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Peter Bart: The City That Never Sleeps Remains In Slumber Despite Reopening

·3-min read

The lobbies are too quiet and the streets too empty. The maître d’s are too polite and a taxi driver even opened a door for me. Revisiting New York after an 18-month absence is a disquieting adventure.

When I informed Los Angeles friends of my trip they looked at me as though I was heading for Pompeii – that was even more unsettling. My mission was not archeological: Gotham, as we used to call it, is buoyant. It’s coming alive. Not really.

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Sal, my bartender at newly reopened Smith & Wollensky, poured me a martini before I even asked. “Everyone is drinking at lunch again,” he advises. “It’s for survival.” Drinks can be served without food now, but elbows at the bar must still be 6 feet apart.

Gotham will officially be “open” on May 19, and Broadway shows started selling tickets this week for their September bows. But social distancing rules still prevail, masks are ubiquitous, restaurants collect contact information, and most people I talk to believe protocols are being relaxed too hastily.

I feel lucky to have spent my “lost year” in Santa Monica and Palm Springs. My old friend, writer Gay Talese, hunkered down in Manhattan and was glad he did, but he was “surprised at the speed with which my New York friends fled the town, without even pausing to say goodbye. I wonder if I will ever again feel as comfortable with them as I did before their flight from home.”

It was home for me, too, for much of my life. I grew up as a Manhattan brat. Even as a teenager I went to the theater and hung at jazz clubs. Sure, I walked Fifth Avenue at Christmas with the tourists but still snarled on cue at the “bridge and tunnel people.”

I feel great walking the streets again, except Broadway is a ghost town and studies show only 16% of office workers have returned. Hotel occupancy at 54% is gaining more slowly than Las Vegas or New Orleans. Many of my favorite hangouts are still shut, like Twenty-One, and Maloney & Porcelli is closed for good. But when I searched for Cuban food at Victor’s, they were reassuringly rude as in old times. The reservations clerk at the toney not-yet-opened Pavilion snorted contemptuously at my table request. I felt at home.

But baffled. The New Yorkers I grew up with were by nature defiant, yet now display symptoms of submission. Most people on the streets, for example, still wear masks, despite relaxed CDC rules. Is it habit? And still wielding antibacterial wipes. “Many cannot let go of the fear and insularity of the pandemic,” declared the New York Times. Giddy forecasts of a reprise of the Roaring Twenties with its nonstop nightlife aren’t proving valid.

With exceptions. The glitziest of restaurants are doing turn-away business (within boundaries of 50% capacity). In SoHo the Balthazar crowd seems euphoric. The Blue Willow midtown Chinese hot spot is turning people away.

Broadway producers are hungering for that $1.8 billion in annual ticket revenue, with 15 shows slated for September openings and another 15 for later in the fall, but tooling up is demanding — except for those money machines like Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, Hamilton, etc. Potential ticket buyers who put on weight during the pandemic stay-at-home days may groan at having to squeeze into Broadway theater seats constructed for 1920s bodies.

Meanwhile, all over Manhattan landlords are lowering rents and converting offices. Only 48% of retail space in the Empire State Building is occupied, and many of the Madison Avenue boutiques are boarded up.

Will New York ever again be what it was? The legendary Dorothy Parker once observed that “city life is always better than I thought it would be.” Many residents hope that may still be true.

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