NEW YORK — The teeming masses of New York City, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, have often seemed the spark from which great feats of imagination have sprung. Edith Wharton’s spurned women of ill repute. The lazy sway of weary blues floating through Langston Hughes’s Harlem. Spider-Man and Superman swooping down from the sky to save good citizens from villainy.
Now, amid a pandemic we do not fully understand, a deadly virus whose spread has seemed impossible to contain, our reality has given way to a world that feels like fiction. Empty streets, empty stores, empty subways. There are 8.6 million people in the densest, most populous metropolis in America locked inside, peering out from behind curtains.
It is as if time has stopped.
Photographer Jeenah Moon knows this city, but she is new to it, too, having come here in 2014 from Seoul, by way of Baylor University in Waco. For seven days in March, she wandered its streets, from Upper Manhattan to Coney Island, capturing the exodus that came with the shutting in and closing down. She wore a mask, and gloves that made it hard to manipulate her camera’s buttons. She brought hand sanitizer and washed her hands as soon as she walked into her home. It feels like a long nap, a scary time, but perhaps one of rejuvenation. We will wake.
“The story of coronavirus is so dark, but I wanted to bring more hope for the future,” says Moon. “You can be home, but it’s just out of respect and caring for other people.”
In Korean it’s called Tung Bin Geo Ri, which translates to “ghost city,” or more literally, “whole empty street.”
It is never without people. But now it is.
Beneath Times Square on a Thursday at 2 a.m. no one waits for a train. Essential workers who make this city run — hospital staff, bus drivers, security guards — still need the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to be functioning. The tangle of subway lines is vital to New Yorkers, the only way many people can get around. Peering through the windows of an E train, no one sits on those baby-blue seats. No one boards the aboveground Q train on a sunny Saturday as sunlight streams through the windows.
Latex gloves in a rainbow of colors litter the ground. “And people are afraid of them,” says Moon. “You know when you see dog poop, you try to avoid it? People get that way with gloves. They’re scared.”
It’s tourist prime time on Fifth Avenue on a Friday night and the street is dark, but for a few stores that kept their displays. Luxury goods do not weather disaster well. A golden palm tree stands alone in the middle of the Versace store, its shelves empty. Where are they hiding everything? The sunken plaza at Rockefeller Center that turns into an ice-skating rink in winter has lost its out-of-town gawkers. A lounge chair has sunk to the bottom of an outdoor pool in Midtown.
Back at Hudson Yards, the gleaming Vessel, where selfie-takers crowd every platform on every level, where you must reserve a time just for the privilege to climb a bunch of stairs for free, is completely uninhabited. Photo hounds from around the world wake up at dawn sometimes in search of a clean shot, without people, and they usually fail. It is never without people. But it is now.
Empty parks and playgrounds
In Central Park, you can walk but not linger. Sheep’s Meadow, where exhibitionists sunbathe in summer and friends set up picnic blankets to share concealed bottles of wine, has been closed because of social distancing. A restaurant in the West Village isn’t just closed, it’s locked. A plastic cover has been thrown over the carousel in Bryant Park. On a Saturday in Coney Island, a protective glove and a fallen rosebud lie together but apart in the rain like they want to touch but are unable.
Per the governor’s order, New Yorkers may leave their homes for solo recreation, as long as they do not congregate in groups, but they are not here on this track in Chelsea. A swing in a Park Slope, Brooklyn, playground waits to greet a child. Down the street, through the window of a kid’s playroom, stands a set of toys that look like they were left in a rush. A bodega sign tells passersby to have a happy day.
Even the peep shows had to shut down
In Chinatown at 8 p.m. on a Friday, a purple kitchen stands empty. A Park Slope taxi depot advertises for drivers even though no one seems to be taking cabs. “I spoke with the taxi drivers and they’re struggling,” says Moon. Even the Times Square gift shops and peep shows have had to shut down.
Beneath the Hudson Yards in the subway, a mop bucket rests alone behind stairs, as if recovering from a hard day of disinfecting. Elsewhere in the city, gloves sit atop mop handles. No one walks into the walk-in emergency room entrance of NYU Langone in the east 30s, but the scene is full of portent, the calm before the deluge.
At dawn, clouds gather over the city. This is the mood of our day. Some day, the lights will turn back on, but for now, the city sleeps.