For the past two months, I’ve been commuting to Manhattan once a week for work. I had heard that since the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020, New York City has been a very depressing place to be. No doubt in the early days of the coronavirus, Manhattan was a ghost town, a shadow of its former self. But when I started commuting again in July, I found the city quite vibrant and alive.
I’m certainly no expert on Manhattan … In my 40 years of professional work experience, I’ve spent my entire employment career working in Connecticut, with a very brief stint on Long Island. It’s only this year that I’ve joined commuters on the Metro-North to travel into Manhattan—and because of COVID, it has only been once a week. Perhaps it’s the fact that I have never experienced the daily grind of commuting back and forth that I have such a positive view of New York City.
My earliest memory of Manhattan was when I was a youngster, and my mom and dad took me and my three siblings to see “The Sound of Music” at Radio City Music Hall. I was mesmerized by the lights … the traffic … the hustle and bustle of the city. After the movie we went for a stroll down Fifth Avenue, and since it was December, we saw the magnificent Christmas windows at Lord and Taylor and Saks (in retrospect, probably not the most Jewish activity for us to be doing, but nonetheless an enjoyable escapade). I was definitely hooked on Manhattan!
In 1969, the New York Knicks were the talk of the town. I was already a big baseball fan, and started becoming a basketball fan at this time. And I wanted to see Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and the rest of the team play live. On several occasions, my friends and I took the Long Island Railroad from West Hempstead to Penn Station, and with a G.O. card in hand were able to secure half-price seats in the blue section (in shamayim, as we used to say) for only $2.50 a ticket. I’m surprised my parents allowed me to take the train into Manhattan without any adult supervision at 12 years old, but times were different then. This experience also helped cement my love for New York City.
I was never a big camper, so when I turned 16, I looked for a summer job in Manhattan, and was fortunate to secure a job as a messenger for a bank on Wall Street. Remember, these were the days before email and fax machines and FedEx—and often banks needed to deliver notarized documents quickly to clients. So a messenger was the fastest method. I spent my working hours riding the subways and making deliveries of important documents to offices across Manhattan. I owe my knowledge of the New York City subway system to that glorious summer, when I felt like the most important 16-year-old kid in Manhattan.
I attended a secular college in the New York metro area, ending my formal Jewish education after high school. Fortunately, I was able to attend weekly Judaic studies classes with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, the place to be for Orthodox young adults in the late 1970s. Manhattan became my weekly escape destination.
After college, I attended business school at New York University, and rented an apartment in the Village. It was also the time that I began dating my wife, who also was living in Manhattan at the time. And what a great opportunity to have all the sites and sounds of Manhattan at our doorstep! Sundays in Central Park … “Mostly Mozart” concerts at Lincoln Center … lectures at the 92nd Street Y … Broadway shows … the Metropolitan Museum of Art … movies on Saturday night, with a midnight snack at Bernstein-on-Essex. It was a wonderful time to be dating and falling in love … and living in the Big Apple!
When my wife and I got married and moved to Connecticut, we were both employed during the day—but that didn’t stop us from driving into Manhattan after work for dinner at a kosher restaurant, or to see a concert or play. It was easy to make a last-minute decision to head into Manhattan before we had kids and needed to worry about babysitters. We probably visited Manhattan at least once a month back then.
Over the years our trips to Manhattan have become less frequent, but it’s still a treat whenever we go into the city. These days we tend to visit Manhattan to try a new kosher restaurant or visit a site that has some Jewish connection to it. Or sometimes we can simply pass the time sitting in a park and watching the different kinds of people walking by. I have family on the Upper East Side, so there have been times where we spend a Shabbat in Manhattan, with a Saturday night or Sunday activity planned in conjunction with the trip, making it a full weekend getaway.
It was sad to see what happened to Manhattan when the COVID-19 outbreak first hit 18 months ago. Our community in Stamford was actually the beneficiary of the change, as dozens of families who had lived on the Upper West Side and Upper East Side relocated to our Connecticut suburb in the past year. Dozens of Manhattan families moved to Florida; with everyone working at home, the advantage of living and working in the city was no longer a benefit. The commuter trains were empty as employees did not want to expose themselves more than necessary to the coronavirus.
But I’m finally seeing a change now. The Metro-North trains are becoming more crowded on weekdays. There is a buzz on the streets that had been missing during the few times we visited Manhattan during the dark days of the pandemic. One family member of ours, who needed to relocate to the New York metro area, chose to purchase an apartment in Manhattan as opposed to a suburban location. And I hear that many young Manhattan couples who moved in with their parents at the height of the pandemic have now moved back to Manhattan.
We just marked the 20th anniversary of the World Trade Center terrorist attack. I remember doomsayers predicting that Manhattan would never be the same. What actually happened was an unprecedented rebirth and renewal. I see similarities between the 9/11 attack and the pandemic, in terms of how the city might recover—and it would not surprise me if we see a dramatic revival for Manhattan in the next couple of years, mimicking what occurred two decades ago.
I personally have no desire to move to Manhattan. But it’s nice to see the Manhattan I know and love beginning to return to its old self.
Michael Feldstein is a contributing editor for The Jewish Link. He owns his own marketing consulting firm, MGF Marketing, and can be reached at [email protected]