Photography, Travel

Visiting New York City during COVID-19

Since the start of the pandemic, most countries went into lockdown, closing restaurants, stores and non-essential businesses. Citizens of these countries and cities weren’t allowed to leave their homes unless it was absolutely necessary, or they were essential workers. As a result, the cities as we knew them became ghost towns, empty and devoid of much signs of life except for the occasional person.

New York City, a city that supposedly never sleeps, was one of them.

I’ve never been a big fan of the city because of how loud and crowded it always is. Rivers of cars, and streams of people—thousands of tires and footsteps on the pavement. The sounds of people yapping, playing music, and the thrum of those Diesel engine buses. And then let’s not forget the smells of the trash strewn about on the streets.

So. Much. Chaos.

It always confuses me why people keep wanting to come to this stinky, noisy city. I’d rather be elsewhere, because for me the only good thing to come out of New York City is the fact that it has stores for companies that you wouldn’t find elsewhere. 24 Hour Apple Store? No problem, NYC has it. Need a 5 story Macy’s? No problem, you can find that on 33rd St. Want clean air? Go to a different city.

So the idea of going to NYC normally makes me dig my heels in and stay home, and this time, it was no different. I didn’t want to go for safety reasons, but at the same time I was curious. What does New York City look like without its cars and it’s people?

Most importantly, what does it SOUND like?

For me as a documentary photographer, the curiosity won out, and I made a couple trips during a two week period to visit different sections of the city and learn its sound. What I came to find was a lot more than what I was expecting.

During the two days that I went to the city to photograph, I made the decision to head out super early in order to avoid as much contact as possible with people. Theoretically, that should be before 6 am when it comes to NYC, but I aimed to be on the PATH ( a subway/ metro-type system that runs between the Newark, Jersey City and Hoboken areas of New Jersey, and World Trade Center and 33rd Street areas of New York) by 6:30 am or 7 am. Usually the time between 6:30 and 9:00 am is known as rush hour in this area, and trains heading to NYC are packed tighter than sardines.

What I found was absolute crickets. The PATH trains to 33rd and WTC were absolutely empty despite being rush hour and even on the weekend. For once, you could find a place to sit without hoping that you’ll get lucky. It was astounding, though fair warning—the PATH screeches loudly, registering at least 99 decibels in loudness when it reaches WTC and the areas between Christopher Street and 33rd. Even though it’s out of my hearing range, I still hear it, and sometimes get a headache.

At both WTC and 33rd, where I got out on different days, it was absolutely empty. The streets did not have any cars, or people. There were a few stragglers here or there and a one-off car, but the city was silent. Places that normally would be teeming with people—WTC Memorial, Occulus, Fifth Avenue, Bryant Park, New York Public Library, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Church, and Columbus Circle—were completely empty. Not a soul around. Of course, you cannot enter the New York Public Library because it’s closed, and the museums and churches are closed, while Rockefeller Center and the WTC Memorial were barricaded off. But to see it from afar, empty, was an experience of its own.

For once, you could hear the sound of the water trickling in the water fountain at Bryant Park, and the sound of the flags rippling in the wind at Rockefeller Center. I stood in by the Rockefeller Tower just soaking in the sound of the flags in the wind, a sound that gets completely lost when you have hundreds of people tramping through. I stood for a moment enjoying the bells of St. Patrick’s Cathedral tolling on the hour. Music, that for over two decades of my life, I had never been able to hear because of all the useless noise that made it hard to hear.

Suddenly, in that stillness, the sound of a Diesel engine from a bus and the screech of tires or the revving up of an engine comes off as really loud. And I began to realize that there’s so much more that we can experience of a city if the city was just a bit quieter. Even the air was much clearer, less full of smog.

And then you know what?

Magic happened. I fell in love with New York City. For the second time in my life, this city took away my breath and made me see why other people would want to come—what they find so amazing about the city.

Slowly, at 10:30 am,which is super late by New York City standards, people came out onto the streets. It began to get just a bit busier, and the magic—like the magic of Cinderella’s carriage—disappeared when the clock struck 11. It was time to go home.

I think there are so many lessons that could be learned from this situation for New York City. People can come together and realize that they want to hear the sounds of this city, and want clearer air. They could ask that the buses be changed to electric, and to limit the amount of cars in the city. They could choose to take on a quieter, slower life, instead of one that runs forward. Choose to savor the moments, choose to enjoy the beauty.

But I realize that is not the heartbeat of this city. It was meant to be noisy, loud and busy. And I realize that this is just a moment in it’s history that for as long as I will live, I will not see again. People who live in the city clamor for the city to go back how it once was—noisy, filled with people—and so people like me, who love the city in it’s silence and subtlety, will always be outliers.

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