First things first: City Hall should immediately move to enforce a resettlement tax on all returning New Yorkers. The levy will be determined at the very moment they touch down at J.F.K., determined by both their income level and how flagrant their desertion was. (If an exile spent the entirety of the pandemic on the crystal waters between Monaco and Sardinia, they can expect to pay up.) That money will be used to fund a public good ascertained, through a special election, by those of us who never left. I can imagine several issues on the ballot, but I’d cast my vote to finally retrofit the Great Depression-era tech powering our subway, ensuring that no man, woman or child will ever again wait 20 minutes for the M train.
Better yet, New York could mandate a Borough Swap for all returning exiles. It is no secret that a vast majority of escapees resided in the richest neighborhoods in the city — particularly the Upper East Side, SoHo and the West Village. I can think of no better punishment for those folks than some good old-fashioned Brooklyn living. The New York residents who braved Covid would be granted property rights over those empty brownstones for a full year, where they can finally experience a world-class Upper Manhattan autumn in its natural state. In the meantime, the retreating gentry will take up residence in my building, which doesn’t have a doorman, but does have an entirely ineffective radiator and an exterminator who shows up once a month to try to keep the German cockroaches behind the dishwasher at bay.
Naturally, this policy will not extend to anyone who had a reasonable excuse for their abdication. Those who were caring for high-risk family members or who were left without employment because of the pandemic’s fallout shall be granted clemency. Same for those who left the city for a week or two at a time. If you didn’t file a change-of-address form, you’re good. Everyone else is under the gun. We saw the videos from the Joshua Tree ranch, OK? You can’t just march back in here as if you own the place.
Once sufficient contrition is expressed, exiles may return to their normal New York existences, so long as they promise to never vacate the city in its time of need ever again.
Perhaps you believe I am being too petty and that I carry some lingering insecure resentment for sticking it out in a city famous for its cloistering living conditions at a time when everyone was stuck in their homes. Broadly speaking, you’d be absolutely correct. I’m from San Diego originally, and it’s difficult for me to construct an argument that those sun-drenched beach lines wouldn’t have been a healthier place to spend these past 12 months than a second-floor walk-up with no rooftop, backyard or in-building washer/dryer. New Yorkers have a way of recontextualizing every one of their self-inflicted humiliations into misguided triumphs; it’s part of the coping mechanism.
That said, I’ve never identified more with this place than I did in 2020. All the values I was taught about New York, from elementary school onward, came true last year: the solidarity, the saltiness, the stubborn resilience whenever outside voices declare the city dead and buried. I used to think that brand of civic pride was corny and facile, but then I spent a season marching through the wasteland between Bedford and Franklin Avenues, mask cutting into my cheeks, buying a few more cans of tomato soup while we waited to see what the future had in store.
It remains to be seen whether those returning to the city will ever possess the same spirit. I greatly anticipate my housewarming party, which was scheduled for the first week of April last year, because nothing sounds better than to sit, and talk, and drink with everyone I know who made it through this, too. The deserters escaped all the horror that comes with living in America’s largest population center in the middle of a generational crisis, but they’ll also miss out on the brilliant, unchaining joys of what comes afterward, this great unburdening of New York City. I almost feel bad for them. Almost.
Photograph by Elinor Carucci/Edwynn Houk Gallery.
Luke Winkie is a writer who has contributed to Vox, The Washington Post and The Atlantic.
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