New York: Same, same…but very, very different

I arrived late last night and hunkered down for some much-needed reconnecting, but this morning, after a typically fitful first-night-in-a-place sleep, I walked down the creaking steps into downtown Brooklyn. I wanted to get an early start, and at 630, I was sure I’d beat the heat.

It was already warm, and certainly muggy, but the cloud cover offered a little relief. Summer is my least favorite time in NYC, and I was braced for the worst. So far, not too bad.

The weather of the moment is, of course, the least of what’s going on here. My friends had warned me that “the New York you left in January is gone.” They were right.

I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, a walk I love, but that is always marred by absurd numbers of people, mostly tourists, doing really stupid, touristy things, and lots of Brooklyn-bound cyclists yelling or ringing their bells at them. This morning – it was still before seven – the sight of two girls taking a picture brought less irritation than nostalgia. I did not wait until there was no one in the shot to take this picture. At one point, I couldn’t see a single person as far as I could see.

When I came down on the Manhattan side of the bridge, there was no one but a long – LONG – line of cops, 10 feet apart, hundreds of them, protecting City Hall Park. I am squeamish about taking pics of cops, so I refrained, but as I walked up toward Foley Square and all the federal buildings I sidled up to a cop and asked him what the show of force was about, especially on a Friday morning.

He said right away that he thought that the long blue line was “overkill,” but that they had just chased out the recent occupiers (Occupy Wall Street was in full swing when I first moved here, and it was quite a long, disruptive – that is, effective – protest), and the authorities want to make sure that they didn’t come back, and “that what is happening in Portland doesn’t happen here.” I wasn’t sure if he meant the protest or Bill Barr’s secret police kidnapping people off the street, but I didn’t ask.

In any case, I continued up Lafayette, through downtown, and past some familiar places: Canal Street, most of its vendors closed up (but again, it was not still barely 730), and then into SoHo, past one of my favorite sidewalk cafes, which definitely isn’t. RIP, Cafe Select?

I then continued north, into NoHo, and stopped by my favorite coffee place, La Colombe, which was not open (even at 8), but looked to be preparing. Up the street is a reassuring sight: The Public Theater (its first show was in October 1967, see!), but with no shows on offer. A few steps more and I was in Astor Place, usually humming with NYU students. It was almost deserted.

Now, I have to say, that I have seen New York this quiet in normal times: Any late-year holiday, especially Thanksgiving, can be like this. Christmas, too, often. And life post-Sandy, at least that first week, was quiet and unsettled.

But as I walked past my old street, and my old Crunch gym, all boarded up, things looked more dire. A lot of places were open (or about to be, maybe), but a number of store fronts were boarded up, seemingly for good. What’s hard to fathom is that this is Manhattan in phase FOUR of reopening, and things are far, far better here than they are in, say, California. If this is what improvement is, I’m glad I wasn’t here two months ago. And I honestly don’t see how this is going to get better any time soon. What really seemed strange was that it really seemed as though everyone has just left...which again, is not unusual in summer: I’m not the only one who prefers other seasons, and the Hamptons and Catskills and Fire Island beckon.

Still…when I got to Union Square, the day now fully in gear, it was almost empty. Again, a rare sight, and here’s the thing: I can’t pretend that it’s just an early Sunday morning, or a holiday, and that nothing is wrong. Everyone is wearing masks. People veer out of your way. There’s not very much traffic (even on Houston, or 14th!), and it made me realize that it’s the energy, the motion, and, as much as I hate it, the noise that make Manhattan such a compelling place. Activity, creativity, dynamism…all the things that people bring. The things that make Manhattan difficult. The things that make Manhattan live.

Without them, it’s a lot of buildings, a few cars and lots of maintenance workers. Manhattan right now is a playing field at the ready, but the city seems unable to field a team.

It was sad. I haven’t regretted leaving New York, it’s a big world, I need more nature in my life, and lots of time abroad, and I don’t have the required money. Although I’m still creating and working, my drive to make my mark here is gone.

What’s changed is that there is, suddenly, no where for anyone to make a mark. My actor friends are at a loss; there are no performances, and none scheduled. The whole notion of people gathering together, which is the essence of a city, especially New York, seems preposterous. Many people are still working, and god knows that Wall Street is doing just fine; but the effects of that activity are virtually all online, and many of the restaurants that skim off a little of those profits are closed. Bleeker Street was particularly grim.

When the rain finally came, I got stuck under a portico and spoke to a friend, while waiting it out. She was asking me how I got here, how I got through the quarantine requirements (I didn’t come from California, but Oregon, and came in through New Jersey, and could show a negative test). A native Sacramentan but a longtime New Yorker, she had been stuck in Cali since March and was aching to get back.

But I had to tell her what my friends told me: It’s not what she remembers, and it will be painful. It’s painful for me, and I’ve lost little here. I did my time, I love my visits, but it’s no longer home. She may have a much harder time letting go.

But the bright side, such as it is, is that New York City is safer than most of the other interesting cities in the country. New York has weathered the storm, and it’s coming back. If there’s any place in the U.S. that’s got what it takes to weather such storms, it’s Gotham.

But being here also underlines how tough it’s going to be, not just for New York, but for San Antonio, and Sacramento, and Portland, and Los Angeles, and Phoenix and Miami…today’s walk gave me as stark and bracing a look at the near future as any I’ve taken, and it’s not good. We’re nowhere near the end of this, it’s been and is being handled miserably, and it’s going to get worse. Maybe a lot worse.

I mourn the New York that was before, and I worry about where this country will end up. It’s going to be a rugged, terrible year coming.

I stopped back at La Colombe on Lafayette on my way back downtown. They were open, and I walked up to the ordering kiosk they’d put out front. When I lived up the street, I worked for hours here, day after day, latte after latte. Much of was written here. I used to sit and watch the models and dot-comers and tourists and locals come in for their coffee drinks, jammed into the place, alive with the buzz of the caffeine and of New York itself – so unaware of its great good fortune.

This morning, I walked in, paid ($11 for a latte and a croissant, there are things I never miss about New York), and waited behind the plexiglas at the bar. It was nearly 10 am on a Friday morning…and I was the only one in the place. No music. No people. No buzz. No place to sit.

I grabbed my latte and my paper bag and headed for a nearly empty Washington Square Park. Clouds gathered toward the river. The storm that had been threatening all morning was about to arrive.

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Thank you for checking out my blog - it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I am working on projects regarding music history, Japanese culture and my songwriting.

- A week-by-week music history website,
- An upcoming book on Japanese culture, Japan from Anime to Zen
- A YouTube channel, featuring random songs and thoughts for the pandemic
- Original music on Spotify, with links to Patreon and Amazon 

David Watts Barton

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