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New York City’s Empty Streets

After the completion of the Oculus, the striking transit hub at Ground Zero, the architect Santiago Calatrava, who designed it, said that he envisioned the building as a gift to New Yorkers and a memorial to the city’s resilience. “This is what I was trying to do with Ground Zero, to have a building to celebrate the day-by-day with three hundred thousand or even more users. And hoping that, when they use it, they think, ‘New York is the best place,’ ” he said. Now, like most of New York City’s other public places, the bright white atrium of the Oculus is all but empty, as residents who can are staying home to staunch the spread of COVID-19. The video above offers a virtual tour of some of New York’s most iconic places, now eerily quiet.

In Times Square, a saxophone player plays a mournful song. His only audience is a few purposeful walkers and cyclists; the only other sounds are a public-health recording from the N.Y.P.D. and the wail of sirens. It’s unsettling to see the basketball court by the West Fourth Street subway station and the cavernous Main Concourse inside Grand Central Terminal without their normal activity and interaction. But, as David Remnick wrote in this week’s magazine, that absence has an important purpose:

The spectacle of New York without New Yorkers is the result of a
communal pact. We have absented ourselves from the schools and the
playgrounds, the ballparks and the bars, the places where we work,
because we know that life now depends on our withdrawal from life. The
vacancy of our public spaces, though antithetical to the purpose of a
great city, which is defined by the constancy and the poetry of its
encounters, is needed for its preservation.

Throughout the city, essential workers are still going about their work. Delivery people whiz down the streets on bikes, with backpacks full of supplies or meals. Postal carriers and shipping-company workers in masks sort through piles of boxes. Grocery-store workers keep the shelves stocked for the shoppers who queue up outside in a line that stretches down a city block, with each person standing a careful six feet from the next.

Some businesses have posted messages in their windows. “YES WE ARE OPEN,” announces a hand-markered section of cardboard. “See you very soon,” says another. One shuttered business offers more, a reminder, written in bright paint on a front window, for anyone who might pass by: “Take care of each other.”


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