The best and worst of times: New York regenerates even as it frays

Seth Pinsky was in a café on Manhattan’s Upper East Side telling me about events at the 92nd Street Y, the venerable cultural institution he leads, when something on Lexington Avenue caught his eye. “There’s a fight!” he cried.

I followed his gaze out of the window and into the street where a stick-wielding young worker from the nearby CVS store was chasing a man carrying a plastic bag bulging with bottles of shampoo and mouthwash. By the time the police eventually arrived, the thief was gone.

“This is not how it should work,” Pinsky despaired. The Harvard Law graduate and all-around whizz led economic development for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, helping to lay the groundwork for the city’s recovery after 9/11, the last time it faced an existential crisis.

That scene, for me, captured the confusing reality of New York City these days: a metropolis that is both fraying and rejuvenating itself simultaneously. Which way the balance will tip over the next few years is unclear. The only certainty is that the city will not return to what it was before the pandemic struck in March 2020.

The fraying, of course, is evident and well-documented. The mass shooting on the subway last month was the terrifying culmination of a degraded system that had become a haven for the homeless and those with untreated mental illness. Crime is way up — even as a new tough-on-crime mayor, Eric Adams, has insisted the city will not go back to the bad old days of the 1980s.

Flashy new office towers are soaring despite the fact that flexible work seems here to stay, and some analysts foresee doom for the commercial property industry that accounts for much of the city’s tax revenue.

Less well appreciated, though, is how elements of the city are still thriving and evolving despite the portents of decay. That same night, I went to the opening of the New York Public Library’s gloriously redesigned Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library on Fifth Avenue. Its playful “wizard’s hat” rooftop looks across the street at the lions guarding the main branch.

“It’s just like magic come to life!” Tony Marx, the library’s chief executive, purred to the audience. The architects Francine Houben and Elizabeth Leber showed images of the library’s dreary past, when it resembled a bus station.

A few days later, Michael Phillips, the chief executive of Jamestown, the property developer, took me to the roof of One Times Square and explained his plans to invest $500mn to give the tower a virtual reality dimension. The notion that the city’s best days might be past was absurd to Phillips. “I never get on a plane to come here without butterflies in my stomach,” he said.

In some cases, it is the pandemic itself that is prompting reinvention. Consider the 92nd Street Y. The community centre was founded by the city’s German-Jewish burghers 148 years ago, in part to help Americanise their newly arriving Russian brethren. It became a fixture in the city’s cultural life, hosting everyone from Dylan Thomas to Philip Roth and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — always in person. That changed with the pandemic.

“We closed our doors on a Friday, and on a Monday, everything we did we put online,” recalled Pinsky, 50, who was appointed chief executive in 2019. There were plenty of bumps. Yet the 92nd Street Y’s programmes have since drawn 6mn online views. By comparison, it welcomes about 300,000 yearly in-person visitors from all over the world.

So after it reopened its doors in July, the institution decided to make its online programmes permanent. It will offer lectures and classes from Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, Michelin-starred chefs and the like on a digital platform. In the hope of introducing itself to unfamiliar foreign audiences, it is rebranding itself as “92NY” with the slogan: “Where New York Meets the World.” It has not given up on the old neighbourhood, either, embarking on a $200mn renovation of its headquarters. “One of the things we’re trying to do is reposition ourselves not just as a New York institution but as a global institution,” Pinsky explained.

That’s New York, I thought: still ambitious, still exciting and still troubled.

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