by Andrew K. Arnett

[New York City] I’m sipping on a coffee, looking out my window. I can see numerous moving trucks and U-haul vans parked up and down Bushwick Avenue. I count four of them right off the bat. There’s been a succession of them, coming and going all week.  Sure. Summer is a big time for moving. The problem is, I haven’t seen anyone moving in. I’ve just seen them moving out. In droves, it seems. People packing up, leaving, going some place. Where to? Who knows. They just want to get out.

This gets me to thinking of John Carpenter’s cult classic Escape From New York (1981), starring Kurt Russell. In the film, former Special Forces soldier Snake Plissken (Russell) is tasked with rescuing the US President after Air Force One is hijacked and crashes into Manhattan.

New York City, in this near future scenario, has experienced a 400% increase in crime, leading authorities to sealing off Manhattan  with a 50-foot wall surrounding the island. The bridges are blocked and mined. The city is designated  a giant maximum-security prison and, on the inside, ruled by a crime boss named The Duke.

We understand why Snake and the President would want to escape New York, but what about the people living in the real New York today? Has the city gone the way of Carpenter’s gloomy vision? Maybe not yet, but there are shocking parallels.

Grand Central Station. Photo by Andrew Arnett

Take the crime rate. The city is currently experiencing a steep increase in violent crimes. The NYPD July 2020 crime stats, released on August 3, prove that shootings in New York city are skyrocketing, compared to the same time last year. It showed a 177% increase this past July, with a total of 244 shootings, compared to 88 shootings in July 2019.

The stats show a 72% year-to-date increase, with 450 by July 2019 compared to 772 by July 2020. Murders are up as well, jumping from 181 by July 2019 to 235 by July 2020 – a 30% increase.

What is causing the increase? Many New Yorkers believe the increase in violence is a direct result of the city’s decision to disband the Police Department’s anti-crime unit in June. Consisting of 600 plain-clothes police officers, these anti-crime units were an elite force charged with stopping violent crimes and ridding the streets of illegal guns.

Aside from the crime, another strong motivation to get the hell out of New York is the coronavirus pandemic. “People are fleeing the city in droves,” Moon Salahie, owner of Elite Moving & Storing in Yonkers, told the New York Post.

Salie said families are most worried that the pandemic will effect their kids’ education, as the school year approaches. Others are fed up with being shut inside their homes while many of the city’s amenities are still closed or restricted due to COVID-19.

Moon Salahie, of Elite Moving & Storage. Photo/William Farrington

The New York Post reported that 90% of moving company customers are leaving New York City for upstate, the suburbs and elsewhere. 16,000 New Yorkers moved to Connecticut from March through June, according to U.S. Postal Service data.

Certainly, with store closures happening left and right, the coronavirus is taking its toll on the economy, one that has been fragile even before the pandemic hit. It’s no surprise that people think they can do better elsewhere. The result is a surplus of vacant apartments in New York.

Douglas Elliman and Miller Samuel reported that the number of empty rental apartments in Manhattan nearly tripled compared with this time last year. 15,000 empty rental apartments came up in Manhattan in August, a huge jump from only 5,600 a year ago. As the report noted, this is the largest number of vacancies ever recorded in New York City since data started being collected 14 years ago.

It’s not just the hard-luck and broke New Yorkers that are leaving town. Notable New Yorkers with deep pockets are also joining the exodus. Former hedge-fund manager and comedy club owner James Altucher self-published an essay entitled NYC Is Dead Forever. Here’s Why, summing up what a lot of New Yorkers are feeling.

Altucher begins the article by saying, “I love NYC. When I first moved to NYC it was a dream come true,” but then declares, “Now it’s completely dead.” And this time he believes it’s not going to bounce back. The reasons, he says, are because of the impact on business, culture, food, real estate and colleges. Altucher writes:

Midtown Manhattan, the center of business in NYC, is empty. Even though people can go back to work, famous office buildings like the Time Life skyscraper are still 90% empty. Businesses realized that they don’t need their employees at the office.

Henry Winkler and James Altucher. Photo/ James Altucher

Alutcher is the co-owner of the comedy club, Standup NY, on West 78th and Broadway, but notes that “Broadway is closed until at least the spring. Lincoln Center is closed. All the museums are closed.”

He points out that many of his favorite restaurants are closed down. “What happens to all the employees who work at these restaurants?” he asks. “They are gone. They left New York City. Where did they go? I know a lot of people who went to upstate NY, Maine, Vermont, Tennessee, Indiana, etc. — back to live with their parents or live with friends or live cheaper. They are gone and gone for good.”

Yes, it’s a bleak view Altucher is presenting. But who can argue with him? The city is in dire straights, no doubt about that. But not everyone is agreeing with him. In fact, another notable New Yorker, some would say the “uber New Yorker,” Jerry Seinfeld himself, has taken him to task. Seinfeld, in a New York Times Op-ed, calls out Altucher for being a wailing and whimpering “putz.”

Addressing Altucher, Seinfeld writes:

You say New York will not bounce back this time. You will not bounce back. In your enervated, pastel-filled new life in Florida. I hope you have a long, healthy run down there. I can’t think of a more fitting retribution for your fine article.

Ouch. That must smart. But Seinfeld is committed to New York. He believes it will bounce back, explaining, “You think Rome is going away too? London? Tokyo? The East Village? They’re not. They change. They mutate. They re-form. Because greatness is rare. And the true greatness that is New York City is beyond rare.”

If Seinfeld is true to his word, maybe he’ll go so far as to do a Seinfeld re-union show. Everyone else seems to be doing it. One thing may be different though. Instead of being a “show about nothing,” it may have to be a “show about nobody.”