Your city. It’s the city of millions, and yet it’s as individual to you, as you are to it. It is constant, robust, assertive, and reliable, even in its perpetual change.
You know your city’s today face, its yesterday face, and all the faces that came before that. There’s brutal concrete and sharp, shiny glass. Invasive progress and adamant history. Bland greys and showy glows – everything is fighting, but nothing is winning.
As you negotiate the streets, the familiar sounds of your city are endless. The complaining sirens, angry cars, and wretched, tedious drills tangle messily at every turn. Even the brash but beautiful neon words are screaming and shouting for your attention. You reach the welcome relief that is the darkness under the arches, but this too is cut short by the sudden train slashing the air like a scythe, squealing and thundering around you.
In the crowds, the fast lane is elusive; it darts in, out, and around the battle of the brollies, the rucksacks, and the hot, spilling coffees. You hurtle from one encounter to another – the loudly intense cab driver flings you at the demanding street sellers, who shove you to the aggressive exchange of expletives with an aerodynamic cyclist. When did you become so accepting of the rudeness of strangers? Or is it a small price to pay for the anonymity you cherish so much?
It’s a big old mess, yes. But with its frustration comes its sweetness. The enticing little flares of orange taxi lights, offering solace on a cold, dreary morning. The glow of the setting sun reflecting on the tireless cranes, telling you that your bad day is over. And the dark, reassuring wood of your favourite basement bar, soaking up the outdoor turmoil.
There’s the sunrise view from the quiet bridge, the front seat of the top deck, the mysteriously empty train carriage, and the flicker of a million tiny yellow squares at dusk. These are what get you through your daily battles – personal gifts offered as part of a deal in which you agree to start all over again tomorrow. You and your city, unbreakable.
But what if the deal was broken? What if the city stopped?
I’ve been a city dweller all of my adult life. Mostly London in the UK, with a few years in Hong Kong before moving in January 2020, to the iconic city of New York.
Two months later, the spreading of a previously unidentified virus called Covid-19 had become a global pandemic, and over a third of the planet’s population was thrown into some form of lockdown.
New York City was hit hard. A stay-at-home order was issued, and the streets cleared. The avenues stood still. The city stopped.
A calmness and beauty fell across the changing urban landscapes, now devoid of crowds, traffic, mess, and clutter. The city without its armour was quiet, even peaceful.
But the calm turned into a stark darkness as the pandemic gradually enveloped the city, increasing its redundancy and neglect and submerging the streets in a haunting silence. Streets once filled with familiar and endless intensity, purpose and life, now lie shaken and unsure.
Businesses were closing down, windows were boarded up, and more and more homeless people slept on the streets, away from the city's shelters – people that might have otherwise blended into the background and been lost in the crowds, became the sole inhabitants.
And then there was something else. Something reaching out. The glowing persistence of spring in the shimmering trees. The scattering of chalk messages spreading love and connection. The closed restaurants with silverware laid, whispering, “Your table is ready”. And the glimmer of the lights on Broadway – they didn’t go dark – “We’re still here, waiting”.
This book is the city I found. A city altered, anxious, and uncertain. A city beautiful and expectant, but most of all, a city fragile.