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Being asked to self-isolate in New York, a city not built with personal space in mind, pulls at the very soul of our social Gotham.
COVID-19 is already here, they just haven’t found it. That was the general sentiment many New Yorkers had in early March when Seattle was going into crisis mode. Barely a month ago, as more cases started popping up across the United States’ West Coast, it was hard to imagine anything changing the way 8.5 million New Yorkers went about their day.
Manhattan lives more-or-less under constant threat and, if you’re going to live and work here, it becomes part of the daily fabric. Whether it is terrorist attacks, effects of climate change, or disease, once it arrives, there’s no way a large number of people won’t be personally affected. As a local, you learn to deal with the possibilities. When a terrorist tried but failed to set off a bomb during rush hour near Times Square, the general sentiment was irritation over the interrupted commutes and rerouted subway trains. The only thing that seems to get New Yorkers worked up is a cockroach in their apartment.
New York City might seem like a continuous glob of urban, but it does have some distinct edges. The majority of people work in Manhattan and live in one of the other boroughs, which are theoretically easily accessible via the subway. Other boroughs are much harder hit, particularly Queens and the Bronx, and many neighbourhoods don’t have the same high concentration of businesses or as robust delivery services.
In Midtown Manhattan, my husband and I have many resources within walking distance, including six grocery stores and multiple medical facilities. Our groceries are delivered and most of our favourite restaurants are still open for pick-up and delivery. We’re fortunate to have great health insurance. It’s just the two of us and our cat in a decent-sized one-bedroom across the street from Central Park. Our livelihoods can easily be done anywhere with an internet connection.
But Manhattan isn’t built for people to spend a lot of time inside. Most apartments for regular working people don’t have large common areas. My first apartment, located in the Lower East Side, had three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen, all off a tiny entryway. No living room, no place for people to sit except at the two-seater table in the small kitchen, which was almost always in use by one of my two roommates. It’s also common for primary tenants or landlords to convert any common space into another bedroom. The stereotype of arriving in the city and sleeping in a “bedroom” that was obviously once a closet or dining room is absolutely a thing. Pro tip: one way to identify an illegal bedroom in the city is if it doesn’t have a window.
This contributes to New York’s famous city-that-never-sleeps culture. Since you don’t have room at your place to have people over, you find your favourite neighbourhood bar(s), all of which are open until at least 4:00 a.m., and that’s where you meet friends, co-workers, and Tinder dates.
Many people who move to New York City think of their apartment simply as a place to sleep and their roommates as a means of (maybe) not giving up more than half their paycheck to rent. In the time of COVID-19, people are understandably appalled at the idea of having to spend weeks, if not a month or more, in a confined space with near-strangers or by yourself. You’re asking New Yorkers to give up the major redeeming quality of living in such an expensive, crowded, and filthy place: the city itself.
My husband and I know over a dozen people who have tested positive for COVID-19. We are aware of three exposures between the two of us. We didn’t find out about the exposures until nearly ten days after they happened.
I haven’t been outside since Saturday, March 21. My husband and I went for a walk in Central Park and after two joggers physically brushed me despite there being plenty of room to maintain six feet, I accepted that I wouldn’t be going outside our building again for a long time. My husband has only left the building once for a grocery-store run. From the building’s roof deck twenty stories up, I can see slivers of bike, jogging, and walking paths through Central Park, and based on the aggression of both pedestrians and joggers, you wouldn’t know a highly infectious virus was running rampant through the city. Even if the people in non-essential roles who are ignoring guidelines is a tiny percentage of Manhattanites, the sheer number of people here means that a lot of individuals are making a personal choice to ignore the personal damage we’re each capable of.
At the time of this writing, my husband and I know over a dozen people who have tested positive for COVID-19. We are aware of three exposures between the two of us. We didn’t find out about the exposures until nearly ten days after they happened. While we’ve been careful since social distancing guidelines were put in place and before public spaces were closed, who knows how many people we might have inadvertently exposed on the chance we were asymptomatic carriers? The guilt is staggering.
I’ve been resisting comparisons to a zombie apocalypse. That lets us all off too easy. Watching China, recovery will happen. There’s an “other side” to this. By calling this pandemic a zombie apocalypse, we’re abdicating our role and responsibility for it. COVID-19 has no intent. The American federal government saw this coming and decided not to do anything about it.
This virus is a catalyst showing Americans—and New Yorkers in particular, often some of the most ambitious participants in capitalism—that we can’t keep seeing problems like luxury condos sitting empty while we step over the homeless and workers who were previously considered “unskilled labour” keeping Manhattan fed, and ignoring them because dealing with them interfere with you getting yours.
New York (and probably the entire United States) needs the same kind of shutdown and government support that Wuhan went through. I don’t say that lightly. It would be difficult, probably impossible. New Yorkers are kind, but selfishness is a necessary form of self-protection here. No one human can possibly care about every person in a city of 8.5 million people, but that’s exactly what’s required right now. Healthcare workers are doing it every day. Andrew Cuomo—as rightfully disliked as he is—is demonstrating, at least with the optics, strong leadership. Cuomo’s pleas for supplies are overwhelming in their numbers because the number of people in New York, stacked on top of each other in small apartments, is overwhelming.
Olivia Croom Hammerman is an independent book designer. Check out her work at oliviacroomdesign.com.