Covid revealed cultural fissures in New York — and changed the city

Everyone has their own version of this story: Mine starts in Manhattan at dusk on March 10, 2020. I was leaving a bar with my girlfriend and a friend after a week in which we had all made a lot of jokes about not touching our faces. The streets were muted; the long quiet had already fallen. We already knew. This is the last normal night, we said. Really, it had been the last normal hour — the city had crossed over in the time we were inside, and two out of three of us were already sick.

In the years since, we’ve often talked about that night — the last normal night — in what feels like an ongoing attempt to understand that intense time of transition and terror. Now, as an Omicron-inclusive booster rolls out and Mayor Eric Adams drops vaccine requirements for private employers while resisting mask mandates, our city is decisively moving ahead. It might be easier, in some ways, to do that instead of looking back, instead of asking what, precisely, happened as New York City fell into silence — and to listen for what emerged from the quiet.

Writing about the pandemic from the vantage point of New York City, one of its earliest epicenters in the United States, seems like an especially daunting task. No one book can account for what happened here. But it’s a task that Jeremiah Moss, an adept observer of the city where he’s lived for three decades, takes on in his book “Feral City: On Finding Liberation in Lockdown New York,” an attempt to explain the cultural fissures that the pandemic revealed in New York City and to examine the uprisings through which a justice-oriented movement took over its streets.

“Jeremiah Moss” is a pseudonym. In 2017, Moss revealed himself as Griffin Hansbury, a psychoanalyst and trans man who has lived in the East Village since 1993. An obsessive archivist of family-owned shops, historic structures and neighborhood characters, Moss is also a prolific critic of the ways that money has eroded New York City’s culture, nostalgic for a time when the city was friendlier to experimentation. His 2017 book, “Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul,” documented some of these changes, building on the work he did for years on the Vanishing New York blog.

Read more from Book World

Moss’s nostalgic crankiness is in full, cathartic force in the opening pages of “Feral City,” set in the days before pandemic lockdown, as he rails against the young and obnoxious who have overtaken the city’s public spaces — the “New People,” as Moss calls them, who optimize every setting for vertical screens and stare at the cityscape as though it, too, is on a screen.

Though Moss doesn’t name TikTok, it’s everywhere in the descriptions of these beautiful, absent-minded transplants. Like other urban queer writers before him — none of whom tracked this more thoughtfully than Sarah Schulman — Moss notes the disappearance of social awareness from the streets.

Ignoring everyone, the New People crash like bumper cars around the sidewalk. The presence of these “hyper-normals,” he writes, enforces a system of policing, official or unofficial, on other bodies — queer, trans, of color — in which any deviant or otherwise interesting behavior is discouraged. (Having spent so much time analyzing the New People, Moss could have devoted more space, perhaps, to noting that their presence is no natural phenomenon, but the engineered result of decades of economic and housing policy that criminalized the poor.)

We know what happens next, and we already know how the New People will react; they leave the city in droves, along with almost everyone else who can. In this next, uncertain stage, strange questions would come to dominate the days of those of us who remained — How do we do laundry safely? How likely is it to catch a virus from a plastic surface versus a wooden one? — as we began to rediscover what it means to live here now.

What’s worse for a relationship — a pandemic or a marriage?

First and foremost, it means space. The retreat of the primarily rich, White, hetero class reopened space for the unabashedly queer; for people of color; for the kinds of spontaneous human connections that the New People avoid; for the visibility of the unhoused; for everything that was long suppressed by the hegemony of a mind-set that is essentially suburban in its intolerance of difference.

“I move freely on the sidewalks, breathing deep, and my body expands, or my soul, something, stretches out,” Moss writes of exploring his new city. “My body remembers how the quieter city of the past gave me space, and I linger for a long while on an empty corner, Lafayette and Prince, enjoying the loose-limbed, criminal pleasure of loitering. I’m doing something shady, something queer.” A kind of ecstatic unwinding fills the streets.

Soon, that space would be occupied by the movement for racial justice, the unbottling of grief and anger that followed the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. Moss joins the uprising from his own corner of Manhattan, biking with the protests, pedaling around the city with a crowd that calls for justice, even as the NYPD leverages excessive force against it. A series of other confrontations with police over the use of public space follow, particularly around Abolition Park, a downtown pop-up community reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street that devolves into disorder and is eventually broken up by police who move in “with the precision of a military invasion.”

From there, Moss wanders the city, and we wander with him in a journey that provokes some of the same joys and frustrations as actually living here. Moss strikes up conversations — with protesters, unhoused people, street vendors, a man locally dubbed the “Jesus of Washington Square” — and the plurality of characters begins to feel chaotic, but this breadth of perspectives is the point, and his lively, defiant voice provides an engaging guide. Moss’s thorough cataloguing of the streets brought to mind the underground queer media outlets that once documented the ground-level conversations of community groups; it was also striking to read in an age when local reporting is quickly becoming extinct, even in New York.

Moss is at his best when he turns his questions inward during the book’s memoiristic moments: “Why do I feel such relief in the turbulence of the disorderly city?” A psychoanalyst, trained to follow the fleeting clues left by the unconscious mind, his discussion of normativity, otherness and queer history is enlightening. As he lifts that lens to the city around him, seeing traces of what social theorist Jack Halberstam called “queer failure,” he writes, “As the plague pulls us from the shiny knife blade of hyper-normativity, the city sits back and slumps, getting messy with outsider rage and joy.” In these moments of urban disarray, Moss is an attentively loving witness to New York City.

A pandemic diary in which memories of 2020 are just a little too tidy

Still, his analysis has its flaws, one of which appears relatively early in the book (and its title): “In empty New York, a feral energy is returning to the streets,” Moss writes. “The word feral does not mean wild, but rewild, a creaturely life once free and then tamed, confined, and broken free again.”

Rewilding is an ill-fitting frame for this story. An inherently optimistic term, it is also a tonally strange descriptor of the mass death and confusion that we lived through: More than 40,000 New York City residents, disproportionately people of color, died of covid-19 and others languished, suffering in harder-to-detect ways from mental illness, fear, domestic abuse or other ailments.

There’s almost no mention of them in this book. New Yorkers were not “rewilded” during the pandemic; it’s not that romantic. We were struggling (some much more so than others). Of course, Moss is only one person, recounting mostly his own experience of the pandemic. Nevertheless, in downplaying New York’s still present but vanished classes, the book misses an opportunity to explore the starkest dissonance of the era it documents: the disorienting, simultaneous senses of isolation and overcrowding in a city where the air could kill you.

Moreover, the language of wildness and ferality is an odd — even poor — choice for a book that is so primarily about a movement for racial justice and that so prominently features the voices of people of color. Even as Moss shows up for protests, documenting them with the faithfulness of a student, critically aware of his own role in them as a White trans person, it’s a glaring oversight to use language that has so often, and to such violent ends, been weaponized against people of color.

Despite that, “Feral City” is worth our attention for its striking narrative of a city where radical community flourished in a protracted period of crisis. New York City forges ahead, it’s not just its wildness that Moss and I both hope it retains, but also its interconnectedness, its intelligence and its swagger.

Corinne Segal is a senior editor at Literary Hub and previously worked as an editor at PBS NewsHour Weekend. She lives in New York City.

On Finding Liberation in Lockdown New York

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program,
an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking
to and affiliated sites.