As a New Yorker, I’ve grown up hearing stories about “how things used to be,” before even the grittiest parts of the city became high-end and widespread gentrification created a bleak culture void. With this shift in mind, I’ve realized that to grow up in modern New York is to live with an implanted sense of loss and nostalgia––a desperate and slipping grasp on the past. The spread of COVID-19 heightened this desperation, sending the city into an apocalyptic shutdown that laid bare its shocking socioeconomic disparities and made it excruciatingly clear who is deemed valuable. Even after flattening the curve and limiting the spread of the virus, the looming threat of widespread closures brings back the hopelessness that accompanies the loss of beloved neighborhood haunts and landmarks, lasting evidence of the city’s unique identity. The iconic corner store Gem Spa on St. Mark’s Place is an example of this fading history––while New Yorkers rallied around the struggling shop and successfully saved it from closing before the outbreak, it was forced to permanently close when the city shut down. While this social and economic devastation has been accelerated by the coronavirus, we must reckon with the fact that New York City has had the largest wealth disparity in the United States since 2014. This is not a new problem––it has just taken a global pandemic to wake the privileged up to its consequences.
Once the lockdown started in New York, the city’s institutional inequality revealed itself on the streets. Many upscale residential areas seemed abandoned as wealthy New Yorkers fled to vacation homes, and in many neighborhoods the only ones out were delivery people or health workers. While some professionals were allowed to work from home, many more low-paying jobs were deemed “essential,” forcing workers to risk their lives for a low-wage salary. The insular microcosms of Twitter and other social media platforms can quickly lead one to believe that everyone in the city had a similar quarantine experience, but in fact, as the Economic Policy Institute reports, under 30 percent of workers were able to work from home. Additionally, NowThis News details that more than half of New York City’s frontline workers were not born in the United States. The coronavirus outbreak has revealed the structural racism in cities, and the erasure of frontline workers––who are disproportionately people of color––is only the latest injustice in a long history of institutionalized dehumanization.
An obvious sign of this systemic injustice is in the city’s segregated residential areas and school system. Redlining policies that were adopted in the 1930s––policies that unjustifiably deemed many nonwhite areas “high risk”––continue to limit the economic opportunities for people living in those “undesirable” neighborhoods. Thanks to these racist zoning policies, the generational wealth accumulated through property ownership was denied to many nonwhite New Yorkers. On top of that, the public schools in these redlined neighborhoods are generally underfunded, further limiting opportunities. These factors, and many more, intersect to trap disenfranchised groups in a lower economic class and limit social mobility. During the peak of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, this historical subjugation was brought to the forefront of people’s minds as it became clear that the most vulnerable population was people of color. Whether this is because people of color are more likely to have preexisting conditions such as asthma––a common side effect of living in areas more affected by pollution and toxins––or because frontline jobs are often worked by people of color, it is clear that the disproportionate COVID cases are a product of years of racist and classist policy and leadership. Privileges like the ability to work remotely and easy access to healthcare and medical information are only available to a small portion of the population––namely rich and white people––and this is not a coincidence. Now, after New York’s coronavirus peak, the city’s unemployment rate has risen to over 14 percent, many storefronts and restaurants have permanently closed, and many are struggling to pay their already overpriced rent.
For New York, all that’s certain is this: This crisis could either bring New Yorkers together across socioeconomic lines, attaining political power as a collective, or serve as the last breaths of an already strained and unequal urban society. What began with the coronavirus outbreak has turned into a full-blown reckoning of decades of institutional malpractice and oppression. In a city so used to romanticizing and grieving the lost symbols of “Old New York” like CBGB or FAO Schwarz, it’s something else entirely to recognize the city’s current struggles and to mobilize around struggling fellow New Yorkers. Significant ways this organization could occur are through wealth redistribution and fighting against classist and racist zoning laws. With enough awareness and empathy, this devastating crisis could allow for a transformation of the city’s structure and an opportunity to rethink all the outdated and prejudiced facets of urban theory. As people continue to die alone from the virus and endanger themselves every day for a minimum wage job, with an incompetent president and a not-so-appealing challenging candidate, it’s hard to imagine a time more ripe for upheaval.