Where Did All the New Yorkers Go? Follow the Mail

Azi Paybarah, Matthew Bloch and Scott Reinhard

NEW YORK — New York City has long been a cheek-to-jowl town with cramped apartments and determined strivers. But starting in March, as the coronavirus outbreak began, parts of the city emptied out, with many leaving from New York’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Mail-forwarding requests show where a number of them went. Some abandoned the Upper West Side for sunny Miami. Others left Gramercy Park for New Jersey. Some left Brooklyn apartments for California.

In March, the U.S. Postal Service received 56,000 mail-forwarding requests from New York City, more than double the monthly average. In April, the number of requests went up to 81,000, twice the number from a year earlier. Sixty percent of those new requests were for destinations outside the city.

The empty feeling is the most pronounced in Manhattan. In April, a little more than half of those requests for destinations outside New York City originated in Manhattan, led by neighborhoods on the Upper West and Upper East Sides.

The data from neighborhoods that saw the most requests mirrors cellphone data showing that the city’s wealthiest areas saw the most movement.

“Right after COVID hit, everyone just blasted out of here,” Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal said of the Upper West Side. “You could walk just in the middle of Columbus Avenue. And I often did.”

Miles of normally cramped streets are empty, and garbage collection is lower in those neighborhoods than in recent years. In Times Square, you can practically hear the hum of electronic signs glowing above empty sidewalks.

Many New Yorkers who fled their homes in the city moved to nearby areas in Long Island, New Jersey and upstate New York.

In most locations, the Postal Service allows individuals and families who normally get mail at a given location to temporarily forward their mail somewhere new, for up to a year.

Now, mail that used to go to Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan is going to Maine and Connecticut. Lower East Side letters are being rerouted to Florida and Pennsylvania. Packages meant for Park Slope, Brooklyn, are going to Texas and Rhode Island.

After being laid off from his job as a theater stage hand, Kurt Gardner, his wife and their young daughter left their crowded two-bedroom apartment in the Windsor Terrace section of Brooklyn for the family’s three-bedroom summer home in eastern Suffolk County, on Long Island.

Gardner, 50, said he hears about friends in the city who “have to wait outside an hour for Trader Joe’s.” The Gardners now live near a well-stocked supermarket with practically no lines. They are surrounded by open space, and their daughter “doesn’t have to worry about socially distancing at Prospect Park,” he said.

As for their mail, it comes “maybe once a week,” Gardner said. He and his wife filed mail-forwarding requests in mid-March, but he said much of his mail from March never arrived.

Brooklyn had the second-highest number of mail-forwarding requests, which were concentrated in neighborhoods like Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights.

Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, including many areas where essential workers live, tended to have far fewer mail-forwarding requests. Roman Suarez works for a union in New York City and travels on weekends doing stand-up comedy. He was in Texas when his boss in New York called to say things were shutting down. “I immediately rushed home,” said Suarez, 42, who lives in the Bronx. He picks up medication and groceries for about three dozen family members who live nearby. “I just stayed and made myself available for my family,” he said.

His neighbors, many of whom work for the city, or in health care, stayed too, he said. His neighborhood, just east of the Bronx Zoo, had fewer than a quarter as many mail-forwarding requests as the Upper East or Upper West Sides.

“My father was a cabdriver. My mom was a hairdresser, so I understood service to your community,” Suarez said. He recalled living through other challenging times in the city, from Hurricane Gloria in 1985 to the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001. “Whenever New York goes through stuff, the best thing to do is just be there.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company