The Return of Fear

New York, a child of disaster, remembers its past.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 24. Photo: Alexei Hay
The Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 24. Photo: Alexei Hay
The Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 24. Photo: Alexei Hay

As the virus rolled in like an invisible, toxic fog, I watched apartment buildings go semi-dark and families pack up SUVs and drive off into the countryside. With planes empty and borders closed, the flow of new arrivals who refresh New York has stopped. Those who could do so made a run for it; the rest are still bravely going to work or stowing themselves out of sight. On warm days, the parks feel distressingly overpopulated, but only because each person now requires an enlarged bubble of personal space. Looking out my living-room window, I see terror saunter down vacant streets, reclaiming a city that had forgotten how to fear. I wonder how long the feeling will linger.

Most of those people will return, even if the sense of threat never entirely lifts. New Yorkers pride themselves on shrugging off risk. A pall of anxiety descended after 9/11, and some cubicle-and-subway dwellers suddenly discovered a fondness for Vermont. But before long, Penn Station was packed again, and the heavily armed soldiers became part of the décor. Terrorism lost its power to terrorize. In 2017, a man drove a truck down a bike path along the Hudson River, leaving a trail of bodies. A few hours later and a few blocks away, the Halloween Parade went ahead as planned.

This feels different, though. COVID-19 is not an event but a drawn-out shock streaked with moments of normalcy. An errand to buy milk, a cherry tree that blooms on schedule — these holdovers coexist impossibly with the sense that our lives have irreversibly changed. The medical emergency will end one day. The hospital tents in Central Park will be dismantled like a melancholy circus. Friends will embrace again. And yet it’s difficult to grasp what kind of city the epidemic will leave behind. The future rests on an unanswerable riddle: When will New York feel safe enough for people to return, visit, move here, and stay, or for the old to leave their apartments?

New York has been a scary place for most of the past 400 years. Fire, flood, attack, crime, rebellion, drugs, and disease have shaped it. I find that an oddly reassuring thought, because all through its litany of misfortunes and bouts of exodus, the city’s magnetic force field has strengthened. Fear and pain are crucial human responses — without them, we die. At every desperate juncture, New York has grown and transformed as it healed. When epidemics struck congested neighborhoods, the wealthy lit out for the sticks. Soon enough, the city absorbed those outlying bucolic towns. After the 1863 Draft Riots, a fifth of the black population decamped — but the city kept growing without it, and African-Americans soon thronged back. A century later, the middle class drained away to the suburbs, leaving behind a landscape of dereliction. Yet even then, Stephen Sondheim saw the flow along with the ebb when he reported in 1970 that “another hundred people just got off the train.”

And every day

The ones who stay

Can find each other in the crowded streets and the guarded parks

By the rusty fountains and the dusty trees with the battered barks.

The qualities that have always made New York prone to disaster — a concentration of people, goods, buildings, and money on a wedge of low-lying shoreline — also make it uniquely capable of regeneration. Deindustrialization hit the city hard and early because this was the country’s biggest port and busiest manufacturing center. But even though that change eroded the centuries-old basis of New York’s existence, the city reinvented itself as a place that processed ideas and money rather than sugar and ships. AIDS ravaged a place that was a magnet for gay men, decimating the arts. But the city’s cultural life rebounded then, and will again, because intense density provides an unmatchable supply of audiences, networks, and support.

What New York’s story shows isn’t that people stay away until they have little to fear but that they are drawn by the rewards of risk. The American Revolution leveled New York and left its proudest landmark, Trinity Church, a roofless pile of rubble. In 1784, when Governor George Clinton addressed the first postwar meeting of the State Legislature, he called on his fellow elected officials to “survey the ruins of this once flourishing city … [and] sympathize in the calamities which have reduced so many of our virtuous fellow-citizens to want and distress.” Within two years, the population had doubled, demands to banish or punish Tory sympathizers had been rejected as bad for business, and cargo ships started sailing into the harbor again.

After every great upheaval, refugees arrive and soldiers come home, creating a housing shortage that drives up prices and spurring a building spree. In 1835, a warehouse fire tore through Manhattan’s mercantile district, destroying most of the commercial buildings between Coenties Slip and Wall Street — nearly 700 in all — and their stockpiles of cotton, sugar, rum, lumber, coal, and documents. By the time the news reached London, it was already bundled with a reconstruction plan. “In the midst of this terrible visitation, it is, however, consolatory to see the elastic energy of the people,” reported The Gentleman’s Magazine. “Plans of rebuilding on an improved scale, and modes of borrowing money for that purpose, on sound securities, are under arrangement.” The fire entered New York’s mythology not as a saga of woe but as a tale of enterprise and pluck.

We’ve forgotten how to live with epidemics, but generations of New Yorkers knew. Yellow fever sneaked into the city in the 1790s, and its unknown cause was instantly politicized. “Federalists tended to depict it as a foreign contagion … Republicans answered that it was the product of ‘nauseous stenches’ rising up every summer from the city’s ‘abominably filthy’ waterfront and other unsanitary conditions for which only the negligence and incompetence of Federalist magistrates were to blame,” write the historians Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham.

Disease mapped itself onto the city’s social topography. During epidemics, the bodies of the poor piled up, and Washington Square was cleared as a potter’s field. The West Side, on higher ground than the marshy land along the East River, became a neighborhood of the well-to-do. When plagues blew through, then as now, those who had the means enacted a privileged form of social distancing: They fled. Gerard Koeppel, who wrote a history of New York’s water supply, estimates that a third of the city emptied out, its people taking refuge in more oxygenated havens like Brooklyn Heights and the villages of Greenwich and Harlem. An 1805 epidemic jolted New York’s authorities into making hygiene their business. They began quarantining ships, cleaning up the waterfront, collecting waste, tearing down derelict buildings. There was less they could do about the lack of safe drinking water because New Yorkers lived with a slapdash arrangement of open gutters, fetid canals, and leaky outhouses. The sheer volume of effluent turned Manhattan’s streams and spring-fed ponds into sludge. Well before the London doctor John Snow demonstrated in 1854 that cholera was waterborne, even New York’s most obtuse politicians grasped the need for limpid water.

The story of the city’s early attempts to provide it is a classic of corruption, stupidity, and avarice. Arch-enemies Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr agreed on the need for a public-private partnership to pipe water in from the Bronx. Burr, the leader of the state assembly, used his power to convert a worthy project into an outright scam. The act created a monopolistic corporation and a system that never made it anywhere near the Bronx but instead delivered a trickle of brown Manhattan muck. The Manhattan Company, the ancestor of Chase Manhattan and JPMorgan Chase, functioned less as a utility than as a bank that built its empire on the corpses of cholera victims. Water finally arrived from the Croton River in 1842, coursing — at huge expense — through 41 miles of brick-lined tunnels, crossing the Harlem River atop High Bridge, and collecting in the 86th Street reservoir in what later became Central Park. The system, born out of hard lessons, death, graft, and delay, heralded the modern metropolis and irrigated a multi-decade growth spurt.

The coronavirus, like calamities past, exploits the downside of density, a scarcity of personal space. Yet if today’s New York is even somewhat built to cope with contagion, we have the sufferings of the 19th century to thank. As you pilot around fellow pedestrians and shout conversation from ten feet away, imagine what social distancing might have meant in lower Manhattan circa 1860. Then, ships disgorged new immigrants every day, and the streets turned into a round-the-clock mosh pit. There was no escape for the poor, no place where one man’s tubercular cough wouldn’t spatter a dozen passersby. Families lived eight to a room in conditions so appalling that describing them became a ghoulish literary form. Long before Jacob Riis shocked society by photographing How the Other Half Lives, a slum visit was the gentry’s icky thrill, an opportunity for biblical rhetoric. A journalist who covered the 1863 Draft Riots — four days in July when mostly Irish immigrants went on a rampage sparked by the Conscription Act — explicitly linked the rebellion to poverty, disease, and moral rot: “To walk the streets as we walked them … was like witnessing the day of judgment, with every wicked thing revealed, every sin and sorrow blazingly glared upon, every hidden abomination laid before hell’s expectant fire.” The message was clear: Disease and unrest spring from the same infected neighborhoods. Treat one and you will mitigate the other.

That week saw “the most destructive civil disturbance in all of American history,” according to historian Kenneth Jackson — far more lethal than the riots of 1964, 1968, 1977, or 1992. Mobs murdered black men, beat up mixed-race couples, stormed an armory, torched brothels, attacked boardinghouses, and demolished stores that catered to African-Americans. It was an outburst of racism, class resentment, and political animosity fanned by the Democratic Party machine; it was also the by-product of urban planning by neglect.

Today, the social dimensions of the pandemic are coming into focus, as COVID-19 spreads through prisons and shelters, threatens shelf stockers, farm laborers, and delivery workers (as the rest of us have the luxury of being able to hunker down), dries up families’ trickles of cash, disproportionately kills people of color, and bears down on unprotected millions in India and Africa. Leaders who now manage anxiety and fear will soon have to reckon with a backwash of rage. The Draft Riots led to a conflation of physical illness and social discontent that shaped the political landscape, altered demographics, provided a scientific rationale for parks, and put its stamp on architecture and urbanism for at least 100 years. Even the story of subsidized housing begins with the Draft Riots, in the outraged reaction to the destruction of the Colored Orphan Asylum, burned to the ground by a mob minutes after the 233 children who lived there ran out the back door. A combination of public agencies and private philanthropies eventually paid some scant compensation to the city’s African-Americans, effectively assuming collective responsibility for one group’s violence against another.

In his 1974 chronicle of the Draft Riots, The Armies of the Streets, Adrian Cook points out that while crowding and poverty never went out of style in the late-19th century, mass upheavals did. Among the reasons he lists — along with plentiful jobs, compulsory education, and the tenuous but effective control of the streets by the political machine — is the modernization of fun. “The rise of professional baseball and football provided an alternative to rioting as a form of communal weekend entertainment, and the establishment of working-class amusement centers like Coney Island supplied another safety valve.” One punishing aspect of our emergency is the difficulty of letting off steam. Teens are locked out of basketball courts, children out of playgrounds, athletes out of gyms, fans out of stadiums. The only allowable forms of entertainment are those we can consume in solitude. If this deprivation stretches out for months, it might be more than merely annoying.

Eventually, as cholera was beaten back, tuberculosis became the star of urban nightmares because it thrives in tight quarters. Soon a new semi-scientific ethos took hold: Misery was contagious and best treated with a mix of regulation and design. Battling furious opposition from landlords, reformers managed to tweak the nastiest features of gimcrack housing. The city’s first tenement law, passed in 1867, required fire escapes. The second, in 1879, mandated that windows give onto the street or an air shaft rather than just connecting one room to another. The state’s 1901 Tenement House Act made more stringent demands for light and air. None of those well-meaning pieces of legislation did much to alleviate the problems.

The miasma theory, which attributed any number of diseases to malevolent air, was well on its way to being debunked by the middle of the 19th century, but one person who clung to it was Frederick Law Olmsted. The designer of Central and Prospect parks was also one of the nation’s public-health eminences, and his two careers overlapped. City life, he wrote, “carries into the lungs highly corrupt and irritating matters, the action of which tends strongly to vitiate all our sources of vigor.” The antidote was the emulation of primeval wilderness in the heart of the city. Public parks, he argued, exerted a benevolent influence on the body and the body politic. Crowds converged there “with an evident glee in the prospect of coming together, all classes largely represented, with a common purpose.” It’s almost painful to read these lines today, when a walk in the park is both a salve and a danger. Olmsted was wrong on the science but right about the link between physical and mental health. Now, as then, the sight of daffodils escaping the natural lockdown of winter can be enough to keep despair at bay.

Even as medicine got specific about germs, the much vaguer association between foul air and contagion lingered in new ideals of urban living. In an influential 2005 article titled “What Tuberculosis Did for Modernism,” the design historian Margaret Campbell argued that much 20th-century design was an indirect response to infectious disease. The sanitary-design impulse, driven by tuberculosis, extended beyond interiors or private houses to cities as a whole. Le Corbusier, the shaman of 20th-century urbanism and architecture, argued that planners needed to take more radical measures to sanitize urban life. “Hygiene and moral health,” he wrote, “depend on the layout of cities.” His technocratic gospel took hold after World War II and brought about another kind of catastrophe: Building codes imposed minimum distances between freestanding towers; public-housing high-rises were surrounded by lawns and parking lots, stranding residents far from public transit, friends, and grocery stores. Planners treated entire neighborhoods as a menace to public health. That’s how Robert Moses justified sweeping away the stoops and tenements of San Juan Hill, in the West 50s and 60s, and scattering its mostly African-American residents. “These 60-odd central, diseased, and rapidly deteriorating acres can be rebuilt and made healthy only by condemning land and selling it to sponsors,” he proclaimed in 1956. “No plasters, nostrums, and palliatives will save this part of town. It calls for bold and aseptic surgery.” To cover the wound and heal the scar, New York would erect Lincoln Center, a well-aerated campus with buildings clad in bandage-colored travertine — and no residents.

The morbid fear of squalor bled into hostility toward urban living itself and led to New York’s only sustained period of shrinkage. Starting in the 1950s, a tsunami of suburbanization, propelled by favorable tax laws and decades of subsidized road-building, carried the white middle class clear beyond the boroughs. This abandonment nurtured fresh forms of disaster. As the tax base shriveled, the city lost its ability to manage the most basic tasks of government: picking up the garbage, controlling crime, running schools, and getting people safely from home to work. New Yorkers of a certain age and disposition romanticize the ’70s, but the period represented a failure based in indifference. The city suffered from a lack of care.

And then came AIDS, a lens through which we can view COVID-19 with troubling clarity. The comparison between the two epidemics is grim. Previous catastrophes took advantage of the city’s resentment and rot. AIDS, like the new coronavirus, thrived on what we love: liberality, creativity, joyousness, and sex. Then, as now, the disease laid waste to the cultural landscape. It ravaged galleries, dance troupes, and opera companies; scores of New York City Opera members died, including general director Christopher Keene. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, it seemed there would be no art left after AIDS.

And yet the scourge gave the arts a new urgency. Artists reinvented themselves as propagandists. Anger became a muse. The era in which so many artists died young coincided with a surge in an art market eager to make them famous and rich. Keith Haring, who did the most to keep himself, his art, and, eventually, his terminal illness in front of the public, practically announced his own death in a 1989 Rolling Stone interview: “I arrived, fresh from coming out of the closet, at the time and place where everyone was just wild. I was major into experimenting. If I didn’t get it, no one would. So I knew. It was just a matter of time.” In retrospect, Haring’s antic, electrified lines and dancing figures, which appeared in subway stations and on public walls, seem like a deliberately blithe response to a pervasive sense of doom. AIDS demonstrated, too, that disease could unleash a potent political force, turning patients into activists. My colleague Andrew Sullivan has frequently argued that the AIDS epidemic redirected the gay-rights movement from assertions of difference toward demands for ordinary rights, like health insurance, jobs, and marriage. New York is good at letting its wounds galvanize outrage, channeling suffering into action.

There is some solace, too, in the promise that we will forget this struggle, no matter how indelible it feels. Anyone who doubts the healing power of amnesia might consider all the gloomy predictions for New York after 9/11. “We are convinced that the age of skyscrapers is at an end. It must now be considered an experimental building typology that has failed,” proclaimed a pair of urban theorists, James Howard Kunstler and Nikos Salingaros, less than a week after the attacks. “Who will ever again feel safe and comfortable working 110 stories above the ground? Or 60 stories? Or even 27? We predict that no new megatowers will be built, and existing ones are destined to be dismantled.” (You can hear a similar apocalyptic glee in a recent article by the Eeyore-ish urbanist Joel Kotkin, writing in Tablet: “New York faces a looming existential crisis brought on by the coronavirus.”)

Pessimism framed policy. Pundits warned that the strike on the World Trade Center had permanently maimed the economy, that money would flee to the suburbs, to London, to the Southwest. One of Michael Bloomberg’s most urgent priorities when he took office as mayor on January 1, 2002, was to lure back the banks and brokerage houses. To promote the city as a comeback phenom, his administration made a bid for the 2012 Olympics, and though the gambit failed, it set in motion a citywide planning effort that ultimately yielded affordable housing in Hunters Point South, a skating rink and pool in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, and Hudson Yards. Bloomberg also pursued technology and education as a hedge against finance, which brought forth the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island.

It can take a long time to learn the lessons of disaster. The financial system nearly failed in 2008, and though we patched it up, it’s listing again. When Hurricane Sandy caused such brutal flooding that it temporarily restored the city’s 17th-century shoreline, the environmental historian Ted Steinberg remarked, “If the metropolitan area is one gigantic human artifact, it is at best a very tentative one … High-density living, it must be said, has resulted in a high-risk landscape.”

We will emerge from our cocoons with new habits and a different tolerance for risk. Restaurant tables will be spaced farther apart. My own aversion to crowded rooms will feel less cranky and more prudent. Uncertainty is traumatic and plays out at every level, from the trivial to the historic. The idea of scheduling dinner with friends for three weeks from now, or buying tickets months in advance, may seem like tempting fate. Plans, goals, strategies — these engines of ambition that fuel New York will exist under shadows of a time when calendars went blank and none of us could contemplate the future much past bedtime. The school you were just accepted to may not open in the fall. Short-term quandaries will have long-term consequences. The city budget has been blown to bits, which means that, say, the renovation of your local playground will be indefinitely postponed. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is just as close to collapse as it was a few weeks ago, but the appetite for an immediate multibillion-dollar plan to fix it has surely waned. Whatever can be punted will be.

At the same time, we’ve learned what happens when a distant, theoretical menace (the kind we once might have worried about in our most neurotic 3 a.m. vigils, along with incoming asteroids and packs of rabid coyotes in Central Park) becomes unavoidably real. In a matter of weeks, we have met any hardships and paid any price because we had no choice. Now the challenge will be to internalize that spirit of sacrifice and adaptability in order to face another ever less distant, decreasingly theoretical enemy, climate change. Now we know viscerally what it means to be unprepared: the fear of a friendly face, the constant choir of sirens in the otherwise quiet city. In a past century, it took disease, political action, and immense expense to discourage New Yorkers, at long last, from tipping their household sludge out into the streets. Perhaps this latest round of all three will prompt us to reconsider behaviors that we find normal and the future will judge to be disgusting. The experience of rationing oxygen ought to make it easier to envision a city with less air-conditioning and fewer cars. Sandy jolted New York into the early stages of change — some souped-up building rules, a few new coastal parks, plenty of chatter about resiliency, and an abundance of goals and ambitious plans. Maybe now we can see that’s not enough.

I worry about New York, about how long it will take for the artistic infrastructure to regrow, how many storefronts will reopen, how deeply density will be associated with death, whether anyone will be left to pay taxes and keep the libraries open. And yet in my (scarce) optimistic moments, I’m confident that we’ll cherish aspects of city life during these quarantine days: purified skies, a sense of gratitude and solidarity, the audible chatter of birds, the urgent affection for every inch of parkland and public space. These are not things we need to trade away for the supercharged “normality” of a month ago. Maybe, in your old life of shuttling from home to work and back again, you didn’t register the existence of a tiny theater company in Brooklyn. Possibly, you rarely ate out or ordered in, or you barely ever lit a stove. You may never have visited Chinatown or stopped to reflect on a home-care aide’s long commute. Perhaps you thought the city would be so much more pleasant if tourists just stayed away. Now we can’t pretend not to understand how interconnected our lives all are, or how an uninsured service worker’s dilemma — to go to work sick or skip this month’s rent — affects us all. Tourists, theaters, takeout joints, luxury boutiques, and hospices are all part of the urban ecosystem that nourishes each of us, which means that taking care of ourselves means taking care of them.

Each evening at seven, as I hear the chorus of ecstatic thanks rise up from open windows for blocks around — both for the heroism of hospital staff and EMTs and for our own good health, however provisional — another memory comes back to me with eye-watering intensity. All through the fall of 2001, I watched apartment buildings go semi-dark and neighbors pack up their minivans and drive off into the countryside. “I don’t know why they chose to leave,” I wrote in a letter to my then-3-year-old son that was published in the Los Angeles Times, “but I do know why we will not. You are a city kid … This is what I wish for you, my son: that New York will remain the same infuriating, overcrowded, expensive, glamorous mess it was when you were born and that you will come to understand what a privilege it is to make a life here.”

He has.

*This article appears in the April 13, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Return of Fear in New York