In 1755 on All Saints Day (November 1st)…
…an 8.4 magnitude earthquake struck the Atlantic Ocean right off the coast of Lisbon, Portugal.
What followed next arguably probably felt like a bad apocalyptic dream — city-wide fires, extreme fissures (or chasms) at the city center 16-feet wide and several series of tsunami waves that swept away most of the people who had fled to the water’s edge. It’s estimated anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people died, making it one of the deadliest earthquakes in history. Furthermore, nearly 85% of the buildings were destroyed — including several famous palaces, libraries and other notable examples of 16th century Portuguese architecture. What buildings survived the quake were subsequently destroyed by the fires that ensued.
To put it lightly, over the course of 3 to 6 minutes, the city was in ruins.
Lisbon’s Prime Minister, Sebastião de Melo, survived the earthquake and was instantly faced with questions on how and if to proceed in reconstructing the city. His response?
“Bury the dead and heal the living.”
Debris was completely cleared a year later and construction of a new, seismically stable Lisbon was underway — an undertaking that would last 22 years before completion. When a plan was proposed to abandon the city in favor of starting over with a cheaper, cleaner blank slate elsewhere, de Melo and his king, Joseph I of Portugal, declined. They decided to rebuild on site.
I don’t know about you, but I would certainly pay good money to have heard the debate between de Melo and King Joseph I when they were deciding how to proceed. Surely, reconstructing a city where ruins now lie feels like an impossible task. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’d be tempted by the easier route at that point. After all — the city had been rocked by a violent earthquake, fire and then water. Hell on earth. So what does it say about the people who decide to stay? What does it say about the city they rebuild? The city that they refuse to leave behind?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since the murmurings of a lockdown started in New York. Back in March, when the stay at home order was initially announced, it felt fleeting. Temporary. Surely, they’ll get a hold of this situation and life will resume. In the meantime, let’s play Scrabble and watch Tiger King.
But in the days, weeks and months that followed, tuning in for Gov. Cuomo’s updates morning after morning, I reconsidered. The death toll was frighteningly high. A vaccine no where in sight. Nasty politics ran amuck. And the economy on full and utter pause, the unemployment rate going through the roof to new unprecedented levels. Outside, New York was eerily quiet and boarded up, except for our 7pm city-wide clap, where I still couldn’t shake the feeling most of our West Village neighbors had already left, in search of vacation houses in the Hamptons and upstate rentals. Their windows and fire escapes sat empty and quiet and I desperately tried to make extra noise for them with my pots and pans each night.
“Maybe they’re coming back soon” I thought to myself, as I hit a non-stick pan even harder with our trusty wooden spoon.
Somewhere in the blur of the months that followed, panic-ridden days blended together and we got on with life as best we could. After all, what other option did we have? I have zero trust fund to speak of, no family house out east and a lease I couldn’t afford to break. So despite the mass exodus in those initial weeks, I heeded CDC guidelines and stayed put for the long haul. Headlines got scarier. Politics got dirtier (or perhaps more asinine is a better way of putting it). The flames of racial injustice grew taller. And still, through it all, I don’t suppose the thought ever crossed my mind that New York wouldn’t come back after all this. Sure, she may be a bit beat up and rough around the edges, but who wouldn’t be after a global pandemic? Certainly, she’s seen tough times before and while yours truly was merely a sophomore in high school on the other side of the country on September 11th, just witnessing the city ban together in the days, weeks and months that followed was nothing short of awe-inspiring. In fact, it further cemented my dream of eventually living there. New York had to come back after this. This was not her swan song.
Naturally, you can imagine my surprise when a certain comedian’s doomsday-ridden op-ed piece proposed the unthinkable, the un-utterable: “New York City is Dead Forever.”
Wait, I’m sorry, excuse me? We’re not even a few months out post reopening phases and you’re already declaring there isn’t a detectable pulse to this body? You’re already trying to cash in on the life insurance policy? You’re already chatting with the lawyers to argue about the will? When did the toughest and greatest city in the world — the one that lead Frank Sinatra to believe if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere — become full of, well, for lack of a better, more intellectual term, whiny quitters?
Don’t get me wrong. Altucher has some valid points. So I won’t bother trying to refute the following: All the culture and energy of the city we love is undeniably dampened. Theaters won’t be opening anytime soon. Stores are struggling to stay afloat. Beloved restaurant institutions are folding. Jobs are scarce. And real estate is suffering — with businesses, companies and residents fleeing in favor of cheaper cities like Nashville, Austin and Denver, undoubtedly in search of New York City 2.0. At this point, I’m sure you’ve all read Seinfeld’s poignant rebuttal in defense of New York, so I’ll spare you the play by play, even if it veers into a match of “millionaires throwing rocks at each other from their glass mansions” but I digress.
I’ll pause here to state one thing — lots of people have left New York and I’m not writing this to point fingers to say anyone’s reasoning for doing so is invalid. There’s a long list of reasons why anyone would chose to leave — Joan Didion penned the first essay of a complete genre about this after all. Each reason is more personal and specific than the last, and you won’t hear a peep of judgement from me about your decision. What I do have issue with though, is someone who leaves New York, with the gall to say on their way out the door, “This place is DONE. DEAD. Call the coroner!”
And here’s why I have issue with it. This presumption of death you so conveniently talk about while packing up your bags for Miami as the rest of us push up our sleeves to rebuild the city you pronounced dead — feels premature and counterproductive at best, egotistical at worst. Because as much as you claim reason after reason why New York City will be changed for the worse after this, I can’t ignore a certain smell. It reeks of someone who predicates their presence, their participation in the city at the crux of it’s survival. As if the party simply couldn’t resume without you. If you have to leave, well then damn it, you might as well ruin it for everyone else.
I have news for you. New York most certainly will continue. With you. Or without you. Just like she always has. Just like she always will. Perhaps that’s what stings most about New York sometimes. Her aloof independence. Her ability to be anything and everything to you and in the blink of an eye, she can be too much. Too painful. Too hard. Too expensive. Too difficult to raise a family in. Too far from the rest of your family. Too competitive. Too small. Too this. Too that. So perhaps you leave and you tell yourself, it’s not you. It’s her. She’s difficult. She’s always been hard. But as much as you want to blame her, you know you’re only kidding yourself — because in someone else’s eyes, she’s perfect. Just like she used to be, in your eyes, not too long ago. So you curse her and the day you left, knowing that, deep down, she moves on, with or without you. It’s both comforting and all together gut wrenching.
But do you call her up in the middle of the night to tell her she’s dead to you? No. That would be borderline psychotic and would only prove you have dependency issues.
It’s unavoidable — New York will be different after all this, but I like to think for the better. Perhaps more affordable? Perhaps more equitable? Perhaps less of a playground for the rich and more of a haven for artists, as it once was years ago? Whatever the outcome, it’ll most certainly take time to build her back into some semblance of her old self and I have to believe it will be worth it. Again, I think back to the conversation the Prime Minister of Portugal, de Melo and King Joseph I must have had when they had to decide whether or not to rebuild Lisbon. I imagine both men realized, in some innate way, that you can’t destroy the essence of a city — especially a cherished one. Much loved cities, no matter what’s thrown at them, earthquake, fire, storm or virus — can never die. They will always have dreamers standing by, ready to pick up her broken parts and bruised pieces, to put her back together again. Better and stronger.
Does that mean it happens overnight? Most certainly not. And even if and when I, likely by some unavoidable financial reasons, have to leave this city before she’s back on her feet, you can be damn sure I’ll be mending her until the very end. For everything she’s given me, it seems the least I can do to support her when she needs us most.
So with that I say, long live New York City.