What Lessons Can We Draw From the Time the Wealthy Fled New York?

We all remember the beginning of COVID lockdown in the spring of 2020, and the resulting feelings of isolation, panic, grief and loneliness when faced with a new viral pandemic claiming the lives of so many. But, in Feral City, Jeremiah Moss documents something else. In New York City, during the lockdown, he noticed a rewilding of the city as people reengaged with public space. And this fostered the kinds of cross-pollination squashed by decades of gentrification, surveillance, hyper-policing and homogenization.

With “no stores, no shoppers, no restaurant reviews or fashion trends to incite consumption and competition, no office workers rushing around, no eyes staring at iPhones, no outward signs of bourgeois acquisition and productivity,” there was more freedom to roam, Moss writes, and the city pulsated with a kind of street life that Moss, who has lived in New York for almost 30 years, hadn’t experienced at this scale in decades.

Once mass protests erupted after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and cities across the country ignited in public outcry and autonomous action, the streets of New York became politicized. “Pandemic time bends and lags, expanding as it falls back on itself in a churn that coughs up debris from the past and casts it forth into the present,” Moss writes. And it’s in this time of trauma and restlessness that public space in New York once again became populated by poor people and protesters, people of color and queers, outcasts and artists and dreamers. It was “a return of the lost that was not lost,” Moss writes, as people pushed to the margins reemerged in a raucous spectacle of resistance.

In this interview, Moss discusses “what can happen when capitalism is put on just the slightest hold” — the possibilities for intimacy, transgression, collaboration and transformation that emerge — and the policing of public space and public behavior that diminishes the options for self-determination.

Mattilda B. Sycamore: One of the things that makes Feral City so immediate is its focus on embodiment. Reading the book felt like an adrenaline rush, like I was going through everything with you. How did it feel to write?

Jeremiah Moss: I was writing everything down right after it happened. So I’d come home from a bike ride or an action, after being in the intensity of it all, and I’d stay up late to get it down in raw form, when it was still fresh in memory. That writing came out fast, like the adrenaline rush you describe, and then I did all the reworking, which is slow writing, reflecting on experiences with some distance, puzzling out how I felt and what I thought about it all. I wrote Feral City with a good deal of anxiety about getting it “right,” because I was writing about this massive shared experience, that was yet not shared equally, and also writing about other people, so I wanted to be careful, full of care. I do a lot of battling with inner critics when I write, so the process is not smooth. Except in moments of poetry where everything’s flying. But those moments are few and far between.

In writing about activism, I think there’s a tendency to talk about the politics and the protests, the strategies and struggles, the enemies and heroes, but not so much the day-to-day experience of living, of feeling everything. All the possibilities and contradictions. And you do such a great job of this, throughout the book. How did you keep this focus?

I kept coming back to memoir, reminding myself that I was writing my own personal story. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of trying to represent “the movement” or “the pandemic,” because I can’t do that. No one can. It would be hubris to try. As long as I kept it small, I could make it big. As a writer, I started out as a poet and always believed in what William Carlos Williams said about reaching the universal through the particular. I love everyday specificity. And affect. I come to know things through feeling.

In talking about gentrification in New York City, you write about the “New People” who flocked to New York when it became a whitewashed symbol of post-9/11 patriotism. You say, “Their newness is not the problem,” since new people have always flocked to New York. What is the difference now?

It has long been a struggle to come up with a name for these people. When I started my blog, Vanishing New York, in 2007, I called them “yunnies,” a riff on yuppies that stood for Young Urban Narcissists. But that was too limiting, and too cutesy, so I dropped that. For the book, I wanted to coin some great term, but ended up with New People, which I’m not satisfied with either. What I mean is that these people are a new kind of personality type in the city. They’re not New because they’re newcomers; they’re New because they’re not like the sort of people who’ve historically flocked to the city and, specifically, to countercultural neighborhoods like the East Village. They often don’t feel quite human. They feel android-like, manufactured, and this is because — I believe — their personalities have been engineered by the culture of neoliberal capitalism, especially in the 2000s when social media spreads neoliberalism like a virus. In The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino just published an essay about “Instagram face,” what she calls a “single, cyborgian” look, and this is part of what I’m talking about. The New People are perfect neoliberal subjects, engineered to conform, perform and succeed, and this makes them quite violent in the way they enter and commandeer urban space — and in the way they approach people who are unlike them, who they see as beneath them. They are also violent toward themselves through de-subjectification, the process of hollowing themselves out. I find it difficult to empathize with them, though. I keep trying, but I feel so assaulted by them, I just can’t.

I love how you eavesdrop on your influencer neighbors to give us the flattened details of their lives. Surveillance has stifled so many of the possibilities of urban life, and yet here you’re flipping the gaze to examine the gawkers and their “contemptuous disregard.” What do you find?

“Flattened” is a good word and it describes well what happens when someone de-subjectifies themself; they smooth out all the bumps that make them human and particular. They are the cyborgian Instagram face, the flat sameness of the glossy catalog image, drained of all personality. And — here’s their violence — they aim to de-subjectify everything and everyone around them. This goes way beyond gentrification. This is about turning the entire urban landscape into a slick, frictionless, endlessly repeating Instagrammable scene, devoid of affect, risk and surprise. To create this nightmarish hollow city, many of us will have to be removed, and if we refuse to go, we will be controlled — by the police, by systems of surveillance, and by the contemptuous disregard that the New People throw like poison darts from their eyes. They are trying to annihilate us. To make us not exist.

At the beginning of COVID lockdown in New York, so many of these “New People” left the city.

The day lockdown began, in March 2020, they fled in droves. The people who stayed behind and roamed the streets were the sort of New Yorkers I used to know. I’m talking about the ordinary people who aren’t cyborgian, along with the poor and working class, the nonwhite, the queer, the weird, the unhoused, the old, the artists, basically everyone who’s not a New Person. So the city refilled with all this gorgeous subjectivity! It was like a cloud lifted and we could see each other again. We could feel each other and look at each other. We became un-alienated.

So, you are struck by the “poetry of the streets” at the same time as the pandemic is claiming so many lives in New York. You ask, “How is it that tragedy would make me fall in love with the city again?”

It was the most joyful time of my life — and I know how that sounds. People were dying, suffering, and I had the privilege to continue working from home, making a living, being relatively safe. I could afford to feel joy, which is not a common affect for me. But I also spoke to many people without my privilege and they, too, expressed feelings of joy and release in lockdown. The pandemic came with a tremendous freedom, especially for those of us who’ve been constrained. We connected with each other. I fell in love with the city again because the city felt like a very loving place in 2020.

You describe the scene in Times Square right after George Floyd was murdered by the cops in Minneapolis. This is before the mass protests, and there’s just one Black man engaged in a theatrical protest of his own. Your description feels so intimate that it’s almost shocking. And you do this throughout the book — painting pictures of activists and wanderers as individual weirdos engaged in daily struggles of survival and resistance. I wonder if you could talk more about this method — it feels journalistic in approach, but without the unnecessary distance.

Is that what I do? You’re telling me something I didn’t know I did, so I don’t know how to answer this question. It’s not something I try to do. Like I don’t sit down and say, “I want this to feel intimate.” I wonder if what’s coming across is the intimacy I feel when I encounter certain people in the city, the weirdos who are strangers to me and yet I feel this connection with them. I think I’ve always felt this — and it’s an urban feeling for me — the way New York gives you this shocking intimacy at a distance.

It brings to mind the phenomenon that happens when you’re sitting on the subway, on a local train going through the tunnel, when the Express passes by and you look into the windows of that other train and you feel deeply connected to the humanity of the strangers over there, so much that it can make you cry. I think it’s the distance between the two trains that allows this to happen. I don’t feel it for the people sharing my train car. They’re too close. So there is distance, but it’s the kind of distance that permits an exquisite closeness with others.

There’s a lot of vulnerability in this book, and part of this is in revealing your own limitations. You write that as a white person you were aware of white supremacy and racist police tyranny for years, but that 2020 was the first time that you joined a Black Lives Matter protest, “Because it’s the end of the world and I’m tired of feeling powerless.” How does this moment change you, and what does it make possible collectively?

That line came about because my editor asked me why I joined the protests at that moment and I had to think about it. I’m not sure my answer is quite right, but it’s the best I could come up with. I wonder now, as you’re asking me essentially the same question my editor did, if the experience of being in a re-New Yorked city, a de-alienated city, allowed me to plug into the intersectionality of that moment. Most people fight for the stuff that matters to them personally, so queer and trans fights are my fights, and having lived as female, women’s fights are my fights. Those are easy for me to jump into. As a white person in the U.S., I’ve been trained by white supremacy and capitalism to disidentify with Black people. Maybe when we were all left alone in the city together, when capitalism receded a bit, that made room to feel more connected across race. I’m not sure. This is something I want to keep thinking about.

“We’re all outside because of the virus,” someone says to you. “Everyone together. It hasn’t been like this in 25 years.” There’s a danger of nostalgia here, but at the same time your book feels phenomenally in the present. You write about how, during the pandemic, the “master-planned phantom zone” of Times Square and the corporate NYU-colonized Washington Square Park reemerge as wild spaces for autonomous cross-pollination centering around people of color, queers, social misfits, party people and dreamers. You ask, “Why is there so much 1970s feeling in the air?” And I wonder if part of this is because the 1970s were the last time we had a more viable welfare state in the United States, and in 2020 some of these policies briefly reemerged.

Exactly. I write in the book about hauntology, the way Mark Fisher used it when he wrote, “What is being longed for in hauntology is not a particular period, but the resumption of the processes of democratization and pluralism,” the processes cut short in the 1970s when neoliberalism took the wheel. So it’s not nostalgia — although, as a proud nostalgist, I take issue with the demonization of nostalgia and the way the right has co-opted it for their “Make America Great Again” Archie Bunkerist “those were the days” rallying cry. I do think, though, that what many people, across the political spectrum, are feeling when they feel “those were the days” is the loss of human connection that comes with accelerated, unfettered capitalism, which feeds on and reproduces alienation. As a culture, are we more alienated than we used to be? Most definitely.

That quote — “We’re all outside because of the virus. Everyone together. It hasn’t been like this in 25 years” — was said by a middle-aged Black man in Washington Square Park during one of our weekly pandemic dance parties. I think he was expressing nostalgia, a word that literally means “homesickness,” and what is home? Ideally, it’s a place where we don’t feel alien, where we feel part of a family, whether that is by birth or choice. We feel belonging. This is what many of us felt during lockdown. Capitalism just sort of seized up, like an engine with no gas, and this opened a magnificent gap into which many of us could feel free and connected. That also freed us to feel love for one another. Because when you’re not swept up in the scarcity mindset of competition and production, you have much more capacity to give and receive love.

There’s so much camaraderie in the collective impulses toward pageantry and protest in this book, and yet you also know that “All the beautiful parts of this time will be taken away from us.” Tell us about this loss.

I’m still reeling from that loss as it continues at this very moment. The engine of capitalism started turning again when the city “reopened” in the spring of 2021 and it’s only gotten worse. I watched people change all around me — quite simply, they closed up, turning away from collective life on the streets. I felt it in myself, too, as much as I fight it. It’s contagious. We became re-alienated.

As the New People, and others, started returning to the city, the police became a more aggressive presence, locking the city back into constriction. They’ve been harassing Black and Brown people, queer and trans people, unhoused people and artists, pushing them out of the public spaces they had migrated into during lockdown. They do this to make the city feel comfortable and safe for tourists, the wealthy, and those New People who seek a risk-free, frictionless, Instagrammable experience of urban life. Such a city must be as supremely normative as possible: white, straight, cisgender, bourgeois, on and on, with no surprise, no crumminess, nothing out of order. It’s an emotionally dead space.

But it’s not just the police in blue uniforms who do the controlling, it’s also the hyper-normative people who radiate social control as they dictate norms. They came back to the city in a rage, so angry that those left behind had covered it in graffiti and trash, in queerness and Blackness, and liberation. The reopening of New York was a terribly depressing time for many of us. It’s been bewildering to go from so much freedom and connection, so much shared subjectivity, back to everyday violence and alienation. It is deeply painful.

I am, however, grateful to the experience, because it revealed what can happen when capitalism is put on just the slightest hold — and what happens when it comes roaring back. Lockdown was a profound accidental experiment. It showed us what can be.

You are a trauma therapist, and this undergirds many of your experiences in the book, but none more clearly than when you end up holding a woman while she’s having a panic attack at a protest because she’s remembering when she was recently assaulted by the cops at another protest. You think about the risks of COVID but you can’t let go. I was sobbing when I read this. Because it’s everything at once, right? Trauma, panic, risk, alienation, connection, intimacy, a rare sudden beauty. “Have I ever held a stranger like this?” you ask. And I wonder: How could we hold each other like this all the time?

That is the question, isn’t it? We are all susceptible to internalized capitalism, which travels like a virus from host to host, and carries a heavy payload of white supremacy with it. When the city reopened, I felt it take hold of me again, as much as I resisted it. This is powerful stuff. I felt myself turn away from people, become suspicious and fearful. I felt myself become busy, self-interested and envious. Holding each other — which means holding each other in mind, being mindful of one another — this is profoundly difficult to do in our current social system because that system is a massive machine hell-bent on breaking us apart from one another. I can only tell you how I do it, or try to do it.

I participate in a weekly mutual aid event and join protests when I can, when they happen, which is less and less often. I also believe in the power of individual, idiosyncratic protest. This means carrying one’s body as a place of resistance. I try to do a little deviant thing here and there — this can be as simple as talking out loud to yourself in public, or walking in an odd nonlinear way, or singing on the street. This is a kind of holding, too, holding open a little space for other deviants.

I slow down. This is essential. When I feel myself get swept up, on the sidewalk where people are radiating capitalism and control, I slow the fuck down. I dawdle and look at things closely. I also put on music, but not in headphones — I put my music on a speaker that I carry, boombox music, publicly shared, and this both repels some people and attracts others. It helps me to drop into what I call substream, the other city, where people are not alienated from each other. So when I’m walking with my music, some people will groove with me — these are usually people outside the supreme norm of white, straight, cis, bourgeois, etc. So, a Black man, or a trans woman, or an unhoused person will dance or give me a nod and a smile and this is like — bam! I’m being held again and I’m holding again, and we’re together.

Copyright, Truthout and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. May not be reprinted without permission.