What’s the vibe right now?
Yolanda Hopson is also known as “The Mayor of Melrose.”Credit…
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“New York City is dead forever,” that one headline declared. But the truth is, even though the coronavirus pulled the emergency brake and forced the city to a screeching halt, New York soon lurched right back into motion.
Now, millions of residents are entering a third pandemic summer, and sidewalks are teeming, happy hours are hopping and tourists are back.
So what does the city feel like now? What’s the vibe?
A five-day, five-borough vibe check found that New Yorkers described heightened concerns around normalcy, safety, security, finances and mental health — but also demonstrated unwavering optimism.
The city has always been defined by the people who live here: It’s a magnet for dreamers, a haven for hustlers, a perpetual motion machine in which the engine is fueled by a human desire to strive. A week spent in barbershops and baklava spots, in sunny coffee shops and shady parks showed that the city was very much still alive.
On a muggy Monday afternoon in mid-June, at the intersection of East 149th Street and 3rd Avenue, the Bronx was thrumming. Sidewalks buzzed with crowds. Street vendors sold sliced mango, jewelry, hats and toys. Cars were backed up bumper to bumper along the avenue, honking as hoods shimmered in the heat.
A few blocks north of the noise, Yolanda Hopson sat serenely on her shaded stoop, her silver glitter eye shadow sparkling. She said the “beautiful day” brought her outside. Still, to her, right now the city feels hurried.
“It feels like everybody is trying to rush and do things for ‘just in case,’” Ms. Hopson said. “Everybody is living on ‘just in case’ now.”
Friends and family call Ms. Hopson “The Mayor of Melrose,” because she knows everything that goes on in her neighborhood. She will turn 56 in July, caught Covid in December and remains cautious. “I wear two masks. I just don’t think that it’s over.” Then she smiled: “You still live. You enjoy.”
Down the street, at Chobby Flow Barbershop, the proprietor, Robin “Chobby” Tejada Rodriquez, 31, said that business had been very slow since the pandemic.
He has owned the shop for eight years, and customers who used to get a haircut every week do not come in as frequently — or have stopped coming altogether. “People don’t have money,” he said.
Businesses in the area that used to stay open late now close early, he said. “Robbery and crime — it’s crazy now,” he said. And lately, when people sit in his chair, they talk about their problems: “Their mental health, it’s no good.”
Not far away, a handful of men sat at the edge of the handball court in St. Mary’s Park in the South Bronx. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” played on a portable speaker. (“It’s like a jungle sometimes; It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”)
“It feels more normal than what it was when the pandemic first started,” said Steven Montalvo, 23, after he finished a fast-paced game of handball. He lives next to the park and explained that when the virus hit, the area “was really, really dirty. A bunch of people were sleeping in the park. There was needles everywhere.”
Now, “It’s cleaner,” he said, but he added: “The crime is the same.” He pointed west, beyond the chain link fence, and referenced a rape that happened “at 8 o’clock in the morning on the other side of the park.” He continued, “I think yesterday, or the day before, they were shooting on that side. You know, regular city crime.”
It seems like an act of optimism not just to start a new business but to open now, as the city recovers. On Tuesday afternoon in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Spencer Okada and Khanh Tran stood before the huge window of their new shop on Doyers Street, ArtBean Coffee Roasters, as the breeze wafted in.
The couple, who opened the store in May, got married a week before things shut down in 2020. “We basically spent our honeymoon in a tiny New York apartment,” said Ms. Tran, who came to the city from Vietnam. They made that time productive: “This company was born during the lockdown — because we wanted to create something.” They roast the coffee themselves, collaborate with artists and hang paintings in the shop.
Mr. Okada, who grew up in Reno, Nev., shrugged off the timing: “You can’t time anything, ever. This is just our time right now to do it, and, like, we just have to try our best.”
About nine miles north, in Harlem, another newly opened business was welcoming guests. Pungently scented NYC Zaza Exotics, owned by Antar Alziadi — better known to some as the rapper Yemen Chee$e — had only been open for two days, but customers had already been checking it out, he said. “I have a lot of followers on Instagram. They come from all the boroughs.”
Mr. Alziadi sells treats from other countries: Skittles from Japan; Crush cream soda from Canada; and rare, limited edition oddities like Flaming Hot Mountain Dew. Asian-market KitKats will run you $20 or $30 here; chips, $15; sodas, $10.
Despite the extremely fragrant aroma inside the store, Mr. Alziadi said that it doesn’t sell weed. He is “in the process” of trying to get his license for that. Until then, Mr. Alziadi is optimistic about the prospects of an internationally sourced snack store: “Everybody has their own luck. Your luck is your luck, no matter what you’re selling.”
Just a few blocks away, at Rucker Park, huge speakers shook with hip-hop beats during a streetball game. The man known as Ricky Superstar was beaming while rollerblading and spinning basketballs.
“We’re getting through with smiles,” he said, right as the Basketball Beauties were about to hit the court. “The smiles are getting greater, and better, because the pandemic went down.”
His given name is Ricardo Verona; he was born “around the corner from the Apollo”; he’s been coming to Rucker Park since the 1970s; he swims four times a week; and he turns 62 years old in September. “I feel the energy right now,” he said. “People feel like, ‘yay!’”
On Wednesday on Steinway Street in Astoria, Faieq Alnabulsi, the owner of Al-Sham Sweets & Pastries, was selling baklava and cookies by the pound. But business has been inconsistent.
“Last year was better than this year, so far,” said Mr. Alnabulsi. “Now, people are more careful” with their spending, he said.
The store has been open for 12 years. Mr. Alnabulsi, who is 53 and originally from Jordan, recently raised his prices, as the cost of ingredients and supplies — boxes, bags — has gone up. He said he’s not charging as much as it’s costing him, which has hurt his profits.
“But that’s OK. What are you going to do?”
Over on 35th Street and Astoria Boulevard, Tasnim Shawkat, 19, was walking home to East Elmhurst from a doctor’s appointment in Astoria, which would take about an hour. “It’s a long walk home, but it’s nice,” she said. Walking at night, however, is a different story. “I don’t know if it’s because that’s what I’ve been hearing, but I definitely feel less safe,” she said.
On a side street in Flushing, down a flight of stairs, flashing lights and squishy, colorful stuffed animals in Anime Claw beckoned fans of Asian animation and video games. Vivian Hsieh, 25, who works at the shop and loves “anything fluffy,” said people come in just to take photos with the wall of plushies.
Despite the cheerful interior, Michael Shao, 29, who runs the store, said that there was a recent “security issue” in the neighborhood. “Stealing, minor robbery, something like that.” He said that he could also tell that some customers were feeling under pressure, financially, but that the store provided relief and entertainment: “We make people smile.”
As P-Funk and The Temptations wafted from speakers on Thursday afternoon, a knot of customers congregated inside Royal Rib House on Malcolm X Boulevard in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, ordering fried chicken, mac and cheese and, of course, ribs.
Jason Barnett, 45, who runs the restaurant now that his parents have passed him the torch, has lived in Bed-Stuy for over 25 years. “Every day I see more and more people coming out,” he said. “People are just happy to be out, and things are slightly getting back to normal.”
Cree Flournoy, 31, who started visiting Royal Rib House as a child, was picking up an order for her mother: “She got a slab of ribs, and another kind of ribs with collard greens,” she said. Ms. Flournoy called the mood of the city “hopeful.” “I think we’re all just trying to, like, get back to life and do all the things that we used to do, and go to the places we used to visit — and enjoyed.”
Across the borough in Bushwick, Luzclarita Velez, 25, and Marcella Jordan, 21, played tug with their dog, Biscuit, in the dog run of Maria Hernandez Park. Ms. Velez said that the city seemed “quiet,” but it had her thinking about all kinds of possibilities. Maybe she would switch from studying criminal justice to becoming an emergency medical technician. Maybe she would go to Puerto Rico, and Disney World. “Like, you only have one life,” she said. More immediately and more locally, she would love to go to a rooftop restaurant. “I’ve lived here all my life,” she said, yet there were so many things she’d never done. “I want to explore more of the city.”
On the Staten Island Ferry on Friday, crowds swarmed the starboard side, snapping selfies as the boat cruised by the Statue of Liberty, which stood against a deep blue sky.
In the St. George neighborhood, Kesiah Kelly sat outside of Sherri’s Kitchen, a soul food restaurant on Bay Street. “I’m actually from Brooklyn,” she said, and laughed as she described how her neighborhood, Brooklyn Junction, was back to normal: “Regular, back to the ghetto, back to the arguing, the dollar van — it was like nothing happened. But just, you see people with masks.”
Ms. Kelley’s wife, Shanee Lewis, 34, runs Sherri’s Kitchen now. Ms. Lewis’s mother, Scherisce Lewis Clinton, who founded the restaurant, died earlier this year. She was known for giving free meals to those in need. Ms. Lewis is keeping her mother’s recipes, and spirit, alive: “We feed the homeless. I keep up with that.”
She got ready to fry some fish. Beautiful, sweet-scented red velvet cakes sat on the stove waiting to be frosted. But prices will have to change, she said. “Let me tell you. Oxtails? For $200, you’re getting like, a little bag. It used to be $100 for two big bags.”
Down the street on the upper level of the Empire Outlets, the frosé machine was churning behind the bar at the beer garden Clinton Hall. A little girl threw bean bags as lazy bees buzzed around the hives in the garden at the back of the roof.
The general manager, Jason Breska, said people are truly eager to be out again: “Last year was kind of like, baby steps.” Mr. Breska, who, when asked his age, replied “old enough,” commutes from Brooklyn for work and notices the difference: “Staten Islanders, they’re a different breed. They’re ready to get out and live their life.” And for him, personally, “I think the pandemic really taught me gratitude — appreciation of being around other people and being outside.”