But while some aspects of New York’s situation in the 1970s and beyond were unique, the larger problems the city faced were those confronting the entire country. And the AIDS epidemic, too, spread throughout the nation. Blaming New York was a way to let the federal government off the hook.
Today, the scapegoating of the city could have consequences even more profound than during the 1970s. It could mean the city not getting the federal money it needs or a sufficient supply of ventilators and masks and enough support for health care workers.
What is more, the suggestion that New York is uniquely susceptible can support the dangerous illusion that allowed the coronavirus to gain traction here in the first place: that we are able to cordon ourselves off from one another, that one region of the country — or the world — can be separated from the rest. Acting on this fantasy would be the real danger to states like Florida, Vermont and Tennessee.
At the same time, painting a picture of the entire city as equally at risk may make it harder to address the likelihood that the coronavirus will probably have the most devastating impact on working-class and poor people — who are less likely to have good access to health care, whose underlying health may be worse to begin with and for whom the economic penalties of social distancing are more profound.
The dense urban spaces of New York City are empty now — the libraries and public schools closed, the playgrounds and streets notably quiet. But the social solidarity that they nurture still has the capacity to offer lessons that might help the rest of the country.
I’ve seen this even in my own apartment building, where people have mobilized in support of the most at-risk residents — all from a distance of six feet. High school students are offering virtual tutoring to homebound elementary school kids, younger tenants are picking up groceries for elderly people for whom a trip to the store might be more dangerous, the most organized among us are keeping phone lists so that tenants can call one another if any of us get sick and need help.
And as is happening in places around the world, every night at 7 people come to the windows and the balconies of my apartment complex to cheer for the heroism and dedication of the city’s health care workers — the E.M.T.s, ambulance drivers, physician assistants, janitors, cooks, orderlies, doctors and nurses. As we chant and clap, we can see one another from the windows and across the courtyard, and even in this moment of devastation, the collective life of our city offers sustenance and hope.