Did New York’s Creative Spirit Revive During the Pandemic?

Did New York’s Creative Spirit Revive During the Pandemic?

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Did New York’s creative spirit revive during the pandemic?


In the early 1990s, a self-identified “young, queer, transsexual poet” moved to Manhattan’s East Village after “flunk[ing] out of girlhood” with a very sensible explanation: “[W]here else would I run but to the East Village with its hundred years of anarchists, feminists, beatniks, and punks?” The New York of that era was, in Michelle Tea’s reverent description, “scruffy, scuzzy [and] cheap,” a town that “require[d] toughness more than money.”

After turning a rent-stabilized apartment into a chrysalis and transitioning, the new New Yorker emerged as a psychotherapist to LGBTQ youth and a budding urban critic with the nom de plume Jeremiah Moss.

In Moss’s recently released Feral City, he chronicles how New York reverted to this long-lost scruff-and-tumble avatar of itself when Covid-19 hit. Moss’s firsthand account portrays a pandemic-era city typified less by fear than by freedom, not atomized by remote work but unified by protests and outdoor parties. The book stands as a paean to the latent potential of New York and all great cities on life support, nearly drowned by capital. Yes, the vital signs of the urban body politic look weak—but under the right conditions, the city can still be jolted back to life.

The graffiti-covered East Village that Moss moved to in 1993 was typified by the fierce commitment of its residents—a dedication not everyone could understand. I remember my bemused parents driving us in from Long Island, dodging the squeegee men, to visit my great-aunt, a lifelong East Village resident, in her dark fifth-floor walk-up on Second Avenue. When the kosher food company where she’d clocked decades at a unionized secretarial job fled the area, she’d taken early retirement rather than commute to (gasp) New Jersey. When she died, my mother, her legal next of kin, passed on the chance to take over her rent-controlled lease despite the trifling monthly bill. After all, who would want to live there?

Rich kids, it turned out. Not long after Moss moved to the East Village, the trickle of transplants turned into a flood. The “New People,” as Moss dubs them, didn’t come to transition or to write poetry; they came to earn and to spend. They didn’t mix or assimilate and showed little interest in meeting New Yorkers, let alone becoming them. “Why come to a city,” Moss wonders, “if you’re afraid of contact with strangers?”

With all the well-heeled newcomers, public life in the neighborhood began to atrophy at the most granular level. Residents stopped leaving castoffs on the sidewalk for their less fortunate neighbors. The sidewalk “thieves’ markets” of found (or lifted) bric-a-brac that New Yorkers once scoured for gems to furnish their eternally work-in-progress apartments died out. The flats in the new luxury buildings and the renovated market-rate units in the old tenements had their own washers and dryers, so the New People, Moss observed, never had to visit a laundromat. These humble neighborhood institutions were where the locals met one another and scanned bulletin boards full of notices for the community meetings, cultural events, and protests that had long defined the East Village.

With the New People treating the city like an upscale shopping mall, the real estate industry obliged by turning it into just that—a “city of salads, white sneakers, and forgetting,” in Moss’s trigger-man phrase. In time, the market’s invisible hand clenched into a fist. The faceless LLC that purchased Moss’s building didn’t just turn the apartments market-rate when the old tenants died; it put cameras in the hallways to catch rent-stabilized tenants committing potentially evictable offenses.

Surveilled and frustrated, Moss initially channeled his anger into a blog chronicling the transformation of the quirky spaces that had made the city what it was into an endless stretch of chain banks, chain drugstores, and chain coffee shops. The blog grew into Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul, a 420-page screed against the malling of Manhattan, published in 2017. In it, Moss led his readers on a time-machine tour of the city, highlighting all the only-in–New York spaces that had been turned into corporate retail outlets and shiny high-rise buildings filled with efficiently stacked New People and their efficiently stacked white sneakers.

Yet even as Moss’s walk-up became dominated by a rotating cast of insipid online influencers—the “superspreaders [of] capitalism”—he remained steadfast: “The East Village is still here, I insist, underneath the static.” Like an Old Testament prophet, he never lost the hope of redemption. One suspects he chose the name Jeremiah for this very reason.

And then it came to pass. In an instant, the New People vanished, gone to suburbs and country houses and faraway home states. Moss had always suspected that his new East Village neighbors hadn’t come to New York to “be a part of it,” as the song says. The pandemic proved it. East Villagers, long seen as the hardest of hard-core Manhattanites, showed themselves to be the opposite. Cell phone data later suggested that the East Village experienced among the largest exoduses of any New York neighborhood, perhaps losing the majority of its population.

To Moss, the pandemic constituted “a profound accidental experiment. What happens to New York when its least tenaciously attached residents are suddenly gone?” In this accidental experiment, the remaining New Yorkers, to Moss’s mind, were not lab rats but rather lab cats in a city gone feral. “The word feral,” Moss notes, “does not mean wild, but rewild.” A feral cat is not a wild cat but a domesticated one who discovers her long-suppressed instincts when she finds herself back in the wild. By the same token, true urbanites, left to their own devices under pandemic conditions, revert to form.

Cities do, too. With the office workers and tourist gone, the cops no longer felt duty-bound to police the place for them.Without the ubiquitous taxpayer gaze, there’s no longer any reason to shoo away homeless people in well-to-do neighborhoods or crack down on sidewalk vendors. The thieves’ markets come back from the dead. By December, vendors have set up a massive outdoor flea market directly across the street from Macy’s—a true miracle on 34th Street. At the height of what would ordinarily be the Christmas shopping (and Wall Street bonus) season, the annual festival of overconsumption is upended as street vendors sell things that people actually need, like hand sanitizer and surgical masks.

Urban spaces also revert to earlier iterations of themselves. Locals take back the city’s great streets and squares, long ago sold to the highest bidders and made safe for tourists from Middle America. One day, Moss and his co-conspirators take back Fifth Avenue from the chain stores, twerking to “Wet Ass Pussy” on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Then, at midnight on New Year’s Eve, they dance their way along the elevated roadway that encircles Grand Central Terminal, seizing one of New York’s most compelling urban spaces from its vehicular overlords. Even Times Square—an exurban shopping center built vertically, as if flipped on its side, during the reign of “America’s Mayor”—becomes interesting again.

Safe sex—which, during the pandemic, meant outdoor sex—blossoms all over town. In a Central Park that had gone to seed when the tax-write-off-funded foundation that kept the grass mowed and the bushes trimmed furloughed its landscapers, the cruising grounds—usually limited to a tangle of hiking paths—spread out over the entire 840-acre park. The West Side piers, long a queer space, which in recent decades had been turned into a family-friendly entertainment zone complete with bowling alley, skating rink, and golf driving range, once again becomes a spot for “outlaw gay sex.” The natives were revolting and, to Moss, it’s all beautiful. Manhattan had ceased to be a settler colony of “the productive and the reproductive.”

Feral City is at its best when it’s chronicling the interplay between changes in urban space and the souls of the urbanites who inhabit it. At the height of the pandemic, with chain stores boarded up against looters (real and imagined), the city’s consumerist treadmill gets stopped cold. “[There were] no stores, no shoppers, no restaurant reviews or fashion trends to incite consumption and competition,” Moss writes, linking the outer life of the city with New Yorkers’ inner lives.

His most provocative insights into the pandemic-induced urban transformation are psychological. In the graffito “All This Change Is Making Me Wet,” Moss sees a jailbreak of the “liberated, feminine-chaotic city” against the patriarchal “Law of the Father.” Alongside the Black Lives Matter revolt against the NYPD, Moss finds another less literal, but in some ways even more profound revolt against the policing of the city.

Before they left, the New People—or “hyper-normals,” as Moss sometimes calls them—socially policed the city far more effectively than the cops ever could, if only because there were so many more of them. “[With] their quiet weapons of social control, expressions of contempt, and disregard…[their] regulatory gaze,” Moss observes, the New People silently chastened nonconformists. He recalls the quizzical, disdainful looks he drew from them while he was transitioning. Now, in their absence, everyone is free to be you and me. New Yorkers walk the streets singing to themselves without a trace of self-consciousness. In the summer months, many go about town with no clothes on at all. The city has been retaken by “We the Leftovers, the non-normatives, the queer in every sense of the word,” Moss writes. He eagerly comes out all over again, attaching a trans flag sticker to his bike helmet and wearing a trans flag pin so everyone knows exactly who he is.

When it’s chronicling the hard-news events of the pandemic, Feral City turns less compelling. Recounting the protests in Washington Square Park, at City Hall, and in front of the Stonewall Inn, Moss adds something beyond the bare-bones newspaper and local TV coverage by profiling several notable characters, including Sissy Pussy Cunt, Crackhead Barney, and Jesus of Washington Square. Readers learn about how Sissy Pussy Cunt “conjur[es] the chaotic femme” with her St. Marks Place “Sissy Dance,” and how Crackhead Barney, a woman of color who appears in a hospital gown and Donald Trump mask, manages to épater le bourgeois with her unsolicited flashes of underwear. These portraits are evocative, but they lack the visceral thrill of Moss cycling down an abandoned Fifth Avenue screaming “Fuck you Victoria’s Secret! Fuck you Coach! Fuck you Lululemon!” or just sitting in his rent-stabilized apartment singing to himself the Morrissey song about “the coastal town that they forgot to close down…come Armageddon.” With all due respect to Sissy Pussy Cunt, Jeremiah Moss is Moss’s best character.

For Moss, the pandemic’s alternative urban reality was always fragile, and as the most acute phase of the crisis ebbs with the rollout of vaccines, the “profound accidental experiment” that brought so much death but also so much life to New York City comes to an end. A “Business District Recovery Initiative” gets deployed, sending 100 cops to clean house from Wall Street to Midtown. The Manhattan parks commissioner vows to (direct quote!) “flood the zone with good people—normal people.” The powers that be start attempting to turn the city off each night, closing down Washington Square Park with a midnight curfew.

As Moss sagely observes, the worst impacts are psychological. With the return of the New People comes a return of their social control, their ubiquitous plainclothes-policing of the soul. All of a sudden, Moss wants to shop and exercise instead of protest and dance. “The stickers on my bike start to look childish,” he recounts. “I become self-conscious of my Black Lives Matter buttons. My trans flag pin feels unsafe.”

“Back to our boring dystopia,” he laments.

But maybe not entirely. As Moss has recorded in this book, there were many moments during the pandemic when it became undeniable that another city, another country, another world is possible. The “feral city” he remained in, participated in, and bore witness to made that evident. Now Feral City stands as the proof—until next time.

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