The New York-Is-Dead Talk Was a Parable of Human Arrogance

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Photo credit: Victor J. Blue      - Getty Images
Photo credit: Victor J. Blue - Getty Images

Ada Calhoun's St. Marks Is Dead tells the story of St. Marks Place in Manhattan's East Village, which went from part of Peter Stuyvesant's farm to a hub of new-immigrant life to a kaleidoscopic catalyst for the Beat Generation and the psychedelic counterculture that followed. Along the way, Calhoun traces how every generation considered each change in the neighborhood to be the death of St. Marks Place. Because St. Marks was, for many years, the beating heart of eccentric, omnificent New York, it might as well have been the death of the city itself. It was dead when Andy Warhol's Electric Circus nightclub closed. (The house band was a group called "The Velvet Underground.") It was dead when the Flower Power free love of the '60s gave way to the rough darkness of the '70s and '80s. Everybody always thinks they're alive for the moment when it's really dead, when it's all over and everybody moved to Connecticut. Or, in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, Miami.

This cropped up again Wednesday on Fox News, where host Dana Perino offered that, "At times, it seemed the city that never sleeps might never recover." But it's not about Fox or Perino, even if co-host Bill Hemmer's characterization of New York as "the capitalist center of America" suggested a highly specific set of values. Everybody was saying this shit for months and months. The bars and restaurants would all fail, certainly, but more than that, companies would realize they don't need to organize around a physical office and professional-class workers would realize they like having a yard and working from anywhere. Those that fled would never come back, the tax base would collapse, and the city would return to '70s debt-ridden stagflational mayhem.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt - Getty Images
Photo credit: Spencer Platt - Getty Images

Then as now, it's an achingly bourgeois perspective. It's the white-collar types who saw friends and coworkers flee town—and, yes, deal the city some serious economic damage. The people briefly held up as Essential Workers until it came time to give them a raise are not, by and large, moving to Miami. But it's also worth asking how many even among the rich are moving to South Florida permanently based on the allure of no state income tax and milder winters. Maybe the tax base will collapse, but it doesn't seem likely, and even the prolonged economic disasters of the last 20th century did not deliver the fatal blow. Most New Yorkers see there's a little more to the place than Bill Hemmer seems to. Maybe people want to go to the actual restaurant, rather than the clone that just popped up on Collins Ave. Hindsight is 2020, maybe, but I'd like to think I never really believed, even walking through an empty Times Square or sitting in my apartment as the ambulances wailed by, that this was the end.

It's not even just about New York, though, really. The pandemic saw nearly constant announcements (warnings? omens? prophecies?) that life would never be the same. There was a stage where Dr. Anthony Fauci was discussing the possibility we would never shake hands again, and a lot of people seemed to buy it. People might never again feel safe congregating in large numbers. They might rewire their lives to avoid the now all-encompassing specter of Disease. We had come to the great rupture in modern life, where all that we knew and took for granted—or, perhaps, naively tolerated as acceptable risk—was gone, and a new world awaited on the other side. Assuming there was another side.

Photo credit: Esquire
Photo credit: Esquire

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It speaks to a kind of apocalyptic impulse in American life, where every single thing somehow becomes the end of all things. This is probably politics, where right-wingers have started processing everything as A Final Assault on Civilization and the liberal left adopted pandemic life as The New and Possibly Permanent Normal. But there's also a more basic human trait at work here: arrogance. It's the same arrogance that leads us to believe we, a 200,000-year-old species, can ransack a 4 billion-year-old planet and it's the planet that's at risk of getting wiped out. (The Earth will sweep us off like the ants we are if that's what's necessary to regain equilibrium.) It's the same arrogance that, at least throughout most of my lifetime, led many people to dismiss the likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. The only question is whether they've found us yet, and whether they came to visit or took one look at what we were up to and decided not to bother. The obstacle to alien visitors is distance, not existence.

We seem to have a primal impulse to believe we are present at the end, or at least some sort of grand inflection point in world history. You don't need to be in a doomsday cult, constantly moving back your Google calendar event marked The End of Days, to constantly believe you are present for the most important time in history, after which nothing will be the same. We all seem to. Maybe it makes us feel that we ourselves are important, that bearing witness to such grand events—or even participating in them—cancels out the fact that we are one relatively young species on one planet in one solar system in what basically amounts to a galactic backwater. That kind of thinking is most unwelcome for a species that has, to its credit, conquered an entire world through ingenuity and adaptability. We're special, but not that special.

So maybe New York will emerge as something new, just as St. Marks has every 10 or 15 years. That's kind of the whole deal. It probably won't be that new, though. And it certainly won't be dead. This is not an old city by world standards, but it's old enough that believing a single plague would break its back boils down to little more than human delusion. (Andrew Yang and the rest of them are vying to become the 110th mayor of New York.) The pandemic has done its damage, of course. Gem Spa died early on in the miserable year past, a disaster for acolytes of St. Marks Place and New York history more generally. Maybe it will be replaced, as its storefront once mocked while it was still open, by a Schitibank. But it is not the end, and there will be new Gem Spas, maybe, on another block or in another borough. There will be a new New York, and it might not be so different, really. Right now, there's some Giuliani asshole demanding to run the place. Or maybe it will. The New York Knicks, after all, are currently good at basketball.

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