Remember when people still compared the number of COVID-19 deaths in NYC to the number of deaths the City suffered on 9/11? That was three weeks ago. Now the former is 8x the latter. If not for the horrible stakes, it would almost feel quaint.
New York is a city perpetually destroyed and remade by crisis. From the yellow fever and smallpox outbreaks of the early settler-colonial period; to the Revolution itself; the cholera epidemics and great fires of the first half of the 19th century; the so-called Draft Riots (which deserve that name, but were also anti-Black pogroms); the increasingly crushing financial panics of the 19th century’s second half; and on to the cataclysms and paroxysms of the 20th century with which most of us are more familiar, right up to September 11th, the Global Financial Crisis, and Hurricane Sandy, New York has a long history of rising from its own ashes and financial ruins, and I expect it will do the same this time around.
(The question of global climate crisis – as of the ever-present threat of nuclear war – is of a qualitatively different order which likely, if left unaddressed, would preclude recovery.)
As I’ve written elsewhere, I suspect that we’ll be surprised how fast we forget when all this is over. Right now, I’m reading, seeing, and hearing a lot about dystopian and anti-human near-future scenarios, and while the threats of rising digital surveillance and authoritarianism are very real, the idea that in-person restaurant dining or days at the beach will come to an end because of this pandemic strikes me as shockingly ahistorical and narcissistic. As much as some of us claim to be critical of neoliberalism and its now-and-always-risible Fukuyaman end-of-history ethos, it’s hard not to absorb what’s in the air we all breathe. Ideas, like pollution, are ambient, and so I’ll repeat, again: This pandemic is not unprecedented. It was not a black swan event. Certainly, it will change the world, but let’s try to have some modesty and to keep our senses of proportion and perspective. Pubs and inns date back at least to first century of the Common Era in what was then the Roman Empire, and one imagines that similar institutions existed even earlier in China, Central and West Asia, and the Indian Subcontinent.
We all learn about “the Black Death” – a name that could do with changing – and yet, here we are nearly 700 years laters, and don’t you know: We still have pubs, inns, and now even coffee shops and restaurants. This remarkable document from the NYC DoHMH, to which I’ve linked before, shows the extent to which New York City was ravaged across much of its history by epidemic and pandemic disease.
Do we still have restaurants? We do.
We need to stop with the histrionics and exceptionalism. It’s not enough – having bungled our initial pandemic response through negligence and complacency – to now wallow in despair and hysteria. The question is not – as a much-circulated New York Times piece asked over the weekend: “Does the World Need” restaurants, anymore?
The question is: What type of restaurants will the world get?
Here in New York City, we should be asking ourselves: Do we want Prune, or Appleby’s? If the answer is the former, then – as I advised in my title yesterday – we should stop with our pitiful handwringing and nostalgia for two months ago, and focus on organizing, struggling, building political power, and paying attention to the details.
The pandemic won’t kill Prune, but the corporate bailout could.
We’ll be surprised how fast we forget, and while some habits will change, social distancing will not be with us forever. It probably won’t even be with us for very long from what I already observe in the streets of the West Village, and so – while personal and social adjustments are necessary, and official regulations will continue to be promulgated – the bigger challenge relative to public health is building and rebuilding systems, institutions, knowledge, and norms; relative to our social fabric, the struggle is to beat back the corporate coup and reverse the national and global rise of fascism.
Pub(lic house)s survived the Plague, and they’ll survive this, too. As our friend and neighbor – who owns and cares for one of the great, still-extant Village dives – opines (I’m paraphrasing): Pubs are ancient institutions. They bring us together.
Simple. True. And I can’t wait to get back to his.
In the meantime, stay clear headed. Stay strong. Be kind to yourself, your partner, your roommates, your loved ones, your neighbors, and – please! – by all means, fight for the future where we get Prune, and not Appleby’s, and where the world moves inexorably –not into violence and collapse – but towards peace, justice, and sanity.