Frustrated and struggling, New Yorkers contemplate abandoning the city they love

The FDR Drive on the East Side of Manhattan leads to Upstate New York, where homes have been selling quickly. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Demetrius Freeman.

NEW YORK – It was laundry that broke Mary Shell. Or rather, the lack of an in-unit washer and dryer in her Brooklyn apartment where Shell, 37, a field producer for reality television, could barely afford her half of the rent before the novel coronavirus pandemic because work had been slow for months. Times are even tougher now that her roommate, also unemployed, has had to move back in with her parents.

Shell was so financially strapped that she began inquiring about various night-life gigs, only to see covid-19 close all the bars and clubs. (“So that’s another job you can’t do in a pandemic.”) Still, her situation might have been bearable if the nearest laundromat wasn’t four blocks away.

“I just want to be able to do laundry without having to drag it up and down a four-story walk-up or pay someone $40 or $50 to do it for me,” said Shell – echoing a gripe of New York City’s apartment-dwellers so timeless that “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Living Single” and “Broad City” all have episodes about the indignities of shared laundry facilities. But throw in a pandemic and Shell said the stress has been “exhausting,” noting how she recently showed up to her laundromat to find that someone had handled all the clothes she had just washed.

“Everyone deserves space and basic amenities,” she said, lamenting how, in New York, many landlords deem a washing machine a “luxury” item. “It’s just insulting to come at us and be like, ‘We’re going to charge you an extra thousand dollars a month for this standard appliance that’s been in American households since the 1970s.’ ”

It’s enough to make her contemplate leaving, for good.

Welcome to the Great Reassessment.

New York City is a shadow of its pre-pandemic normal. Like Shell, many residents are out of work, out of money, out of patience and out of sorts. Reassessments are happening throughout the country, but nowhere else are they as sharply focused as here, in the nation’s most populated, most dense, most diverse metropolis – where more than 21,000 have died.

Even with all the chaos, filth and struggle, nostalgics have long mourned every change in what they called the “vanishing” city. But calls to the city’s mental health hotlines have surged. Whether they have left, or whether they have no option to leave, New Yorkers are having to ask themselves whether the city they love is really still livable.

“The ‘rona sat every New Yorker down and legit asked that question everyone knows from tired job interviews: Where do you see yourself in five years?” said Sandy José Nuñez, 31, a bartender hoping to pivot toward opening a jujitsu gym. “You have plenty of time now to step up to a solid answer.”

But there is no universal answer. The pandemic has laid bare the inequities of who gets to go and who has to stay, of who lives and who dies. The average rent in Manhattan began the year at a record high of $4,210 a month, while Queens and the Bronx, the boroughs hardest-hit by covid-19, were also on a decade-long upswing. In February, discussing the state’s $2.3 billion revenue shortfall, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, sincerely, “God forbid if the rich leave.” But 420,000 of the city’s wealthiest residents did go, gutting marquee neighborhoods now facing up to 40 percent vacancy.

“I’m a born-and-raised, do-or-die New Yorker because it was always a party,” said Giovanni Cassinelli, 44, a dog walker who was an acolyte of the late nightlife legend Willi Ninja, “but the party is over.” He’s heading to an unincorporated mountain town in Nevada. “I’m not getting my city back,” he said. “So I’m leaving before it gets to the point that I can’t get my mind back.”

Such responses represent a major departure from previous citywide crises, when New Yorkers mostly rolled with the punches with fuhgeddaboudit humor and go-big-or-go-home tenacity. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels famously asked then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, “Can we be funny?” to which Giuliani countered, “Why start now?” Eleven years later, when Hurricane Sandy knocked out electricity in half of Manhattan, the running gag was that the city’s trendiest new neighborhood had become SoPo, South of Power.

This novel coronavirus, by contrast, has brought with it a novel reckoning. At the start of April, Shari, 33, born and raised in Queens, had to step away from her career as a social worker, even though her profession is essential. She declined to provide her last name, citing privacy concerns. Her job entailed home visits with 2-year-olds with autism, and last year all that close contact landed her in the hospital with pneumonia. The day she received an email from her employer urging workers to hound their clients – many of them overwhelmed parents from underserved communities – and rack up billable hours, she quit.

That email came the night before her grandmother died of covid-19, under the watch of a nursing home in Queens that, she said, wouldn’t help Shari’s family stay in touch with their matriarch. She has been thinking a lot about the 60-acre ranch in California where her grandmother grew up. “I can see the horizon there and it’s just quiet, the earth smells different,” she said. She has been looking into apprenticeships for black farmers upstate and considering moving somewhere more affordable, like New Jersey, “even though that was like my lifelong thing – ‘I’ll never go to New Jersey.’ ”

For families with young children the incentive to go, or stay and get creative, the calculus has turned urgent. Julia Febiger, 39, gave birth to her first child a week and a half before the first coronavirus case in New York state was confirmed. “It was just a lot with this fragile, vulnerable newborn,” she said, particularly because she also had postpartum anxiety that she thinks was exacerbated by the pandemic. “I was terrified. I felt like we were under attack.”

She and her husband headed to Massachusetts to be close to relatives. They’re looking at houses in small towns along the Hudson River in Upstate New York, which real estate agents say are selling hours after they go on the market, with other emigres from the city sometimes paying full price in cash after seeing the houses only on video tours.

Parenting message boards across gentrified Brooklyn are filled with questions about where to shop for groceries safely, or what to do if you took your kids to school via public transportation. There’s a closed Facebook group with more than 3,000 members called Into the Unknown, “for those of us who have decided or are considering – willingly or otherwise – to join the exodus from NYC to greener pastures, as it were,” the description reads.

Faced with a June 30 deadline to renew the lease on their two-bedroom duplex in Brooklyn, Naomi Mersky, 44, and her husband decided to bail. “We know we’re lucky that we have options,” she said, but they also couldn’t keep paying rent indefinitely if their kids, ages 5 and 9, didn’t feel safe. They’ve bought chickens and are looking into starting the next school year in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, where they’re living in a summer cabin they own.

Krista Sudol, 42, a mother to two young children who just lost her job in fashion “and possibly my career,” summed up the zeitgeist bluntly: “I love New York so much I could cry, but for the first time ever, it feels all wrong.”

For many artists who came to the city to make it big and wound up waiting tables, the city’s promise that hustle and paying dues leads to achieving your dreams is starting to feel like a broken contract.

Almost five years to the day that he began his career as a comedian, Kevin Delano, 28, finally gained a prestigious turning point: membership on a house team at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, the legendary launchpad for actress Amy Poehler and hundreds of others. He performed once. Then the shutdown happened.

“There’s no Plan B,” he said. “I hadn’t decided to throw in the towel but the towel got thrown at me.” During the shutdown, something changed. Seeing “Saturday Night Live” star Aidy Bryant filming sketches from her bedroom felt like an equalization, he said, inspiring him to double down on his digital comedic output.

But for Delano, the pause of city life has been a tectonic shift deeper than a career pivot. “The strangers on my street became my neighbors. We leave baked goods on each other’s stoops,” he said. “And I’ve become the Jared Kushner of sewing: Whatever I learn, I feel like I invented it. . . . I have more space for myself, to find out who I am. I don’t want to go back. My girlfriend says she feels five years younger.”

Andre Urban, 38, was already a voracious learner and life experimentalist before the pandemic, as an actor who also does wedding photography and shoots music videos. The shutdown has brought about what he calls his “metamorphosis.” He used to wake up about 11 a.m. Now he’s up at dawn and has loaded his schedule with self-improvement: meditation, self-help books, Spanish lessons, video editing courses, voice lessons and guitar lessons – all before lunch. “The whole world has changed, so why not me, too? I spent 15 years prioritizing work. This is my time.”

Some artists left town and accidentally found a new home. Kevin Hertzog, 55, a set designer and Gays Against Guns activist, absconded to a friend’s mother’s cabin three hours north of the city because he’s HIV-positive and recently had cancer, so is immunosuppressed. Long walks in the woods with his dog inspired him to look for property – and he has found houses selling for just $50,000. “I’ve started to look back at my New York life in a new light,” he said. “It seems analogous to seeing images of planet Earth from the moon for the first time. Suddenly, I could see a bigger picture.”

For some, an onslaught of life changes forced the decision. Since March, Nancy Lee, 39, has lost her job in marketing (because of internal reshuffling, not coronavirus-related unemployment), confirmed she’s pregnant, gotten engaged and hunkered down with her fiance – who is also out of work – and their pug, Biggie, in an East Village studio apartment. “It’s just resonating that I think it’s my time to leave New York,” Lee said. “The value of living here is the way of life. And if the sexiness has worn off, then why pay the expensive price tag?”

Lee, who is Chinese American, said she has been harassed at least three times by a man on a bicycle screaming about Chinese people and covid-19, part of a larger racist movement blaming Asians for the virus. “I didn’t know it was directed at me, but as I got closer, he said it over and over,” she said. She’s considering a move to suburban Philadelphia, where she grew up and her parents still live.

The reassessments aren’t only personal. Sometimes they’re business-driven. In the wake of citywide closures of Chinese takeout spots – which were teetering on extinction already – Beichen Hu, director of special projects at Junzi Kitchen, has pivoted the modern fast-casual Chinese local chain to develop comfort food classics, such as sausage fried rice and egg drop soup – all of which are hard to find now that 70 percent of Chinese restaurants citywide have closed. “I would never expect this,” he said. “But nobody has expected anything this year.”

And reassessments mean something else for essential workers. When she stopped feeling safe riding the subway, Yessenia Alvarez, 41, bought a bike, which she carries up and down three flights of stairs and rides nine miles (and back) from her home in Queens to run a skeleton crew at Rahi, a stylish Indian restaurant in posh Greenwich Village, in the shadow of a 161-year-old hospital that was turned into million-dollar condos. If she didn’t work, the restaurant wouldn’t be open, a loss not just to its customers but also to the 250 needy recipients of meals it delivers every day.

She and her husband, Julio, a police officer, don’t have the privilege of grand reassessments, like Rahi’s wealthy neighbors who fled. “We came here to live here, so that’s what we are going to do,” said Alvarez, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic in 2006.

Asked about those neighbors, she said she was more disappointed than mad. “They left their servants to fight for themselves. Think about that,” she said, but then quickly focused on the bright spots, such as the elderly couple who come by weekly and buy about $200 worth of food. “They say they want to support us,” she said. “It’s hopeful. You have to not think only about yourselves. You have to think and live in a different way.”



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