WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK, MARCH 31, 7:10 P.M.
While reviewing images back in his studio, Mark Seliger noticed, for the first time, the inscription on the park’s arch: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God. —Washington.”
A FEW YEARS AGO on the way home from summer vacation in Rhode Island, my husband and I began discussing the possibility of leaving New York. It wasn’t that we wanted to go somewhere else. It was that we had lived here as adults for 20 years, and the sedimentary buildup of experience had begun to weigh on us. I sometimes felt, I confessed to him, as if I was living in an archaeological dig of my own past. When you have spent two decades in the city, you remember not only the restaurant that used to be in the spot where a new restaurant just opened, but the one that was there two restaurants ago; the nostalgia can pull you under. I still missed Grange Hall, which closed in 2004. I missed Savoy, on the corner of Prince and Crosby. I hypothesized that I had walked on every block south of Midtown. Max and I had lived on the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side, in Greenwich Village and the East Village, and in two neighborhoods in Brooklyn; we had seen our local restaurant in the first of those Brooklyn neighborhoods become a favorite of Beyoncé and Jay-Z. We were both born in the city. We met in the city, dated in the city, got engaged in the city, got married in the city, had a child in the city. At what point did it become too much? I kept catching movie-montage glimpses of my younger self, hailing cabs late at night or getting caught in a thunderstorm or treating myself to stockings at Barneys. The memories were unavoidable, baked block by block into the pavement.
On my last day out this March, before my family retreated indoors and before the city itself began to lower its gates, I got on the Q train in Brooklyn, rode to the East Side, and walked to a doctor’s office on East 61st Street to have a routine mammogram. I thought about canceling the appointment—that same day we had begun working from home—but I hadn’t had one in more than five years, and it occurred to me that, in the midst of a global pandemic, if something extra bad happened because I had skipped my routine mammogram I would feel like a world-class idiot. The subway was not crowded, and it was still cold enough to wear gloves, which I kept on to press the elevator button and to fill out the medical forms. The procedure was fine. I was fine. I walked out into the gray twilight, on a block I don’t think I had ever walked on before, and marveled—in the way you still can in New York after more than 20 years, if you remember to look up—that the buildings were so tall and full of people, everybody navigating the inbetween time of early evening. I got back on the Q and met Max for dinner, because at that point it seemed like restaurants were still okay as long as you were careful. We walked home through Prospect Park and have not left since.
Now the deaths from COVID-19 in New York City have surpassed the toll on 9/11, that day when the mayor said the number of casualties from the attacks would be “more than any of us can bear.” This spring, Mark Seliger has been photographing the quiet streets of Manhattan. He goes out at dawn and dusk, and in his pictures he has found both escapes from our current predicament and heartbreaking evidence of it. These are our new cityscapes: empty crosswalks, field hospitals in Central Park’s East Meadow, and 1 World Trade beckoning through the fog, as the Twin Towers used to before it.
We will file these scenes in our memory banks, this new city we are coming to know—where the balconies have sprung to life while the sidewalks sleep, where our apartment walls define our waking hours as well as our hours of rest. And I keep thinking back to a day that was, if anything could be, the polar opposite: the blackout of August 14, 2003. I was working at a literary magazine on Sullivan Street. I was on the phone with an agent talking about a story, and the phone went dead. Everything went dead. No one knew what had happened. The shock of 9/11 was still palpable, and it wasn’t long before we heard military jets overhead. But there didn’t seem to be any disruption aside from the power, so eventually we all left the office and began walking home. I headed up the West Side. Everyone was on the street. It was a warm summer afternoon and the mood quickly became joyful, buoyed by a sense of benign abandon. Storekeepers were handing out ice cream to passersby—it was going to melt anyway, we might as well enjoy it. By the time I got to Midtown, I noticed that civilians had stepped into intersections to direct traffic in the absence of traffic lights. They were waving cars forward and circling their arms with tremendous aplomb, like they were part of a Broadway musical. It felt as if they had harbored this secret desire for years—to direct traffic in the world’s greatest metropolis—and now, through the luck of a power outage that started with a software bug in Akron, Ohio, and spread to encompass almost the entire northeast of the country, they could fulfill their dream. They were making New York City move. You could have scored the whole thing to Gershwin.
What I remember about that day—about all the monumental days that have happened in New York, the tragic and triumphant ones alike—are the crowds of people, the way we spilled out into the streets and fell into step with one another. There are precious few people in Mark’s images from this surreal spring. That is by design, of course, but the pain of our moment lies partly in that prohibition. When, in all the highs and lows of life in our city, have we ever been kept from coming together? But we know that the city is still here for us. It holds all of our memories. It knows what we love, and who we miss. It has space enough and time enough for all our past selves, and it will be ready to embrace our new selves when we emerge.
PARK AVENUE, APRIL 13, 7:59 P.M.
“We set up the shot in the middle of the street during a rainstorm,” Seliger says. “There was nothing coming at us except for the occasional car or taxi. You could actually see the storm move across New York City, pushing its way across the avenue.”
CENTRAL PARK, APRIL 7, 7:35 A.M.
Seliger, accompanied by his dog Willie, visited the magnolia trees across from the American Museum of Natural History. “Nature continues to evolve and change in front of you when everything else has stopped,” he says.
NYC HEALTH + HOSPITALS/BELLEVUE, APRIL 14, 6:33 A.M.
From a small emergency lane on FDR Drive, Seliger photographed the refrigerated trucks that are serving as Bellevue hospital’s temporary morgue. The angle created “a symbolic crest,” he says, “beneath the building, under the tree line, the trucks are like a burial ground.”
MADISON STREET, MARCH 30, 7:11 P.M.
Looking southwest at 1 World Trade Center from lower Chinatown, Seliger observed only one or two people on the street. “It gives a sense of scale—there’s this girth to everything in New York, and then you see this tiny speck of a human being.”
APOLLO THEATER, APRIL 9, 7:25 P.M.
“As you journey through the city, you become aware of empathy everywhere, especially from the closed places getting hit really hard,” Seliger says. “Rather than advertising, the message is stay strong, be safe, be well. There’s strength in the marquee.”
For more exclusive photos of New York City under lockdown, head to VF.com. ■