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  • Writer's pictureRebecca B.

Armpits and All, New York will be Just Fine

I love New York. Before I moved here in 2001, I did not. I judged it by the movies I knew-- Working Girl, Baby Boom, and Ghostbusters. Also Seinfield and Friends. I was a sweet Southern girl, intrigued by the grit and hardness but definitely not attracted to it. The few trips to New York I made growing up brought me to Time Square only, and that strengthened the untouchable-ness in my mind. But then I caught the acting bug, and it seemed there was no way to avoid the city. My first day at Juilliard was September 9th, 2001. My father and I drove my Uhaul here a week before. I had never visited the school, choosing to audition in Chicago because it was closer to me. I arrived to my tiny apartment on 207th Street to meet my roommate for the first time, still only knowing Times Square. I was so thankful for the separateness of Inwood, feeling like, "Well this will be ok because I'm not really IN New York."

That first week I prepared. I rode the subway and practiced putting on my armor, not talking to anyone, keeping my gaze down. I lengthened my gait, finding the right pace to blend in and not disturb foot traffic. I learned how to order a sandwich from a "bodega" (a word I had to practice) without pissing off the people behind me in line. I got as "hard" as I could manage. Then came September 11th. That day I walked the mile and a half from Lincoln Center to my father's hotel, in awe. No one had on armor. Everyone made eye contact. Subway riders emerged from stations asking what was going on, and people actually stopped to help. I saw one elderly woman almost faint when a man explained, pointing South. Her daughter worked there. The man caught her, easing her down to sit on the curb, holding her hand.

All around me were acts of kindness, yet I was scared of what was to come. "If all the police were downtown, what will happen elsewhere? We have to get off the streets." How wrongly I judged this city. In the days and weeks that followed, I learned about the real New York, the place I still call home. The hardness is simply to get through the day, because it's a lot of work. But you choose to put in the work because you love it to your core. So when it is called for, that spirit just comes out naturally. I was witness to it. I am so thankful I was here that day, as awful as it was, because I met my community.

And now, 17 years later, we again find ourselves facing a huge tragedy and the questions that come with how to respond and move forward. I see the negative headlines everyday-- "These Fleeing New Yorkers Vow They'll Never Return", "Will Bars Exist in NYC After the Coronavirus?", "Here's Why the City Will Never be the Same". This is a hard one, and I certainly don't think it will just be the goodwill of New York that will win the day this time. Circumstances are a lot different. Much of the world is suffering this time, and even though we are the worst hit and the most vulnerable with our density, the political powers that be have little sympathy or bailout money. In the past we've been able to raise taxes in response to a bad economy, but much of our population cannot survive that, with record unemployment. It is likely rents will rise to make up for the eviction memorandum. When restaurants can open, who will be able to survive at 25% capacity? The reality for theater is that it cannot come back before a vaccine is widespread. And will the talent pool in every industry of NYC remain top tier when we now understand how much can be done remotely? There are so many unknowns, so many deaths to morn, and not many voices of hope to rally behind. And yet. We are still New Yorkers.

Didn't we feel the same hopelessness when MotherF'ing PLANES FLEW INTO OUR MOST POPULATED OFFICE BUILDINGS? That was also incomprehensible at the time and we came back.

If you live in New York City, you have a mixed relationship with it. The duality of loving the city but hating all the extra crap you have to endure to live here, makes you a New Yorker. There is a certain breed of people who thrive on the struggle. We’re good at it. This pandemic has added a whole new dynamic to the relationship which will necessitate therapy for years to come. We will find the therapy through community and the city will adapt together. There will be a lot to mourn, and the grief will be heavy.  But when the time comes, being resourceful and making things work defines us. We will be just fine.  

Many with resources will flee to the suburbs, not abandoning the city but choosing now to live on the outskirts. It is a complicated decision, and I do not believe for one second all who leave are making a choice to have nothing to do with the city. They will commute and support from the burbs, where they feel their family is safe. This will cause rents and property values to eventually decrease and low and behold, we will have room for our artists again. We’ll have room for the young and aspiring who still dream of living in NYC. The price of simply living has caused us to lose the very people who have created the culture of this city and they will come back. And with them, will come the tourism.

Personally I will say, as a jaded New Yorker, the thing I hope we get out of this is space. If we gain a greater sense of spatial relationship, it will be amazing. I had my doubts this city was capable of social distancing, but we’re doing it. Perhaps in a year when the dust has settled a bit, we will still be attempting to respect personal space when possible. Not being shoved into an armpit on the subway would go really far in quality of living. Though, living among armpits is also something I miss right now. There’s that love/hate again. The smell, the grit, the being in the middle of it all is pretty great, armpits and all. I trust in my bones it will be back, yes changed, but for the better, because it’s what we do.

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