re kind to a doorman, you can still get into the Plaza to see Eloise, but the gingerbread houses are no more. And 5th Avenue is home to entire blocks of empty storefronts.
This didn’t happen overnight. I’ve been watching For Rent signs go up in commercial windows for the past five years, becoming perpetual eyesores not just in midtown but all over the city. But this year a sense of vacuity hovers over everything. Don’t you dare call it a ghost town—millions of us still live here, thank you very much. But when I walked through midtown that afternoon, I wished I’d never complained about its crowds. Because the streets are ever so desolate without them.
And yet there is music. And yet there is light. And yet…there is New York.
I was moved by the sight of the Rock Center tree, towering over a near-empty skating rink, not only because I miss the New York of my childhood, or even the New York of last year. I cried because even in the darkest Season of Light this city has ever seen, there is still such exquisite beauty to be found all around us.
You’ve heard about the people who are leaving, the people who blithely declare that this city is dead. What is New York, they ask, without restaurants and bars, museums and theaters, music and nightlife and retail? Why should we put up with sky-high rents, crumbling infrastructure, noise and grit and crowds and inconvenience, if the things we moved here for have disappeared? Why stay when we can find cleaner, greener, cheaper, quieter surroundings anywhere else?
I’ve been asking myself these questions for the past nine months. When I saw that tree, I finally found my answer.
New York is more than what occupies its storefronts. It’s more than what shows are currently playing on Broadway, more than the number of restaurants that can fit on one block. New York is buildings and parks, concrete and wrought iron, brick and mortar and stone. New York is architecture from four different centuries crammed in cheek by jowl. New York is tradition. New York is behavior. New York is language. New York is marquee lights and Christmas lights and headlights, bridges and tunnels and ferries and yellow cabs. It exists in the way people move within it. It flourishes in the accents that bear its name. It’s rudeness and kindness, bluntness and subtlety, skyscrapers and brownstones, upper-crust and low-down and everything in between. Its streets play host to every kind of person you can find in the world.
It is, as the songwriter wrote, a helluva town.
And although it’s not the New York of the 90s, not the New York I moved to 13 years ago, not the New York I so deeply want it to be—it’s still New York.
And I’m still in love with it.