Michael Musto Cannot Wait for New York City’s ‘Marvelously Messy’ Comeback
As indoor dining in New York City is brought to an end, Michael Musto looks to the future—and a city returning to post-pandemic life with a burst of rowdy, unrestrained creativity.
Poetically enough, the current issue of New York magazine spotlights the hundreds of Gotham businesses that have closed due to the pandemic, from Otto pizza restaurant to Uncle Boons, and beyond.
“For Rent” signs have become more prevalent than ever because of the necessary lockdowns, though some restaurants were starting to finally bag some cash due to having been allowed to reopen their interiors (within guidelines), in addition to doing outdoor seating and takeout. But last Friday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that, because of increasing COVID numbers, indoor dining would once again be put on hold, starting Monday.
This is an expected development designed to contain the “second wave,” though it’s devastating to businesses which have already been choked by the diminished opportunities and lack of sufficient government response. Classic restaurants, stores and bars have toppled like dominoes, and now the ones that have doggy-paddled for survival will have their heads pushed back under the water until they scream “Uncle!”
But I’m here to tell you that NYC is resilient and will surely bounce back. We always do. Right now, the mood out there is wary, of course. At Bar Six, the Moroccan restaurant in the West Village, they’re saying they’ll weather till Christmas, then try to get relief before deciding whether to stay open for January and February.
At La Nacional Spanish restaurant on 14th Street, executive director Robert Sanfiz told me they’ll be OK because they’re nonprofit—and he feels the city gave a gift when they allowed them to open outdoors. But Sanfiz feels if NYC loses its “#1” label around the world, “We’re in trouble. The city needs to realize how important restaurants are. The federal government doesn’t give a shit about New York—not right now. On our block, three restaurants have closed because the landlords wouldn’t step up and negotiate.”
More Zen-like was the Waverly Diner employee who told me, “It’s just for two or three weeks. We have to do what's best for everyone. We’ll still have delivery and outside seating.”
The feeling is basically to hold our collective breath and make it to a vaccinated 2021. We can do it. Lord knows true blue New Yorkers have been through more losses than Donald Trump’s “Stop The Steal” campaign.
I was kicking around back in the 1970s, when New York was such an ungodly mess that the “Fun City” tag had become ironic. But as we all cavorted through streets strewn with garbage and used needles, we became curiously attached to the gritty edge and were also able to escape it at the most dazzling disco ever, Studio 54, where the present didn’t exist and the future didn’t matter.
Much worse was the actual future in the form of the 1990s citywide cleanup by pre-Borat Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who demolished nightlife, glitzed up Times Square, and made everything friendlier to tourists from Iowa than to natives from Murray Hill.
The gloss was wildly interrupted by 9/11, which brought on death and destruction and some residents fleeing the city in fear, as if bad things can only happen in New York. I stayed put, having already been deserted by throngs of friends who couldn’t afford to live here anymore and felt New York had lost its edge, so they moved to places where they at least had a front yard. But I didn’t need a front yard—in fact, I had escaped one to live in Manhattan.
While 9/11 didn’t turn out to bring the edge back, the pandemic certainly has—and so has the horror of Trump’s administration, followed by the unspeakable relief of the Biden win. Between the virus, the unwanted vacations we’ve all gotten, and the sense of both fury and possibility in the air, I’ve been to gatherings in Tompkins Square Park and Washington Square Park that have been both politically and musically charged.
Everywhere you turned this year, there were rallies, protests, and sadly, homeless people—it’s all back. Too bad the one-time bohemian set can’t appreciate anything about the new New York because they’ve basically turned into their grandmothers.
Aging hipsters who once screeched that NYC was over because a Gap had opened were now crying, “My local 7-11 just went out of business!” Formerly fiery activists were suddenly bemoaning Black Lives Matter protests because they got in the way of their going to Whole Foods. They were ignoring the fact that rents were starting to going down, new blood was poised to swoop in and, after the vaccines are distributed, theater will come back with a vengeance, along with music and nightlife.
I feel pretty strongly that someone with money who wants to open a dance club is not going to be rejected by the powers that be the way they would have in the ossified past. New York will dance again and our repressed social skills will explode to the beat.
Trump loves calling us a “ghost town”, but despite all the empty storefronts, NYC has been pretty active with outside dining, protected galavanting—and also voting. Not since 54 on New Year’s Eve have I seen a line like the ones on the first day of early voting this October, the primary mission being to make Trump as unemployed as we were.
But while we won that one, there’s a lot of loss to push through on the way back to semi normalcy. When the air clears, the pain will still be palpable, though that’s nothing new; NYC is about tough-skinned survival. We’ve even survived the Punch and Judy show of Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio competing for glory on a daily basis. After a bad start, Cuomo has been stellar with his tough-guy guidance, while de Blasio’s responses are usually greeted with either indifference or contempt.
I hope whoever replaces the mayor is also feisty, but can work in tandem with Cuomo to best serve our health needs. And if not, that’s very New York too. After all, Ed Koch had a spotty record on AIDS, some say because he didn’t want to let his closet gayness show. (That plotline was famously explored in Larry Kramer’s classic autobiographical play, The Normal Heart.)
In any case, the marvelous mess of a new New York will probably be tailor-made for me. I hope that it will bring back the grit of the ‘70s with the self expression of the ‘80s and will bypass the gentrification of the ‘90s for something reeking of character. And I’m not going anywhere else anyway—I can’t drive. In fact, I’m planning on spending Christmas Day right here, eating with masked, distanced friends in a downtown restaurant’s outdoor area. I hope the heat lamps provide enough warmth, but if not, I’ll deal.