Model Helen Harley Harasti moved to Times Square right before the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City, excited to be yards away from world-class Broadway shows. “It was an amazing deal. It seemed like a dream come true,” says the 25-year-old Oklahoma native, whose West 48th Street pad was also convenient for casting calls and photo shoots. “And then everything shut down.”
Living in close proximity to overtouristed Big Apple sights means traffic, noise, pollution — the hassle of having to dodge guileless out-of-towners just to access your front door.
But in mid-March, when the virus started to peak, the Big Apple’s hot spots turned cold, and the crowds disappeared, leaving bizarrely empty stretches of sidewalk near 42nd Street, the Empire State Building and other bucket-list locations. Now, as New York stirs back to life in Phase 2 of reopening, some neighbors to the city’s must-see landmarks are mourning the small silver linings of lockdown.
There was a lot to like: the quiet, the intimacy, the chance connections that can occur when just two, not dozens, New Yorkers are within earshot of each other.
The early days of the stay-at-home order felt “apocalyptic,” Harasti says. In the desertion, however, she found unlikely solace: A stranger called out kudos as she worked out by climbing scaffolding near her apartment. “There was one other person in the whole place,” she recalls.
“It was cool to connect like that in some moment — because I don’t think I would normally be doing pull-ups in Times Square.”
Across the East River, the treads of tourists typically wear down the cobblestone streets of Dumbo all year round, with shutterbugs flocking to Washington Street for that perfect shot of the Manhattan Bridge framed by former warehouses.
“Before the shutdown, we would spot no less than four photo shoots at any given time of day around the neighborhood,” says Dumbo resident Melissa Rosenfield, a thirtysomething “director of vibe” consultant. “We have a 6-pound dog, and she is terrified of walking on Washington Street just based on the sheer number of people.”
Coronavirus did what grumbling and cursing could never do — it cleared the streets.
It was reminiscent of the neighborhood a decade ago, Rosenfield says, before it became pricey and residential. “I loved the old Dumbo, so it was nice to have that back for a bit,” she adds.
She seized the opportunity to snap a few photos with her 9-month-old, Sidney, at the eerily peaceful scenic intersection. In a way, the emptying out of the streets also gave pockets of the city a small-town vibe.
In Dumbo, the pandemic also facilitated a newfound camaraderie within the community, with residents swapping freshly baked goods, shopping local and collaborating on grocery runs.
“A lot of the parents were sharing things like diapers and bottles and supplies for the newer parents that were giving birth during the pandemic,” says Rosenfield.
In Midtown, food writer Benjamin Setiawan was initially jarred by the wealth of sidewalk real estate surrounding his home near the Empire State Building and Macy’s. “Usually it’s like tourists 24/7, whether people are trying to do the whole ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ thing, take photos or go shopping,” the 39-year-old says. “And now there’s the opposite. There’s hardly any people.”
Nighttime is especially desolate, so Setiawan tries not to stay out too late. Daytime, however, has afforded explorations that might not have been possible without the time and space the virus has afforded.
Despite his culinary background, Setiawan visited Union Square Greenmarket for the first time during the shutdown. “It was one of the few places that I could actually grocery shop outdoors, and gave me a sense of normalcy,” says Setiawan, who shops there at least once a week via walks down a bare main drag. “It was nice just to walk in the middle of Broadway and be able to socially distance from people.”
As the crowds waned, the need for community heightened. And a volunteer for new nonprofit Invisible Hands Deliver, Setiawan brings groceries and prescriptions to homebound neighbors for whom going outside is a risk. “It’s nice to do something beyond the four walls of my apartment,” he says, “and know that we are a city that takes care of each other.”
Drag queen Linda Simpson (above), who lives across from the former Copacabana on West 47th Street, mostly enjoyed her area’s reprieve from tourists.
“It was time for all of us to take a break from our schedules and re-evaluate our lives,” says Simpson, who concedes that the reduced footprint has meant less litter and the chance to discover new restaurants and stores on strangely serene strolls that visitors had previously obscured. “It was sort of a cleansing period.”
At the same time, the adjustment has been gut-wrenching, and she will welcome the return of gaffe-prone out-of-towners.
“As much as I complain about how tacky and annoying Times Square can be,” Simpson says, “I miss seeing people from all over the world come to gawk at the sights.”