As the virus marched across the United States last year, over 20 million jobs vanished in just one month, the worst toll since the Great Depression. In New York, where cases peaked early, the health and economic crises were devastating.
Retailers closed their doors. Wealthy residents fled to second homes in the Hamptons. Late-night subway service was eliminated, a sign that many New Yorkers who had to keep going to work were largely left to fend for themselves.
We spent months documenting the changing city as its economy frayed and split during the pandemic.
In a city with gleaming penthouses and decrepit slums, the pandemic made the extremes of rich and poor stand out even more.
A 10-minute cab ride separated the moneyed fortresses of Park Avenue, with their gloved doormen and spacious apartments, from housing projects in disrepair. White-collar workers were able to retreat to home offices. Service workers found themselves out of jobs.
The most fortunate residents were among the first to abandon the city. Over three months, the residential population in affluent neighborhoods like the Upper East Side, SoHo and Brooklyn Heights decreased by 40 percent or more. Midweek felt like the weekend.
And while the growing ranks of homeless begged for change in areas like Downtown Manhattan, Lamborghinis sat parked outside crowded restaurants.
In large swaths of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, there was nowhere to run or hide. The death rate was higher, and hospitals and morgues became overwhelmed — with hundreds of deaths a day across the city during the brutal first wave. Ambulance sirens haunted the streets.
From the safety of our homes, many of us grew accustomed to ordering groceries and toilet paper online. But armies of service workers who were deemed “essential” often went unseen and unprotected.
Even after vaccines became available, inequalities have persisted: Rates of inoculation are far higher for white residents than for other groups, and access remains a problem.
When lockdown orders first went into effect one year ago this month, how we shopped, what we ate, how we worked immediately shifted. Office employees learned to take video calls from home, while owners of restaurants and small businesses desperately tried to stay connected to customers, separated by screens and windows and other barriers.
Many businesses couldn’t keep their doors open at all. As the months went on, stores closed down on street corners one by one. Sometimes you could see whole neighborhoods seemingly change overnight.
The city’s unemployment rate spiked to 18.3 percent in May, the highest level in the 44 years that the data has been collected, with 670,000 residents out of work.
With no end in sight for lockdowns, a flood of New Yorkers sought unemployment insurance, food stamps and other aid.
As flashy window displays were replaced by For Rent signs, retailers like Century 21 and Lord & Taylor simply shut down. Fashion Week needed to be rethought.
By some estimates, one out of every seven chain stores closed.
And with stores closed, there was less demand in one of New York’s last remaining centers of industrial production: the garment district.
Still, life went on. Products moved off the shelves of Amazon and FreshDirect warehouses as quickly as they moved onto them. Vendors hustled their merchandise down the sidewalk, even if there were fewer cars to dodge when they crossed the street.
Lines of people routinely waited outside stores for the latest shoe release. Masked and socially distanced, they were symbols of New York’s enduring resilience amid the carnage.
By summer, the frustrations of shutdowns and economic collapse had burst into the open. Shootings had doubled, and most of them were concentrated in the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus and unemployment.
Counterfeit goods, once hawked with an eye out for the police, were sold openly. Thefts and robberies and hit-and-runs increased.
The city recorded over a thousand shootings by Labor Day, making it the worst year for gun violence since 2015, with four months still left to go.
“This is something that we have to double down on,” said Bill de Blasio, New York’s mayor, at a news conference earlier in the year, adding that the rise in shootings was fueled mainly by the “dislocation that has happened over these last four months with the coronavirus.”
“The fact that the court system is not working, the economy is not working, people have been penned up for months and months — so many issues underlying this challenge,” he added.
New York City is heavily dependent on tourism: 66 million people visited in 2019, and the hospitality industry generated $46 billion in annual spending and supported hundreds of thousands of jobs. The sudden disappearance of this revenue was among the first economic jolts of the pandemic, and this sector has been among the slowest to return.
Popular areas like the meatpacking district were often eerily calm. One day last fall, as a lone pedestrian crossed Times Square, it was quiet enough to hear the sound of the traffic lights changing.
The economy’s downturn seemed bleakest at the airports that once throbbed with activity. At various moments, the terminals of Kennedy Airport and La Guardia have felt like grand, forgotten monuments to the age of travel. Unused planes were often parked on tarmacs in neat rows.
Luxury hotels can still barely fill rooms. Others were used to temporarily house recovering Covid-19 patients or were converted to accommodate homeless people as shelters became transmission sites for the virus.
And there is little clue of when the footlights in Broadway theaters will shine again. Or when the crowds will return fully to destinations like the Bronx Zoo.
In a city famous for never sleeping, the subway is now shut down between 2 and 4 a.m.
It was only one of many city services to be cut during the pandemic. Trash began to pile up after $100 million was stripped from the sanitation budget in June.
Stuyvesant Cove Park along the East River turned to goats to trim back on weeds after it became overgrown following staffing changes.
The $1.9 trillion stimulus bill nearing passage in Washington will most likely help the city avert the worst of the feared cuts.
But the scars will remain for years to come.
In December, more than one in 10 New Yorkers who wanted to work still didn’t have a job. The unemployment rate is still almost twice the country’s average.
But as the vaccine rollout picks up speed, people have begun trickling back into public life.
Schools are reopening. People have started dining indoors again, albeit with restrictions. And tourists and New Yorkers have begun to rediscover old pleasures, like the view of the Manhattan skyline from the Brooklyn Bridge or the quiet calm of a bench to yourself at MoMA. Or a hug with someone who has been six feet away for the last year.