The city in tears

Defoe illustrates in great detail how the face of London drastically changed as a result of the plague. Once a cosmopolitan, buzzing city, he now describes it as “desolate”, stating that “London might well be all in tears”. This dark description of a once lively city reminded me of the impact that the pandemic had on New York City. Having experienced the initial phase of the pandemic in New York myself, this article and photo essay of the city resonated deeply.

As we scroll through the photos, we see a mere shell of the former metropolis, empty streets and eerily vacant public spaces. The photographer explains that as people “pass in the street, they keep a wary distance; if they acknowledge each other it is with terse, silent nods”. He also captures the same air of melancholy that Defoe describes in London through his pictures which highlight the concern and worry in his subjects’ faces. I drew this parallel between London and New York as despite being afflicted with different plagues and in different time periods, the impact of the contagion on both cities was jarringly similar, as both cities came to a grinding halt.

Finally, this piece in the New Yorker from April vividly describes the look and feel of New York City during the initial stages of the pandemic.


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  1. Thanks for this, Siya. I loved the photo essay. It reminded me of Candace’s NY Ghost blog in Severance, where she uses it to document New York becoming more and more desolate. Interestingly, she says in the novel that that’s the New York she finally falls in love with. Maybe this is another dimension of “the plague reveals” what is true about things, people and places.

    • I want to echo Ayan’s thoughts on the photo essay you shared. Photography is such a powerful way to document something as jarring and challenging as a pandemic, and I think the photographer does a great job in editing the photos and playing with colors to convey feelings and messages on how NYC is coping with the pandemic.

      This reminds me of a photographer friend of mine who lives in NYC. When the pandemic hit in March, many people left the city, while he stayed back, cycled around the city day and night, and took photos of empty streets and rare sightings of people. Seeing the city through his lens gave me a perspective vastly different from mine, a person who also fled the city mid-March. After reading A Journal and Severance, I look back and I humorously think of him as the Defoe/Candace of the COVID era.

  2. I was also thinking of Vamika’s isolation photo series of life on our campus last spring.

  3. Or this, about NYU this fall.

  4. I just remembered one too, called One Person City, which was done by a student at NYU Shanghai when the city went into lockdown.

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