A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 54

A Philadelphia rent strike poster.

Friday, May 1

There is apparently a major fire or some similar mishap in this neighborhood. Only a little while ago, there was absolute silence—now, there’s an eruption of fire-engine sirens and horn honking, all very similar to the cacophony that is common in the Union Square area of Manhattan. I’ve wandered around on the internet, looking at the local news site Long Island Patch and elsewhere, but so far there’s no indication of what’s going on. I suspect we may never know.

For the first time since 1998, the World Bank says, global poverty rates are forecast to rise. By the end of the year, 8 percent of the world’s population, half a billion people, may be pushed into destitution, largely because of the pandemic, the United Nations estimates.

There is poverty here too, in spite of the Hamptons’ reputation as a playground for spoiled kids and their rich parents. Mansions certainly do exist, but there are also modest houses and notices of food banks at the churches, libraries, and IGA groceries. “The need for food from our pantries has tripled,” says the Clamshell Alliance, a local charity.

In our immediate area, there are plenty of shotgun-style dwellings with pickups and vans in the driveway. Many of the houses seem too small to warrant the number of vehicles parked outside: mom, pop, and grown kids still living at home, maybe? Lots of these vans and pickups bear the names of small plumbing, construction, or electrician companies. Many of our neighbors appear to be representatives of an aristocracy of labor—people who are self-employed or at least able to avoid the most exploitative and punishing forms of work.

Labor Day—or May day—was once an occasion for working class protest and solidarity. Today, it is the date for a confounding and confusing set of protests: in Michigan, hundreds of protestors, some toting weapons, have invaded the state capitol, demanding an end to the COVID-19 lock-down.  According to Politico, “Operation Gridlock,” was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund, a DeVos family-linked conservative group.

Meanwhile, in New York, Pennsylvania, and California, thousands are protesting against the payment of rent during the pandemic. “The protest is expected to represent the largest coordinated rent strike in America in decades,” says The Guardian.

Ray Brescia, a law professor at Albany Law School, penned a rent-strike how-to that appeared in this morning’s New York Daily News. His bottom line: tenants must withhold rent, get landlords to negotiate with them as a group, and go to court together, taking advantage of a backlog of cases that could last for years, giving tenants even more leverage. But what could they get?  The author, who claims to have run rent strikes for 14 years as a New York City legal aid attorney, should give us a little more information about possible outcomes that are more than just wishful thinking.

Dinner: leftover meatballs and pasta, a lentil salad with roasted red peppers and pecans, and another salad of lettuce and avocado.

Entertainment: More episodes of Norwegian thriller Occupied, and the second episode of Brit police procedural Collateral.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 44

Once a Union Square mainstay.

Tuesday, April 21

Every day I get up, make coffee and oatmeal, and at least make a start on reading The New York Times. When in New York City—I live right on Union Square—I may go out early to Trader Joe’s or perhaps to a doctor’s appointment. Other errands may include a walk to the post office, to the Fed Ex at Astor Place where I make photocopies of this and that, and to the gym on Eighth Avenue for yoga lessons. On Wednesdays and Fridays, I generally go to the Union Square greenmarket, where farmers from New Jersey and upstate New York sell fresh fruit and vegetables, honey, cheeses, and bread.

Right now, it seems I may never perform any of these New York City errands again.

One Times story suggests that New York itself may never be the same: The article revisits a number of previous calamities to hit the city, including the September 11 terror attacks and the 1970s fiscal crisis. In the latter case, says Kathryn Wylde, president of business group The Partnership for New York City, “It took four or five years for a lot of the city to empty out,” then “it took three or four decades to bring them back.”

Empty out? Well of course, New York City is always in the process of emptying itself out and refilling. It’s not the same from one day to the next. New York’s ever-changing nature is one of the things that makes the city interesting. New restaurants and stores are always popping up. That little hole-in-the-wall place that you went to for years is likely to disappear. But then, something new, and almost as interesting, may well crop up. Tycoon Donut is long gone, but the croissants at Pain Quotidian are a pretty good if pricey replacement.

Back in the 1980s, when I first moved to New York, the Union Square area was quite dangerous. Drug deals went down regularly in the park, and the cops would go into surrounding office buildings and peer out of the windows in order to direct drug busts there. In a few years, that version of Union Square went away—taking with it such quaint and past-their-prime institutions as Luchow’s restaurant, Amalgamated Bank, and the Cedar Tavern. On the upside, replacements included such trendy if expensive hangouts as the Union Square Cafe—and, on the downside, big-box retailers including Barnes & Noble books, Kids R Us, and Staples. 

Now, facing the square, there’s little besides large retailers and mega-banks such as Chase and Citibank.

But on the side streets, there are still little shoe-repair shops, second-hand clothing places, dance studios, and an ever-expanding number of coffee joints. Within walking distance, such long-running survivors as coffee roaster Porto Rico Importing Co., Strand books, and Astor Wines & Spirits have been hanging in there. Nonetheless, in February, I began noticing a great number of vacant storefronts. Rents were to blame, I assumed—the ever-more-greedy landlords pushing the small-fry out. The landlords seem willing to suffer several months of vacancy in order to get new tenants who are able to pay market-rate prices.

And rents have risen astronomically over the decades. My dentist, whose office is in a building facing the square, told me that when he first located there back in the 1980s, his rent was a few hundred dollars a month. Now, I believe he said, the rents on his office suite run $15,000 a month. It’s anybody’s guess just how he can afford it.

Will this change? Will landlords see that they have no choice but to accept lower rents—allowing small-fry enterprises to return? And just how does this work? What invisible hands tap the landlords on the shoulder, saying: “Hey, buddy, it’s time to let the rents slide a bit.”

A few years back, Emily and I traveled to Vienna, Austria, where we stayed in a small guest house in the Neubau neighborhood. The largely residential area included a number of coffee shops, bakeries, beisls (or restaurants), the Naschmarkt (produce stalls), and innumerable little purveyors of candy, meats, toys, and so forth. Everything seemed very quaint and charming, like a visit to the early 1960s in an American town. Perhaps after a period of near-death, the East Village can become such an idyll, with a flowering of small enterprises. Maybe even Tycoon Donut will return. Stranger things have happened.

Dinner tonight (presumably after the Peapod delivery!): Black beans and rice along with a lettuce and cucumber salad.

Entertainment: There are five remaining episodes of Babylon Berlin—so a couple of those plus one Lovejoy and one Twilight Zone.