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opinion

Gus Carlson is a New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail

The spandex-clad power walker crossing Lexington Avenue is channelling her inner Ratso Rizzo, scolding the cabbie who has nudged his taxi too far into the crosswalk. “I’m walkin’ here,” she shouts, waving her arms, menacingly, as Dustin Hoffman once did in Midnight Cowboy. Then she smiles and gives him the thumbs up, adding to no one in particular, “Boy, it’s good to be out again.”

Farther uptown, children’s laughter and calliope music waft over the rolling green spaces of Central Park, where the carousel, one of the oldest in the country, reopened last weekend after 18 months sitting idle.

And on Broadway, the masked Sunday-matinee crowd gives the cast of Hamilton another standing ovation, then roars by the stage door after the show, where the players make an appearance to thank patrons for their loyalty after a year and a half of darkness on the Great White Way.

Commuter helicopters full of movers and shakers are buzzing like bees again up and down the Hudson and East rivers. The iconic Waldorf Astoria, shrouded in scaffolding, is getting a noisy facelift. Times Square is a sea of sightseers. And there is a new Staten Island ferry, whose distinctive horn will be the first to join the fleet’s chorus in 16 years.

All around the city famous for its clatter, the sounds of recovery are getting louder after a tumultuous period of pandemic lockdowns, violent demonstrations, rising crime rates and business closings. Near normal. Next normal. New normal. Whatever it’s called, the city where the Bronx is up and the Bowery’s down is getting there.

Business travellers who may not have been to New York since before the pandemic will find many things that are almost like old times. Walking up Madison Avenue in midtown at morning rush hour, they will hear a familiar din: car horns blaring, sirens piercing the eardrums, moms clucking at their kids on the sidewalks to hurry up or be late for school.

A few blocks over, in Central Park, there is a distinct air of normalcy. Throngs of joggers, walkers, bicyclists and in-line skaters chug along, chatting and laughing as they go. Moms and dads and nannies push baby carriers and walk dogs. Kids toss baseballs, footballs or Frisbees, or kick soccer balls. Some park-goers are content to sit in a shady grove, listening to an impromptu concert by a small group of musicians.

Gone are most of the masks outdoors. Gone are the temporary fences around many open spaces, erected to discourage large gatherings during the pandemic. And gone is the eerie feeling of isolation many felt when going to the park at the height of the lockdowns.

In Tribeca and Chelsea and Brooklyn Heights, young professionals rushing for the subway, a cab or an Uber scamper out of the way of shop owners hosing down the sidewalks, eager to avoid getting the work clothes they probably haven’t worn in a long time soaked.

The city’s subways and buses, and commuter trains from Connecticut, New Jersey and the northern New York suburbs, are full again, as companies call employees back to offices in the city after an extended period of remote work. Small businesses, cafés and restaurants that service the office towers are also coming back.

Sports venues have been crowded and noisy, even for perennially hapless local heroes such as the Mets, Giants and Jets. But there is some optimism for the Rangers and even the Knicks this year.

Crime rates, too, are abating. As recently as May, violent crimes in the city were up as much as 30 per cent from mid-pandemic levels. Many parts of the city considered safe by New York standards had become sketchy during the lockdowns. By the end of summer, they were approaching prepandemic tranquility.

But not all the sounds of the city are positive. In lines waiting to get into restaurants, theatres, cinemas and health clubs, some people complain loudly about having to show proof of vaccination.

On a Metro North commuter train from Westchester County into the city one recent weekday morning, a shouting match erupted between two riders about mask protocol, and quickly got political.

A young woman scolded an older man who had dropped his mask to his chin to take a bite of his bagel and a sip of his coffee.

The man shot back profanely, calling the woman a liberal and telling her to mind her business.

The pandemic has left holes in New York’s landscape. There are vacant stores on many streets, and the city continues to struggle with rising homelessness, which has reached crisis proportions during COVID-19.

There are plastic-sheathed outdoor eating areas at many restaurants, vestiges of the pandemic restrictions on indoor dining. And some of the city’s iconic restaurants are gone – such as the 21 Club, the legendary speakeasy on East 52nd Street.

Despite the losses, New York seems undaunted as it hustles and bustles noisily toward whatever its new normal will be.

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