Craig Taylor’s latest book is New Yorkers: A City and Its People in Our Time. He lives on Protection Island, in B.C.
A short list of what New Yorkers have been up against in this new century must include the attacks of 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, the financial crisis of 2008, and now the pandemic – major convulsions followed by loud counternarratives of rebirth. The soaring slogans letting the world know New York is back are helpful, but the real stories of resilience are told down on street level by the individuals who constitute NYC, who run it, and who make and remake it every day. How do they keep going?
I felt I was in a good position to hear some of the answers. In 2012 I published a book called Londoners, the story of London told in the words of its people – nearly 80 narrators, all jostling for space. In 2014 I landed in New York with a similar assignment, and in the years that followed I interviewed hundreds of New Yorkers.
The obvious figures of resilience stand out. I spoke to a 9/11 first responder who’d been at Ground Zero in the days after the attacks, when poisonous air swirled and crept into his lungs. He knew at the time, he told me, that if this experience didn’t kill him then, it would kill him later. Closing in on the 20-year mark he is suffering from a debilitating syndrome reminiscent of ALS. Each time I visited him, his left arm had grown weaker; I’d help him get his hand through his sleeve. He’s requested an e-version of my book because flipping pages is no longer an option. “Myself and my buddies,” he told me, “we refuse to let it ruin us. You cannot let it ruin you. It happened.”
After the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man killed in a prohibited police chokehold, I got to walk with marchers through the city, whose resilience in the face of police brutality took the form of human noise that filled the canyons of New York, as thousands used its architecture as the world’s greatest natural amplifier.
I spoke to those who’d been kneecapped by the financial crisis of 2008 and left New York, and those who’d held on, as if their ability to stay was testament to their love of the city.
I walked around a lot, but I often got rides in a battered minivan from a personal injury lawyer from Woodside, Queens, who would take me to different neighbourhoods and then, in an offhand way after listing some factoids, mention his own role in the recent New York crises. The Rockaways, he said, was where he was when Sandy struck, when the houses burst into flames, embers floated past like snow, and he had to tie a sweatshirt to the wrist of his daughter so they wouldn’t get separated after plunging into the floodwaters. He shrugged. You know how it is.
It was on this tour he told me about a phrase he’d used throughout his parenting years: “We solve problems.” His daughter described the consequences of her New York childhood, which meant learning how to solve all sorts of problems. When she went away to college she was surprised by kids from the Midwest who seemed to be wrapped in cotton wool. “I don’t,” she told me, “get knocked down very easily.”
In early 2020, that same lawyer from Queens caught COVID-19 and in the summer recounted to me his ordeal. His story placed him in the centre of the city’s latest crisis, and connected him to others I spoke with, including health care workers pressed into service in the wards. His phrase echoed through their experiences: We now solve these problems, too. We now hold iPads to the ears of dying patients, and we do it, as one nurse told me, with New York toughness.
I saw “We solve problems” as a quieter, persistent companion to the brashness of I HEART NY – as an equal-access slogan shared between so many of the New Yorkers I’d met, including the bodega employee who unfolded the dollar bills customers tossed at him because they were afraid accidentally touching his hand would give them COVID-19. He kept working.
In the way its citizens solved problems, I recognized a compassion that seemed unique to the city – never sickly sweet, always practical. In New York, you don’t need to seek out a chance. In a place this big, they will arise to meet you. A subway conductor told me of one ordinary morning, nowhere as dramatic as others, when he held the hand of a woman who’d collapsed on the platform; he stayed with her for the last moments of her life. Was this compassion similar to what you see in other cities? Maybe. “We just do it better, baby,” said another of my interviewees.
I don’t worry about New York postpandemic. The city will be different, true. It has to be, and one hopes this crisis will serve as a chance to redress inequality. Betting against the polyphonic resilience of a city such as New York is a losing proposition. Its residents are well-practised in the art of crisis, but in a way befitting of the place, mixing equal parts compassion and impatience.
That same conductor also told me about the times passengers had suffered heart attacks in his carriage. “The people that are there in the car are helpful,” he said. “New Yorkers in times of crisis do come together. But you get people on the train behind you going ‘Ah, why can’t they just get the body off the train…' ”
New Yorkers: They solve problems. Then they get on with it.
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