Walk into any smart hotel for the first time with enough swagger and the doorman is likely to welcome you with a reassuring ‘Welcome back’. But after a travel ban of almost two years, being met with this greeting in New York felt especially sweet.
The first flight (or rather, flights) back to JFK from Heathrow Terminal 3 was a historic event: a parallel takeoff shared by professional frenemies Virgin Atlantic and British Airways. The dual departure not only united natural competitors, but also began to rekindle a certain, very special, relationship – one that had been faring the trials of long distance love for almost 658 days. London to New York always feels like an exciting journey, but aboard Virgin flight VS3 that morning, there wasn’t much sleeping going on. The question keeping me awake was this: How had our favourite unsleeping city fared during a global nightmare?
One welcome difference unlikely to last long was queue-free border control at JFK, which was passed through at unprecedented (in a good way) speed. Out on the streets, poised between Halloween and Thanksgiving, there is a promising whisper of the festive in the air and a sense of mellow expectancy among the seasonal collage of burnt orange, burgundy and rust. It is unseasonably warm, the blue-skied days bathed in golden light. But darkness falls in the swing of a deli door: enter on the cusp of sunset and you’ll leave to see the skyline ignited and the Empire State Building twinkling reliably into life.
Undeniably, it is quieter on the sidewalks, from the highest reaches of the Upper East Side all the way to Williamsburg. There are empty retail spaces on Fifth Avenue, countless closed restaurants and bars, and an inevitable dearth of tourists. But, as the residents I met were all too willing to tell me, this is a city that survives, and the overriding atmosphere is one of cautious hope.
I was taken aback by the gentle, friendly energy suffusing the streets. In the early hours of one Wednesday morning, as I was nursing jet lag with a coffee in Dumbo, a passing stranger said good morning with a polite nod. Later in the day, when my way was blocked by a meeting of designer dogs and their owners, one woman, by way of apology, said knowingly: ‘This is the West Village, right? It’s what we do here.’ Despite my English accent and out-of-town trepidation, the implicit understanding is clear: she thinks I live here too. It strikes me multiple times during the trip that because of the near two-year lack of British tourists, more locals than usual assume that you too are a New Yorker.
Resident or visitor, stroll through the streets of Downtown Manhattan now and you’ll notice another change born during the pandemic: strings of covered terraces created for al fresco space during indoor dining shutdowns. ‘It’s a nightmare for the parking situation,’ confides one SoHo dweller, but a fun new addition. It may be quiet, but it’s still ‘hell at the weekends’, says Seb, who’s worked at Joe’s Pizza on Eighth Avenue for 11 years. You still can’t get a table at Danny Meyer’s Ci Siamo, one of the splashy restaurant openings in the new Manhattan West development, but you might just get one at Zou Zou’s next door.
From esteemed hotel doormen to young Brookylnites who never cross the bridge; natives returning after London lockdowns to bemused cab drivers who never left, there was one word that every New Yorker used when describing the city’s survival: resilience. This city, perhaps more than any other, has a long history of bouncing back. And like the best cities, the best relationships are resilient, weathering change, growth and setbacks with courage, hope and, yes, a little romance. After a testing period that NyLon love affair seems to have been given a new lease of life. We missed you, baby!
Jessica Burrell was a guest of Virgin Atlantic who are now flying direct between London (LHR) and New York (JFK) with return fares from £359 per person, including complimentary food, drink and inflight entertainment. For further information visit virginatlantic.com or call 0344 8747 747. This fare is available for selected departures until 5 December 2021