New Yorkers Share Their Love for the City and Hopes for the Future

Photo by Colin Dodgson for W Magazine, August 2019.

In mid-March, New Yorkers’ lives were upended. The city was one of the places in the U.S. hit the hardest and fastest by the coronavirus pandemic, forcing a population of fiery, boisterous, social citizens into isolation. The once-flooded streets became eerily empty as everything New York residents knew and loved—Restaurants! Bars! Theaters! Concert venues! Museums!—was shut down in a matter of days. Businesses, some longtime New York City institutions, closed as the economy faltered—workers on the front lines punched in 14-plus-hour days and countless people struggled with grief.

Six months later, New York is just starting to rouse from its forced hibernation, as storefronts reopen and folks shake the dust off their social lives. With New York City slowly awakening, we’re feeling the love more than ever. To honor our hometown in a moment of tentative optimism, we reached out to some of our favorite New Yorkers (most of whom did not flee the city during the pandemic) about their beloved neighborhood spots, the silver linings of a strange summer, and how they’re celebrating and supporting their city.

Jason Birchard, Co-Owner of the East Village Restaurant Veselka

How have you seen your neighborhood change since March?

The neighborhood became very quiet during the height of the pandemic, and we actually closed for six weeks for the safety of our staff and guests. My wife and I are victims of COVID, thankfully fully recovered, but it was not easy. The neighborhood since last week has seen an uptick in people and a positive vibe going into the fall.

What silver linings have you found in this strange summer?

The protests earlier this summer definitely opened up eyes to the issues of racism that are ongoing. That was really important. It’s been encouraging, also, that customers are so happy we are open and supportive of us staying that way.

What are you feeling most optimistic about?

New York strong! New Yorkers are fighters; we will not go down without a fight.

Photo by Mario Sorrenti for W Magazine, July 2013.

Patia Borja, Meme Curator and Consultant

Where have you been getting takeout during the pandemic most?

Bed Stuy Fish Fry. You know, you can’t order if you’re hungry, you have to order when you’re not hungry because they do not care how long it will take. I could live off that at this point.

What silver linings have you found in this strange summer?

Well, I’m a hermit, contrary to what people might think. So I found extreme happiness in the fact that I can flake on people with a valid excuse. I’ve only taken the train three times total since March. I take Ubers a lot, but now I can also say the Uber is $60, because the price went up. It’s like a flight! I could literally fly to Miami back and forth.

Are there any elements of city life you’re hoping might change in the long term?

I can’t handle that things close at 11 P.M. But I kind of like it empty. I know it’s messed up. I did move here, and I’m not from New York but it’s been 10 years. I think all the people who this city wasn’t really made for have moved out, so I’m interested in seeing how as a community we rebuild and take back what a lot of people ruined.

What does your ideal night “out” look like right now, given current restrictions?

I’ve been going out with my friends. I just got back from Fire Island, where my friends got a house. I only go out with a tight knit group, and we’ve all gotten tested and stayed safe. We’ll be in someone’s cute little apartment and do the same things we would do at a party or venue. I’ve still been having my Thursday through Sunday weekends, and it’s so spontaneous. We’ll be up at 9 A.M. still going hard. I kind of got lucky with my friend group, the weekend is still the weekend.

Nicolas Heller, aka @newyorknico

How are you supporting your community these days?

I’ve been doing the mom and pop drop on Instagram to raise awareness about small businesses. A lot of these businesses, especially the ones in Manhattan who have insane rents, aren’t getting any forgiveness from their landlords. I can’t hit every business in New York, but my hope is that by profiling one of these businesses at a time, it raises awareness about these mom and pop shops in New York City as a whole. They all need our support, they all need our help. And not all of them will ask for help. So you should just go and see how they’re doing, and support regardless.

What silver linings have you found during this summer?

I’m seeing similarities between the aftermath of 9/11 and what we’re seeing now, which is the community coming together to help one another out and lift each other up. I was young when 9/11 happened, but it was apparent the city was looking out for each other afterward—emotionally, physically, and economically speaking. I feel like, especially with the work that I’ve been doing, trying to help out these struggling small businesses, it’s really amazing to see people just come out, support, and help change lives. Yeah, this is a crazy, crazy time, but we’re seeing the best of people. We’re also seeing the worst of people, but I think the good definitely has been outweighing the bad. Once we can bounce back from something like this, I feel like we can handle anything.

What’s your favorite New York institution?

That’s like asking who my favorite child is, even though I don’t have children. But I love Astor Place Hairstylists. It’s the oldest barbershop in Manhattan, and I think the biggest barbershop in Manhattan too. I’ve been getting my hair cut there since I was 10 and it’s like a time warp back to the 1980s and 1990s, whenever you step foot in there. It’s kind of like the United nations of barbers in there. Before the pandemic, I would just go there to hang out and shoot the shit with people.

At the intersection of First Avenue and East 10th Street in Manhattan’s East Village, Debbie Harry’s eternal haunt.

Debbie Harry wears a Michael Kors Collection trenchcoat; Martine Rose shirt; Lola Hats hat; Ray-Ban sunglasses (throughout); Marc Jacobs tie.

Directed by Noah Baumbach; Photographed by Stephen Shore; Styled by Sara Moonves.

Djali Alessandra Brown-Cepeda, Founder & Curator, Nuevayorkinos, a Digital Archive of the New York City Latinx Experience

How have you seen your neighborhood change since March?

While COVID-19’s effects on my community have been disheartening and infuriating to say the least, to see the way we have come together for one another during these unprecedented times has been one of the most radical acts of resistance. From engaging in mutual aid and providing groceries for families in need, to holding drives and countless fundraisers, we are persevering. It’s also been beautiful to see how many people have come out to stand up against racial injustice and stand alongside us in our fight for racial equity during a health pandemic and economic crisis. That folks from all walks of life have had the veil lifted from their eyes and are putting their lives on the line—and losing them in certain instances—for Black liberation, preservation, and prosperity is one of the starkest examples of genuine allyship and activism that I’ve seen.

Is there a new business that opened during COVID that you love?

In response to the countless lives that have been taken by law enforcement—Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, say their names—my friends Aaron Wigs, Perry Goodman, and Sachiko Earlene Clyde created the Black Lives Matter Sidewalk Sale, a multi-week, multi-vendor summer yard sale in Greenpoint whose proceeds are donated to different Black and Brown organizations throughout the country.

At each sale—which have taken place every other Sunday or so from 1pm-6pm at McGolrick Park—friends and chosen family come together and sell different goods each week, including tons of vintage clothing and goods provided by various homies who work in fashion and styling, floral arrangements by Sachiko, badass solidarity tie dye t-shirts by Lylynn, vegan almond and sunflower butters by Danny’s Nut Butter, BLM mixtapes, 100% juice by Tom’s Juice NYC, haircuts by Dylan Chavles, and a voter registration booth by Skaters Vote. At the last sale, we sold homemade vegan empanadas to fundraise for our Back to School Sale. Since its inception on June 7th, the sale has collectively raised $213,843.92!

What’s your favorite New York Institution?

There is nothing that comes close to being from a Black & Brown community. The sounds of folks yelling “kapicú!” as they play dominoes outside a barbershop (no, they’re not gunshots, Karen). The bass reverberation that shakes your bones when a car drives down the street blasting reggaetón. Seeing familial gatherings in front of bodegas, buildings, and hair salons where mothers and daughters dance salsa and perico ripiao together. The way people will stop and throw their arm up in the air when hearing Pop Smoke. The laughter and smiles on kids faces when they run through la pompa. The cashier at the deli that you always have a random conversation with. Loving but being unfazed by Show Time. Cookouts at the park. Watching my partner play basketball with random dudes, music always blasting from the sidelines.

My people make New York beautiful: the hood makes New York beautiful.

Natasha Stagg, Writer and Author of Sleeveless and Surveys

What are you feeling optimistic about?

It’s hard to be optimistic about anything, really, since there is a virus in the air and the atmosphere in San Francisco is toxic orange, but possibly the cities emptying into the suburbs a little will relieve a pressure valve of sorts. It’s white flight all over again, but it’s happening in so many places, maybe all of America’s inner cities won’t be abandoned. I’ve felt a new energy in New York at least, when I go to parks and restaurants and just walk down the centers of streets that are closed off for dining. Everything feels like it’s being reset, and the rents are finally going down.

I hope that after the fallout of this crisis, we learn that not everyone needs to own something, work somewhere, create content, run in a rat race for a job that doesn’t help anyone. In fact, there are a lot more people than there are jobs and it’s been that way for a while. The stipends we’ve been given should prove that a universal basic income works, or at least that everyone can agree it’s necessary when there is such an imbalance of labor and need.

Photo by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott for W Magazine, August 2017.

Andre Wagner, Photographer

How have you seen your neighborhood change since March?

The neighborhood went from empty to more and more community members being out and about. There was so much unknown, and there still is, but people are connecting and trying to enjoy the days, which I love to see. I also just feel the community looking out for each other a bit more, just in the way folks interact, I sense more care and compassion.

How are you supporting your community these days? Any organizations you’ve been working with or donating to?

I sold a work through the See in Black print sale and am very proud to be part of the initiative. I’m also working with Worthless Studios and we gave out over 200 rolls of film to photographers in 26 countries to respond to protest and the uprising; we are now editing it all into a zine.

Are there any elements of city life you’re hoping might change in the long term?

The subway should always be clean.

Mohammed Ahmed, Owner of Casa Magazines

How have you seen your neighborhood change from March until now?

It is noticeably more quiet, less people in town, less tourists—but it’s coming alive again slowly. Residents who left have started to come back since summer ended. We really enjoy the new outdoor dining set-up especially on our block La Bonbonniere, Corner Bistro, Anfora, The Beatrice Inn and Tavern on Jane. They closed Jane Street and you can enjoy your food under the trees, enjoy the weather when it’s nice plus live music. We see our neighbors more, more time to slow down and talk.

Is there a new business that opened during COVID that you love?

We do love this new initiative that we and a couple of other neighboring businesses (La Bonbonniere and Cubbyhole Bar) collaborated with called MerchAid by the agency R/GA. They started the platform in response to the pandemic to help out small businesses like us. They partner designers, artists, with small businesses and split profits among the businesses because they believed that a #RisingTideLiftsAllBoats. We love that message, it’s very important that we learn to think beyond ourselves and what role you can play in your community. We nominated our neighbor, La Bonbonniere, we have been operating our businesses alongside each other for the past 30+ years.

What silver linings have you found in this strange summer?

We learned to ask for more help. When we got shut down by the NYPD, we reached out to a long time customer/Vanity Fair writer James Reginato helped put us in touch with a local publisher, Westview News who connected us right away to City Hall. They helped us reopen and have peace of mind that we will not get fined. There were a lot of things to navigate. Nicholas Heller @NewYorkNico came to visit us for the first time to pick up a magazine and included us in his mom and pop drop series featuring small businesses and his video of me and my laser pointer feature ended up on TV. He has never been to our store nor met him but we loved what he was doing for this city we love and have been following him on Instagram for a while now. Also: some magazine publishers generously donated their sales to the store (JANE by the Grey Attic, Gather Journal).

Photo by Alasdair McLellan for W Magazine, August 2011.

Hannah La Follette Ryan, the Photographer behind @subwayhands

Is there a new business that opened during COVID that you love?

Thai Diner in Nolita. I think about their mango sticky rice all the time.

Are there any elements of city life you’re hoping might change in the long term?

I hope society will translate its respect and admiration for essential workers into material benefits and advocacy.

What are you feeling most optimistic about?

Peoples’ appetite for art.

Clover Hope, Writer and Author of The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop

Where have you been getting takeout during the pandemic most?

Birds of a Feather in Williamsburg has great scallion pancakes and everything I’ve ordered on the menu has hit the spot.

What are you feeling most optimistic about?

The possibility of traveling with my friends in 2021 and how meaningful and funny that trip will be now that we have a few more shots of perspective.

What’s your favorite New York institution?

Bodegas—and plant shops like Natty Garden and Brooklyn Plantology.

Voxigma Lo, Artist and Drag Performer

Where have you been getting takeout during the pandemic most?

Hands down: The Juiice Box in Bushwick. I mean, generally I eat there a few times a week, it really is a second home to me. But The Juiice Box was the place I sometimes got both lunch and dinner from in one day. A close second would be Nurish in Crown Heights, and then, for sure, Gloria’s Carribean Cuisine. I love Roti! And all of these are Black-owned, which is not a conscious decision. I didn’t know Nurish was Black-owned until BLM was becoming more and more vocal, and then there were resources being circulated so frequently about Black-owned businesses, I happened to see them on the list and thought “Ah, this makes sense!” And if it’s a late night, my corner deli is always handy.

Photo by Bon Duke for W Magazine, May 2016.

Lynn Hirschberg, W Editor at Large

Is there a new business that opened during COVID that you love?

The new business that opened for me was actually not a business at all—it was Central Park. Even though I live two blocks from the park, I had never spent an extensive amount of time there, to the point where I didn’t even know there was an entrance on my street. But in lockdown, Central Park became my favorite thing in the world. My dog Zora is in love with it. We became complete obsessives. My favorite place there is called the Arthur Ross Pinetum.

Are there any elements of city life you’re hoping might change in the long term?

It might be very good if people gave others their space. If the result of this was that people distance themselves in terms of being on the train or being in crowds, I would not be upset about it. I don’t like crowds, I don’t like the feeling of people constantly being physically close to you. I don’t mind the spacing-out thing. I think it’s nice.

Lauren Servideo, Comedian

Is there a new business that opened during COVID that you love?

This is easy: Sofia’s on Mulberry Street. Incredible focaccia bread — the best I’ve ever had (and I’ve eaten a lot of it). They have a $7 country loaf of bread that I can get to last me, like, 4 days/8 sandwiches. Crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside.

How are you supporting your community these days? Any organizations you’ve been working with or donating to?

This summer I found out about G.L.I.T.S. Inc., which provides temporary housing to Black trans people recently released from Rikers Island and have been donating and signal boosting posts. Powrplnt is a net art academy that does free digital Narcan training. Learning how to administer Narcan is an incredible useful skill to have, like knowing CPR. It can save a life! Oh, and I have to shout out Sixth Street Community Center for everything they do and offer to the East Village/Loisaida.

Are there any elements of city life you’re hoping might change in the long term?

I hope rent becomes more affordable for everyone and the landlords sitting on empty properties get vacancy taxes.

Caroline Schiff, Chef of Gage & Tollner, Edith’s BK and Slow Up

Are there any elements of city life you’re hoping might change in the long term?

I’d love to see more of a sense of community emerge on a larger scale and hopefully the city will become more affordable and hospitable to creatives and essential workers. I think the pandemic has made it very clear that we’ve not done a great job of looking out for the people who keep it running and make it wonderful. Real affordable housing would be a great place to start. And a new mayor. I hope NYC becomes more accessible.

What are you feeling most optimistic about?

Political and social change as we emerge from COVID-19. We have to do better and I am an optimist even in dark times.

Related: Noah Baumbach Casts Debbie Harry as the Ultimate Queen of New York