The Too-Quiet City

Illustration by Owen Freeman

A long time ago—in 2007, say—New York itself seemed to be keeping pace with the Dow’s relentless upward rush. Cranes sprouted, new high-rise condos pushed up like weeds, replacing old buildings that nobody had had time to miss. Kindergartens overflowed. Double- and triple-strollers jostled for curb cuts. Pedestrian currents burst the sidewalk, flooding the street. The wait for brunch hit 90 minutes.

The Bloomberg administration built a long-term strategy around its projection that the city would acquire a million more residents over 25 years. Together, officials and developers dreamed up new mini-cities to be erected over rail yards and industrial sites. Even as more than 30,000 new units of housing came onto the market every year, the number of metropolitan homes that the Census Bureau classified as “crowded” or “severely crowded” had doubled since 1980, to more than one in five. And we, the locals, were joined by swelling swarms of visitors—47 million of them in 2008, all vying for tickets, reservations, and a glimpse of the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center.

Every year at this time, anyone who can gets out of town, leaving the streets feeling temporarily roomier. Yet the relative emptiness feels more portentous now, a sign that maybe this city is becoming less relentlessly global, that fewer dreamers are getting off the bus at Port Authority, that European tourists are getting to know Tallinn instead of Times Square, that potential immigrants are biding their time at home, that new college graduates are trying their luck in less-demanding places, and that families are slinking off to the suburbs. Suddenly New York feels too … spacious.

Signs of vacancy are everywhere. Aging “For Rent” posters festoon storefronts. The defunct Barnes & Noble at Sixth Avenue and 21st Street hasn’t found a successor. The ample retail spaces at the base of two new towers on either side of Broadway at 99th Street have never been filled. “Shadow apartments” sit by the thousands, neither occupied nor available, their owners waiting for the market to revive. A saxophone on a subway platform enjoys an extra smidgen of reverberation. The apocalyptically inclined might see the specter of a metropolis disgorging its population, as it did in the seventies. A more temperate fear is that a shrinking New York could become less like itself and more like Cincinnati.

Every fluctuation in the city’s population affects its personality, its art and architecture, its daily routines. Growth has an especially galvanizing effect. Rapid, convulsive expansion gave us the Draft Riots, the Times, Walt Whitman, the Metropolitan Opera, the subway system, the garment business, and jazz. From 1900 to 1930, the number of New Yorkers doubled, and you can hear that inrush of energy in Gershwin’s caffeinated syncopations and in the exuberant rhythms of Fitzgerald’s prose. Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” owes its syncopations to Harlem’s jostle and throb.

Drastic depopulation can boast some achievements, too—punk and the Soho art scene come to mind—but just now the city seems to be flirting with a generic version of itself. It will be a relief if the crowds return after Labor Day, bringing back that insufferable, electrifying closeness of strangers. We have nothing to fear from density, but a little more elbow room can stifle a megalopolis’s fragile soul.

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The Too-Quiet City