Back before our sense of normalcy was completely reset, 330,000 people used to pass through Times Square in New York City each day. Now it’s a ghost town.
I took these pictures during a somewhat irresponsible outing to midtown Manhattan on Friday night. After being cooped up for weeks at home in Brooklyn, my family and I decided to bust out of quarantine and drive into Manhattan. We headed to our favorite pizza joint, a tiny takeout shop in midtown, and ate a few slices in the car, parked right in front on West Thirty-ninth Street. It used to be impossible to ever find a spot there.
Then at about seven o’clock we drove uptown with the windows rolled down to hear the cheering as healthcare workers changed shifts, a daily ritual throughout Manhattan and in other cities that for some reason doesn’t take place in our Brooklyn neighborhood. We were practically gliding north on Eighth Avenue with the traffic lights in our favor, unimpeded by the sparse traffic on the road with us, and with the music of wild cheering and banging pots and pans on every block. I got choked up listening to it.
Fifteen minutes later it was getting dark already. We stopped on Broadway at Times Square, parked the car at yet another curbside spot that I honestly never in my life dreamed I’d ever be able to park in, and got out to explore within just a few city blocks. There were a handful of other pedestrians there, maybe less than a dozen. One of them was another opportunistic amateur photographer who asked to take a photo of us. A few people in masks were standing outside a boba tea shop, waiting for their orders. Once in a while a bicyclist would zip by, usually carrying a big, insulated food delivery bag with the name of some restaurant or delivery service emblazoned on it. And there was a police officer standing in front of the massive TKTS red steps, usually a favorite spot for dozens of tourists to rest their feet and take pictures, now cordoned off and deserted.
Not a single one of Times Square’s famous neon lights or mammoth, animated billboards had been turned off. They were all blinking, flashing, blaring their irrepressible marketing pitches out onto the bottom of a nearly soulless urban ravine. The sun had set completely by now and the lights were wildly vibrant but somehow remote, like a chandelier someone had forgotten to turn off when they’d left the house. Most of the ads were still selling to a world and time ignorant of COVID-19, but some had even been updated with inspirational corporate messages about persisting through the pandemic. Still they all seemed like echoes from the past.
Mostly Times Square felt eerie. And tense. There was the danger of somehow contracting the coronavirus, of course, which is omnipresent these days. But I also felt ill at ease about the outing, guilty about playing tourist amid a crisis, even in my own city. It really felt like we were not supposed to be there, both because we hear so much that the responsible thing is to stay home these days, but also because it felt somehow unnatural. For New York City residents especially, Times Square has never felt like a desirable place to spend your time, mostly because it was always insufferably congested with foot traffic. In the absence of people though, it felt no cozier. The architecture, the wide open square, the disturbing quiet felt forbidding to humans.
We were only there for about ten minutes before I started to think I couldn’t take it much longer. At the corner where Forty-fifth Street, Broadway and Sixth Avenue all somehow intersect at impossible angles, two men had set up what amounted to a soap box. One of them wore a balaclava, entirely masking his identity. He was shouting through a microphone attached to a portable speaker, sounding off on some political diatribe to no one in particular. I heard him spew some disgruntled invective about China and the virus, and I thought about how the pandemic had become a cowardly excuse for racist miscreants everywhere to take out their fear on Asian people. I suddenly felt nervous, maybe a bit scared, not just for me but for my kids, too. The vast emptiness of what used to be the world’s busiest city square felt even less hospitable now, maybe even a bit hostile, even. We walked back to our car and drove home.