Section 2

Rich New Yorkers took off at the first sign of trouble

Coronavirus saw NYC’s wealthy flee for the Hamptons, and the city is doing just fine without them, writes Holly Baxter

Manhattan apartments lie empty as the well-off retreat to their second homes

Long before coronavirus, the graffiti was everywhere: “THE RiCH KiLLD NYC” it read, and you’d see it in Manhattan, in Brooklyn, on lamp posts, on pavements, even stencilled on the side of JCB diggers at building sites. No one seems to be quite sure where this small, angry piece of street art comes from, though there are online message boards which discuss theories. As my fiance and I went on our one daily walks to Fort Greene Park last weekend, with its 6ft red signs at its entrance stating “KEEP THIS FAR APART”, we passed another instance of the graffiti statement on a telephone pole in a street nearby.

The irony of reading about how the rich killed New York when the rich have deserted the city we live in was not lost on us. Plebs like us, who live in 500 sq ft studio apartments in up-and-coming areas of Brooklyn and have no second homes, no rich relatives upstate or in Vermont, and no friends in high places, are now living in the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak while our communities empty out. As much as parks are still well-attended and people are on the streets (all in masks or makeshift ones), there are nowhere near as many people in Brooklyn now as there were a month ago.

People on Twitter tell me they “fled” my community a few weeks ago when they heard how bad things were going to get, as if a hurricane or a tsunami were about to arrive; as if it were the only sensible thing to do. They tell me to hire an SUV, get an Airbnb somewhere remote, and “ride it out” in the countryside. It’s logistically and financially impossible for us, but I appreciate their attempts to involve me in their escape plans.

Others write viral articles about how it is “our duty” to stay in NYC now, because if we can’t handle it at its worst then we don’t deserve it at its best (“The rich fled New York,” was the title on a piece in The Atlantic that popped up on many of my friends’ Instagram feeds recently. “You live in a cramped apartment and you’re scared. But escape is selfish,” it continued.)

Hire an SUV, get an Airbnb somewhere remote, and ‘ride it out’ in the countryside, Twitter told me

The truth is that despite the tentative texts from family and friends in the UK checking whether I’m still alive – I even got a Facebook message from a stranger who’d situated me on their family tree project letting me know they were “praying for us” – New York feels fairly normal right now. The sun is shining; the weather is good. On the nicer days, we can go up to the roof of our building and take a peek at the Manhattan skyline, a mainly abandoned collection of iconic pieces of architecture standing silently across the Hudson River. Our new, small but functional apartment is well-situated nearby Prospect Park and a large grocery store. We moved into it a few days ago with remarkable ease, our cash-in-hand movers turning up in N29 masks and medical gloves, pointing and nodding at boxes from six feet away.

We can’t help but think, however, of the people who did escape to their four-storey homes in the Hamptons, or the people who we see sailing their yachts down the river or flying small private planes overhead every other day. Their beautiful mezzanine apartments overlooking Union Square, Greenwich Village and Central Park lie empty now.

When they come back, those people will reap most of the benefits of New York. They frequent world-famous restaurants and bars, which are at the end of their streets, and they work in the Financial District or on the Upper East Side. They identify as New Yorkers and say they love the city – but how much do you really love anything if you have a backup plan? Their marriage to Manhattan was always conditional on the survival of their relationship with a young hot thing 700 miles away with a lake view.

We’re glad those rich people are gone, most days, because that gives us more room to roam. But it will feel strange when they saunter back in post-pandemic, talking about how nice it is to be back and how difficult Covid-19 was for them. You can’t help but feel that when all of this is said and done, those who stayed on in the five boroughs might have more to say than can be written on one small graffiti stamp about the super wealthy who live in their midst. The rich killing NYC is one thing, but killing it then abandoning its body seems downright rude.