Was empty Manhattan a state of wonder or a looters’ playground?
Walking around Manhattan starting in mid-March of 2020, one felt a sense of respectful, disbelieving wonder, the same feeling that came after 9/11: could those buildings really come down? Could Grand Central Terminal and Times Square really be empty? Two new-ish books bring us back to that time three years ago. Gregory J. Peterson’s pictorial, “New York Stilled Life: Portrait of a City in Lockdown,” and Jeremiah Moss' “Feral City: On Finding Liberation in Lockdown New York” are, respectively, a wordless, reflective tale and a torrent of unreflective words.
Peterson is a corporate lawyer, not a professional photographer (he took the pictures for this book with his iPhone). But like many of us, he needed something constructive to do with his lockdown days, and he understood that the most effective way to document COVID-19’s impact on New York City’s streetscape was in pictures, not in words.
Peterson’s description of his quest to memorialize empty Manhattan is another reminder of those strange days and their strange logistics. The images he took of the city are mostly in Midtown and Lower Manhattan, because, he notes, “I knew that from the time I left home” on the Upper West Side “until the time I returned I would not be able to…find a bathroom.”
The buildings look different when no one is using them, like haute-couture dresses in a museum show.
Between April and June, Peterson shot Manhattan’s major landmarks, from Lincoln Center to the South Street Seaport, from the windshield-green of the United Nations tower to the pastel popsicle sticks of Harlem’s Great Refuge Temple. The sheen of the new One Vanderbilt skyscraper contrasts well against the sanded-down stone of Grand Central Terminal, the neatly bordered windows of the MetLife building peering over.
Almost every image is devoid of people. The buildings look different when no one is using them, like haute-couture dresses in a museum show; the dresses are nice, but no matter how nice, they look forlorn without the body heat of the people who are supposed to inhabit them.
With no people to distract the eye, the viewer, through Peterson, absorbs new lessons. We’ve all heard the urbanist truism that a street of eclectic small shops is more stimulating to walk along than an avenue of big-box stores such as banks and drugstores, but Peterson’s shots show this phenomenon in close up: 125th Street, with its Blick Art Materials and Jimmy Jazz, and the ground-floor shops of downtown’s Fulton Street, are more eye-catching than the outside view of the mall at Hudson Yards.
What you mostly see in Peterson’s pictures — a reminder of the serendipity of professional-quality amateur photography — is something most artists don’t think of photographing: what is directly beneath their feet. Whether he intended it or not, some of the most “astonishing views I was fortunate to witness” are close-up depictions of the ground.
New York, a reader of the book is reminded, contains multitudes of surfaces, from the tightly knit cobblestones of the South Street Seaport to the bright brick chevrons around the Bethesda fountain, from the raised hexagons of the Battery Park City promenade to the rail-grooved rectangles of the High Line, from the gravel dirt of Bryant Park to the melting ice of a deserted Rockefeller Center ice rink, the green freeze-pipes showing through. Even the street markings — red bus lanes, peeling white crosswalks — are compelling. We are living in a Bridget Riley painting; we just have to look down.
Peterson’s coda is “Plywood New York,” June 2020 images of Manhattan’s storefronts covered in neat, blond rectangles of plywood to deter what Peterson calls the “political unrest” that began after the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The grained whirls of the wood against iron, brick, stone and glass were another otherworldly element in COVID New York’s geometry.
If Peterson’s book is a gentle memento of a disorienting time, Jeremiah Moss' is a harsh scar. Moss is supposed to be New York’s gruff-but-lovable curmudgeon. With his “Vanishing New York,” the 2017 book version of his blog, he chronicled how much history the city loses every year when small stores and family-owned restaurants disappear. Moss interspersed commiserating interviews with business proprietors in his East Village neighborhood — a longtime owner of the soon-to-close De Robertis pastry shop lamenting of young people that “they want Starbucks” — with serviceable applied theory about how cities are ecosystems, and don’t work if certain balances are upset.
Though Moss was short on solutions, it was hard to disagree with him. There were too many banks and drugstores. There were too many recent college grads turning Manhattan into an outdoor dorm – the “New People” or the “hypernormals,” as Moss calls them. And it is annoying when people look down at their phones instead of avoiding fellow pedestrians on the sidewalk.
Like “Vanishing,” “Feral City” is supposed to be part urban theory, part memoir. What happens to a city, or to the East Village, at least, during the “profound accidental experiment” of lockdown? “What happens to New York when its least tenaciously attached residents are suddenly gone?” Much of Moss' description is evocative. “Just like that, the New People abandon New York,” he writes. “On the weekend before lockdown, the bars are packed…On Monday, March 16, 2020, I wake to a ghost town…No cars, no people….All the market-rate tenants are gone.” The young-ish renters who immediately fled Manhattan for their parents’ suburban houses left the pavement littered with perfectly functional, and in some cases close to brand-new, furniture: “multiplying mountains …so extreme, people in the East Village can’t stop talking about them…entire domestic environments on the sidewalks.”
One can appreciate Moss' straightforward admission that he found wandering lockdown Manhattan to be exhilarating. “The deserted streets are beautiful in their vacancy, an empty stage made more quiet by the memory of noise,” he writes. Moss conjures a pandemic city of mutual aid and cooperation: “Manhattanites are looking at each other again, the way we used to on the streets…We nod in solidarity. I see you. I won’t hurt you. We’re here together.”
But this uplifting spirit is quickly self-undermined. What was affably grouchy in “Vanishing New York”becomes just plain mean in “Feral City.” The meat of Moss' narrative follows from the Floyd murder, and the ensuing unrest in New York: peaceful marches, as well as looting, vandalism and public harassment. Given Moss' innate conservatism — he wants to preserve the past, after all — one might have expected him to parse the non-peaceful protests of that summer by writing something like, of course, there’s no excuse for smashing the windows of Chase or Macy’s, and such vandalism gives needed peaceful protests a bad name, but one can understand why people did it: They’ve been so alienated over the past two decades by the chain-store landscape that they’ve lost their civic sense.
Instead, Moss doesn’t just excuse non-peaceable riots, but is a full-on gleeful supporter. At one early riot, he remembers, “the crowd is young, all genders and colors, so giddy, I catch their giddiness, high on transgression, our bodies abuzz. The euphoria swirls…gathering into aloud, resounding thwack …. I turn to see boyish silhouettes kicking at the windows of a Wells Fargo bank. Another thwack, another, and then a thunderous whoomp as the windows shatter” into the “crunch of broken glass like candies under my feet.” Moss relates a friend’s witness account of Herald Square looting: “she saw people sharing, asking, ‘What’s your size?’, trading sneakers, trying on clothes, helping each other find a fit.”
Looting, vandalism, harassment and other anti-social behavior consistently prove to be Moss' idea of a city in which people are cooperating with one another.
In case you might give Moss the benefit of the doubt, and note that he is offering only description, not endorsement, Moss wakes up one morning to “bike again to the wreckage” of “the luxury shops of SoHo…Victoria’s Secret, Coach, Lululemon. Wasn’t it just days ago I was shouting fuck you to these same chain stores? How often is a wish granted, and so quick?…People will insist the looters are not protesters, that they are criminals giving in to materialistic desire, but…political messages accompany every smash and grab.” (This passage comes after he has castigated the few stores that boarded up weeks before the rioting began, calling this measure “elite panic.”)
Looting, vandalism, harassment and other anti-social behavior consistently prove to be Moss' idea of a city in which people are cooperating with one another. It’s not even just that Moss sees looting and graffiti as a needed correction to the capitalist order, however stupid that would be. He makes it cruelly personal.
For all of Moss' lectures about “the stigmatized Other” and the need for liberal tolerance, he constantly “others” the others, and is the opposite of tolerant. When his young white female neighbor (Moss neatly categories everyone by his perception of their race and gender) returns to her apartment temporarily in early June, Moss stalks her movements — “I follow [her], acting casual” — and crows to himself, “I wonder if she’s frightened, bewildered by the violent disruption of her glossy object world. I wonder what it’s like for her to go through SoHo and see her beloved chain stores smashed, covered in plywood and fucks…Her upscale brunch spot, site of so many avocado toasts and matcha lattes, lies ravaged.”
Beyond the lack of empathy — which, in a crisis, many of us are able to feel even for people we don’t really like — who does this champion of small New York businesses think owns the “upscale brunch spot”? Amazon? Who does he think works there? Investment bankers?
Moss also menaces his neighbors. In one Washington Square Park protest in July of 2020, he and his cohort of agitators target “the normals, [who] stay on the grass, safely tucked behind fences, where they drink White Claw and work on their tans while the world burns…I feel our power growing.…[T]oday the organizers lead us in a chant of ‘Fuck your picnic’ — but nothing seems to penetrate their bubble.” This behavior — meant to frighten, bully, and intimidate — is very different from peaceful protest, and even different from supposedly victimless vandalism. Moss is outright harassing other New Yorkers, who, just like him, are trying to find snatches of joy in a pandemic.
As 2020 turns to 2021, neither rain nor snow nor sleet keeps heroic Moss from bullying fellow New Yorkers. “Every Thursday night, through cold and snow, I bundle up in layers and bike…holding traffic while we chant ‘fuck your dinner’ to outdoor diners sitting comfortably under heat lamps…A few of our comrades sit down at tables and sociably engage diners in difficult conversations, using confrontation and education to compel them to know what they don’t want to know…At one French bistro, the owner grabs a protester by the arm. ‘This is my restaurant,’ he screams…As we march off, the restaurateur shouts, ‘We’re dying here! We are dying!”
One can’t help but notice that Moss is himself a gentrifier. He moved to New York in 1993, and moved to the East Village shortly thereafter, to strike his first blow against capitalism and the bourgeoisie by… getting a graduate degree from NYU.
This confrontational in-your-face trespassing and lack of respect for safe, personal space all comes from a man who, on the public street or in a park, considers a look — or even the possibility of a look — directed at him by a "hypernormal" couple with a baby carriage to be hostile and threatening.
Moss sees the looting, the vandalism and the open hostility against his own neighbors as justified, because it’s part of his war against gentrification. Yet one can’t help but notice that Moss is himself a gentrifier. A Massachusetts native and graduate of an elite college, he moved to New York in 1993, and moved to the East Village shortly thereafter, to strike his first blow against capitalism and the bourgeoisie by… getting a graduate degree from NYU. He benefited from the decades of declining violent crime that made the East Village attractive to an expensively educated newcomer, coming of age during the New York of “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “Sex and the City.” Moss is an affluent member of the “creative class,” with a popular blog and a professional desk job— he’s a private-practice psychoanalyst, under his real name, Griffin Hansbury — and has a book contract with a major publisher. It never occurs to Moss that his evil, white, gentrifying young neighbors are just like him, just 25 years later. The main difference is that they pay higher rents.
One way in which Moss wields his privilege is particularly jarring: treating people with severe mental illness as fodder for his own entertainment. This tendency runs throughout the book, but is glaring when it comes to “Jesus of Washington Square”: Matthew Mishefski, 25 years old during the summer of 2020. “Jesus” made the news that pandemic summer for his erratic behavior in the park’s fountain. Often naked, surrounded by furniture and other castoffs he had hoarded, he ranted that he was Jesus; residents of the surrounding area successfully petitioned the city to compel him to receive mental health treatment (although the city doesn’t seem to have provided the continuum of care to which it aspires).
To Moss, a licensed therapist, Jesus’ distress is great fun. “Jesus…looks like a homoerotic Romantic painting…Jesus acquires furniture, a desk and chair, at which he writes his scriptures…a racially diverse group of lost pretty boys join the camp to get stoned and dance shirtless, showing off their bodies while beaming druggy joy into the sun. Jesus looks happy.”
“Feral City” feels like disaster tourism. “Jesus,” afflicted by demons and with no responsible older adult to advocate for him, sleeps in the park, and Moss goes home to his cozy Village apartment. As Moss derives vicarious pleasure from a cast of troubled individuals — afflicted with mental illness, drug addiction and behavior problems — he keeps his day job. Moss himself leads what he would deride as a “hypernormal” life. He found a lot of time to be a productive member of the work-from-home crowd during the whole pandemic, seeing patients (on Zoom) and completing a nearly 300-page manuscript.
For all of Moss' fashioning of himself and his smash-the-system friends, the great confrontational climax of the book isn’t protesting for racial justice, but over a few hundred people’s desire to party all night in Washington Square Park, and their neighbors’ desire for rest. The play-by-play, because the stakes are so low, is almost laughable: “Advancing down Fifth Avenue the marchers stream through the arch …, shouting into a microphone, ‘This is our fuckin’ park! As long as we don’t leave, they cannot kick us the fuck out!” Guess what? They can, and they do: “Our crowd gives up the park but not the protest, regrouping into a march…chanting whose streets through the restaurant sheds full of diners…I duck between a parked car and a restaurant shed.”
Shortly after the events of Moss' book come to a close, New York elected as its next mayor Eric Adams: a former cop, and the one Democratic candidate who ran on a tough-on-crime platform. Most New Yorkers didn’t find 2020 (or 2021) to be as “liberating” and entertaining as Moss did.