I was born and raised in New York City. After I moved away in the middle of the pandemic, I was surprised by how much I didn’t miss it — even the things that I felt I obviously might miss. I didn’t miss the Manhattan skyline or my 24-hour fruit market. I didn’t even miss my friends, probably because I moved when the pandemic was still raging, so it’s not as if I had seen any of them recently. I barely missed the easy access to good bagels and good pizza.
It was only several months after I had settled in my new home, across the country in Nevada, that I finally found myself longing for New York. But really, mostly, for one specific part of town. It wasn’t the East Village, where I had grown up, or Greenpoint, where I had made my home as an adult. I yearned, among all things, for Midtown — and most specifically Times Square.
Many native New Yorkers — and most self-regarding transplants — do not have very nice things to say about Times Square. In recent years, a chic, communal pride has developed in denouncing it together. After all, it’s infamously full of fluorescent chain stores and restaurants, it can be unbearably crowded, and the costumed characters who hang around can sometimes tightly straddle the line between entertaining and badgering.
But I will always love it because it’s one of the few parts of Manhattan that is completely honest about what it is — a depraved tourist trap, surrounded by some of the most soulless neighborhoods and business districts American capitalism has crafted. It is ultra-commercialized, offering the most dense, tall, bright, exciting version of what you find at any suburban shopping mall. And it isn’t sorry about it for a second.
The East Village, where I grew up, is now an overpriced playground for trust funders and N.Y.U. brats, but it masquerades as something hip. SoHo still pretends to be a haven for artists and creatives, but it is more of a shopping mall than Times Square.
In New York, authenticity — or the perception of it — is a valued social currency. And yet so many of us, and our neighborhoods, struggle with it.
I want to know who I am, like Times Square knows itself; like the cranky, bourgeois apartment moms of Midtown East know themselves; like the jersey-wearing, nacho-eating fans at Madison Square Garden know themselves. In Murray Hill, a finance bro can be just a finance bro, with no pretense of trying to play it cool somewhere in North Brooklyn necessary.
I wasn’t always a Midtown evangelist. When I was a snotty hipster teen, in the late aughts and early 2010s, I would play a game with myself: how long could I make it without going above 14th Street? I thought Midtown and Uptown were deathly uncool, while Downtown and Brooklyn were where worthwhile creative types and intellectuals thrived. But as I became an adult, I began to find the charm in parts of New York that I had once written off, especially Midtown. I had grown out of caring so earnestly about what was cool, and had grown into appreciating what Manhattan actually is, right now, in my lifetime — not what it was in some hazy, lauded past that I can’t remember or wasn’t alive for. I no longer abhor the city’s commercialism or how its edges have been sanded off throughout town; I’ve taught myself to enjoy it on its own terms.
After my boyfriend’s office moved to Times Square, I would sometimes meet him there after work, as a special treat. We would admire David Spade’s tiny handprints outside Planet Hollywood, and then swing by my very favorite store, M&M World, where I’d rarely buy anything, but would marvel at the amount of merch the candy company was able to conjure up out of pieces of chocolate covered in a thin shell of sugar and corn syrup.
The flagship stores and headquarters of multinational retail giants sandwiched in between Broadway theaters, the enormous, multilevel Times Square McDonald’s (that sadly is no more after shutting down during the pandemic), the countless hole-in-the-wall Irish pubs that are all somehow both unique and exactly alike: these weren’t blights on my city, but a grotesquely beautiful reflection of what it is.
Oddly, my affection for Midtown only grew after its hustle and bustle disappeared during the devastation of the pandemic. All of New York, but especially its business districts, felt uncanny in those first few months of the pandemic, when everything went totally quiet except for the sounds of ambulance sirens and people clapping for essential workers at 7 p.m.
In May 2020, when reopening felt infinitely far away, I biked early in the morning from my Greenpoint apartment to Midtown. I walked down the eerily abandoned streets of Times Square. It was as if sci-fi and fantasy movies like “I Am Legend” or “Vanilla Sky” had come to life — glaring billboards still madly hocking products to hordes of nonexistent passers-by.
I took the elevator up to my boyfriend’s office and peered down at the dreamlike stillness. I felt awe, as if I was looking down from some tall mountain I had just finished climbing. When you live in New York for your whole life, you become inured to just how special and beautiful the bones of this island metropolis really are. It took everything coming to a halt for me to remember.
Nine months into my new life of strip malls, supermarket bagels and weekend trips to Lake Tahoe, I was fully vaccinated and on my way back to New York to see my family. But my first order of business, after meeting my baby niece, was returning to Midtown. I popped up from the train, emerged into Times Square and saw eager tourists taking selfies with a knockoff Cookie Monster and Iron Man. My heart bubbled with warmth. The Naked Cowboy was strumming away. M&M World had reopened its doors.
During the worst of the pandemic, I often wondered if New York could survive and be how it was before. But on a weekday afternoon I visited Bryant Park — the public commons next to the New York Public Library that gives the neighborhood a softer, greener touch. It was full of young people and retirees in equal numbers, all chilling out, just like the old days. As awe-inspiring as the emptiness of last year was, it’s all the people (yes, those we exasperatedly call crowds when commuting) who make me feel at home.
Maybe Midtown won’t look or feel exactly the same as it was in the Before Times. Only about 63 percent of office workers are expected to return to in-person work, according a recent survey, and only on some days. But the long lull feels just about over. Just go to Times Square, and see for yourself.
Eve Peyser is a journalist who writes about politics and culture.
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