On Friday, New York state reached a miserable milestone.
Over the course of nearly five weeks, the coronavirus has killed more New Yorkers than the terrorists who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. And the death toll is only expected to grow — by leaps and bounds.
The terrorists killed about 2,700 people in New York state. The coronavirus has so far killed 2,935 state residents — moms, dads, grandparents, brothers and sisters, a grim toll that’s straining the state’s morgues and funeral homes.
The symbolism of this landmark moment and its potential implications for New York are not lost on those who live here, in the American epicenter of the disease.
“We lived in a paradise, didn’t we, in this wonderful city?” asked Julia Vitullo-Martin, an Upper West Sider who writes about cities. “We had dance, theater, opera, we had everything, great sports. And now suddenly we don’t … A lot of things aren’t going to reopen.”
Kathryn Wylde, the president of the business-backed Partnership for New York City, wondered if New York City would fully recover, if the very premise of New York City — throngs of people living cheek-by-jowl in pursuit of jobs, culture, entertainment — could survive.
“This is a kind of malaise and lingering fear and feeling of vulnerability that could be culture-changing,” Wyde said. “It’s not the number of deaths, it’s the experience itself.“
Back in the 1990s, theorists speculated that New York City, and urbanism, would perish with the arrival of the internet. Those who could, would work from home. The city, with its teeming subways and garbage-strewn streets, would become a thing of the past.
“That was a real fear for several years, until it turned out that all of the young people and their computers decided they wanted to be in a dense diverse environment,” Wylde said. “The question is now, will that have changed?”
Stu Loeser, a spokesperson for former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, wondered the same thing.
“Suddenly the idea of a half-acre lot 40 miles outside of the city and a commute in isn’t quite as bad,” said Loeser. After he got off the phone with POLITICO, he was greeted with an ad on The New York Times website touting the appeal of life in a Hudson River town north of the city: “Bye Bye Brooklyn. Hello Beacon,” it read.
The questions confronting New York City are endless.
Once this wave of the coronavirus ebbs, will New Yorkers reemerge tentatively, each with her own particular strain of agoraphobia? Given the now-proven viability of telecommuting, will employers determine they need as much office space as they once did? Will the new office towers and residential towers now rising prove to have been bad gambles? Now that we have all learned how to cook at home, will New Yorkers eat out as much as they once did? Will the restaurant industry recover? Will storefront retail, already undermined by e-commerce, finally give up the ghost?
“The mom-and-pop shops have already been closing and this I fear will be a death knell for them,” said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University.
In the meantime, the death toll will continue to rise — some models predict it will hit 16,000. The psychic toll is likely to be lasting, and profound.
John Mollenkopf, the director of CUNY’s Center for Urban Research, has already lost two friends to the disease. As he spoke with POLITICO, he looked out the window — the same window through which he watched the Twin Towers fall, and new buildings rise in their wake.
“The baby boom that’s entering into our golden years, there will be a lot fewer of us … the virus is solving one of our problems,” he said. “The cost of an aging society.”