NEW YORK – Walking around lower Manhattan on a recent weeknight, a middle-aged, slightly graying man wasn’t sure if it was he who had changed or New York. True, he hadn’t been out much lately … but something was different.
He walked from SoHo to NoLIta along Prince Street, then turned down Mulberry. That’s where it hit him: Everyone on the street seemed to be young, like a scene from the sci-fi movie “Logan’s Run.”
Their reign over the city is just getting started. Sofia Pace, a 21-year-old student at Baruch College who grew up in the East Village, mentioned in a phone interview a meme she saw recently on Instagram. It said: “This summer in New York is going in the Bible.”
“That’s the best way that I can describe how people my age are looking at it, that it’s going in the Bible,” Pace said. “The energy level could not be higher going into the summer months.”
Pace usually spends summers in Southampton, working as a nanny and escaping the stifling heat. This summer, she doesn’t want to miss the action in the city. She took a retail job at Eric Emanuel, a streetwear brand that opened its first store in April in SoHo. And she’s busy making plans with friends, many of whom have upgraded to sweet new apartments since the pandemic depressed rents.
“My friends and I have discussed that we’re almost a little scared,” Pace said. “Like it’s going to be out of control.”
For New York’s 20-somethings, who have spent more than a year of their young adulthood cooped up during a pandemic and watched their social lives atrophy, summer 2021 is shaping up to be the most anticipated of their lives. And it may turn out to be more than just a three-month bacchanal. This season could be the start of a social, entrepreneurial and creative rebirth in New York, one that they lead. A city that had seemed impenetrable for decades, overrun by Bugaboo strollers and Land Rovers, is now theirs for the taking.
More than a year after the coronavirus first arrived, the city streets are so teeming with fresh-faced pleasure seekers, one might squint and think it 1967, the Summer of Love. There’s the flagrant marijuana smoking, the skin-bearing fashion of the moment (short shorts, crop tops, French-cut swimsuits), the late-night ragers in Washington Square Park as, with liquor rules still relaxed, outdoor spaces become impromptu bars and nightlife venues. The walktail, perhaps, has become the flocktail.
This week, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who proclaimed this “the summer of New York City,” announced a megaconcert in Central Park in August, conjuring memories, among that city’s older denizens, of Simon & Garfunkel and then a drenched Diana Ross in the early ’80s. (Riunité, anyone?)
On the eve of summer, the city seemed vibrantly alive. The atmosphere was like a big street party.
The tourists from Europe and the Midwest hadn’t yet returned. Thousands of married couples with kids had already moved to the suburbs. The partial emptiness of office buildings gave midtown a licentious, anything-goes feeling.
Youthquake moments tend to emerge from austere and dark periods in history. Think of Paris in the 1920s, as the Lost Generation cast off the trauma of the First World War, or swinging London in the ’60s, an explosion of new music, fashion and art following the second.
Among today’s bright-eyed and newly vaccinated, there’s a pent-up hunger to make up for lost time. As Felicia Mendoza put it, “It felt like our 20s were being stripped away from us.”
In October 2019, Mendoza and Laura Burke, both 24 and friends from college, rented an apartment in the Financial District and anticipated living “the young-adult lifestyle you see in the movies,” Mendoza said. Instead, they got a Manhattan that resembled the dystopia of “Blade Runner” and watched their building grow empty as neighbors moved out.
But in recent months, the apartments around them have started to fill up again, entirely with young adults and young couples. And the women, having developed “a shared sense of resilience,” in Burke’s words, are “so excited to go out and connect with people,” she said. “I have this image of walking into a full bar in New York and looking at everyone and having this shared sense of, we did it, we got through a hard time.”
Jimmy Pezzino, a 29-year-old full-time model and part-time drag queen who lives in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, has pledged to never again to be “picky-choosy” about social invitations. “Now, I will not miss an event because I’ve been so deprived of socializing,” Pezzino said.
He has been spending Sundays at 3 Dollar Bill, a bar in Bushwick. His friend, Ty Sunderland, a DJ, recently began hosting a weekly outdoor party, Ty Tea, in a parking lot beside the bar.
“I’ve gone to every single Sunday,” said Pezzino, who predicted a renaissance of nightlife based on what he’s observed. “Everyone is very much ready to give somebody a hug and just be wild again. People are ready to go.”
It all really started last summer. As tens of thousands of older New Yorkers fled, many of the young and single rode out the first wave of Covid-19 in the city. There were illicit house parties in Bushwick. In SoHo, artists turned boarded-up storefronts into canvasses for graffiti art, part of the Black Lives Matters protests that took place throughout the city and, at times, seemed like a sea of young people in the streets. “For the first time in decades,” wrote the culture website Hyperallergic, “SoHo is teeming with art.”
In Brooklyn’s McGolrick Park, a group of cool kids put on a charity bazaar that raised $150,000 for social justice causes and became the summer hang. Called Sidewalk Sale, the biweekly event sold haircuts, handmade ceramics and clothes from Chloë Sevigny’s closet. In “Dimes Square,” the nickname for the area of Canal Street near the restaurant Dimes, two friends and recent college graduates started a print newspaper, the Drunken Canal, to chronicle their downtown lives in the Covid era. (A list of proposed “Lenten Sacrifices” in one issue included “pretending to social distance.”)
These endeavors recall a looser, more grassroots and creative-centered city than the one of recent years. One result of the pandemic has been to push pause on the uninterrupted money culture that’s been the dominant theme in New York since the Bloomberg administration and squeezed young artists and entrepreneurs to the margins or priced them out.
Rents in the city were the lowest since 2010 in the first quarter of 2021, according to StreetEasy. Its rent index dropped 16.8% year-over-year in Manhattan. In Brooklyn, rents are the lowest they’ve been in a decade. In Queens, the median monthly rent fell below $2,000. Landlords everywhere are offering freebies. Mendoza and Burke received 3 1/2 months’ free when they re-signed their lease last fall. The building manager emailed them to say, “You absolutely made my day.”
Such deals, while likely temporary, are creating a geographic reshuffling, as young Brooklynites who were priced out of Manhattan move back to downtown neighborhoods, while others move into new digs that were previously unaffordable. After scanning real estate listings, one of Pace’s friends found a place in SoHo.
“The older crowd wants to move upstate or out to Long Island,” Pace said. “But the younger people, now that Covid is getting more controlled, are looking at the city again and want to be here. There’s a rebirth and definitely a surge of younger people taking over in a way.”
Despite the rising crime, eerily empty subways and other quality of life issues that have marked life in the city since Covid, the city remains a beacon for risk-takers – and at 22, who isn’t a risk-taker?
Last summer, Davis Thompson, then 22 and from small-town Indiana, booked a cheap flight to New York and found himself walking through an empty Times Square at midnight, mesmerized. A month ago, Thompson moved into an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, “right in the thick of it.”
The PR agency that hired Thompson also has an office in Los Angeles, where he could have gone instead, but he came here because “New York feels big and scary, which I thought was a good thing.”
He added, “I don’t mind the occasional rat in the distance. I think the city is magical.”
So do many others: New York University received more than 100,000 applications for first-year undergraduate admissions for the 2021-2022 school year. The figure was a 20% increase over last year, and a record for a private American higher-education institute. Columbia University saw a 51% increase in applications.
“I never believed what the pundits were saying about the permanence of the evacuation,” said Jonathan Williams, assistant vice president of undergraduate admissions for NYU. “New York is a cosmopolitan place, an international city. New York is still a place where young people want to go.”
Commercial rents are down too, as much as 30% to 40% below pre-pandemic levels in some neighborhoods. On Wooster Street between Canal and Prince Streets in SoHo, practically every storefront sits empty. There are blocks like it all over the city, and young entrepreneurs are taking advantage.
In March, Alexander Shulan, a 33-year-old gallerist, moved Lomex, his gallery that nurtures emerging artists, from the Bowery to a new space on Walker Street in Tribeca. Other galleries have recently sprouted way west in the neighborhood, marking a new frontier for the art world.
“There’s more foot traffic into my gallery than pre-pandemic – which is really shocking to me,” Shulan said. “People are yearning for that social engagement that they haven’t had for the last year.”
As someone who grew up in SoHo, where artists and galleries were long ago priced out by chain retailers, Shulan knows the city’s landlords will at some point regain the upper hand. But, he said, “I feel very optimistic about the future of the arts community downtown. There’s a great deal of reorganization happening.”
If New York is in flux, so are the lives of young New Yorkers. Last March, Emily Iaquinta lost her job as events director for the Dead Rabbit NYC after the Manhattan bar’s business dried up. Iaquinta, 33, who came to the city 10 years ago originally to be an actress, sat back for a month, waiting for things to return to normal. When they didn’t, she used the disruption – and her enhanced unemployment benefits – to start a new creative career.
Her fashion jewelry line, Young Diane, which Iaquinta described as “if you threw pearls in a blender with a shot of whiskey and rainbow sprinkles,” and which she makes herself and sells through Etsy and other social platforms, is “the thing I’ve done creatively that I’m the proudest of,” she said.
Phil Rosario, 28, moved to New York the day he graduated college, six years ago. Before the pandemic, Rosario, who lives in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, had worked in the advertising industry on the production side. But, he said, “I always wanted to be on the creative side.”
During the pandemic, Rosario, like everyone, spent gobs of time on TikTok, and his creative experimentation on the platform turned into an opportunity to become a creative director for a creative agency, Movers+Shakers.
“Everyone was forced to be creative this last year to face the challenges,” Rosario said, referring to the tie-dyeing, the sewing, the sourdough baking, the general re-imagining of life that played out online and at home under quarantine. “That experience of being locked up created this safety net in a way for people to experiment.”
As the lockdowns ease and people reemerge into the city, “that energy is really going to explode,” Rosario said.
Recently, Iaquinta and her boyfriend went on a date in Manhattan, something they hadn’t done for ages. In Washington Square Park, where a crowd of hundreds had gathered on a Saturday night, she saw the social supernova firsthand.
“Everyone was dancing, listening to music, smoking weed,” Iaquinta said. “Everyone was out and happy. Everyone looked like a science project but in a wonderful way.”
She was heartened by these inheritors of post-pandemic New York.
“Those people who were unsure have migrated, and that has left room for people who are hungry to come right in,” she said. “It was so reassuring for what comes next.”
[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]