Nearly sixty years ago, the activist and urban theorist Jane Jacobs looked out her window and changed the way we think about cities. She described the street life of her West Village neighborhood as an intricate “sidewalk ballet,” with residents, businesses, visitors, and strangers locked in a constant dance around each other. When neighborhoods thrive, she argued, we are the company and the audience—we watch and we are watched. And as New Yorkers, we revel in density, and share our spaces and our experiences.
The very density that electrifies New York is deadly in a pandemic. The streets have mostly been empty for a month, and the city feels drained of its energy. The essential workers, the grocery shoppers, the New Yorkers getting a breath of fresh air and smiling through their masks, are like afterimages of a familiar city. We’re improvising new steps, but the dance continues.