Midtown Manhattan Has a Pulse Again

A familiar lunchtime sport has returned to Bryant Park: chair stalking. Once again, afternoon crowds are swarming the six-acre Midtown oasis, and its 2,000 forest-green chairs have become hot commodities.

“We’re waiting for a shipment from France,” said Dan Biederman, the president of the Bryant Park Corporation, which has ordered 2,500 additional chairs this year to keep up with demand.

A few blocks away, Times Square is buzzing with more than 330,000 pedestrians on the busiest days, or nearly 80 percent of the foot traffic there prepandemic.

And over in Rockefeller Center, there are lines — even with no Christmas tree — at its new trendy bars, shops and cafes, not to mention its roller rink with weekly D.J.s.

Midtown Manhattan, though not as jam-packed as it was before Covid, is starting to thrive again. Not even the resurging virus in recent weeks and fears about crime on the subway have kept the crowds away from its parks, plazas and public spaces. Sidewalks are gridlocked. Lunch counters and happy hours are elbow to elbow, especially on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, as office workers adjust to hybrid schedules.

When the virus throttled New York City in March 2020, the heart of Manhattan emptied out fast. Offices were shuttered and Broadway went dark. Tourists, commuters and cars vanished, leaving behind a desolate cityscape that looked like a stage set after all the actors went home.

Midtown became a symbol of the city’s economic devastation. Then as New York slowly moved to recover, the central business district seemed to be left behind as neighborhoods in the other boroughs, which were less dependent on commuters and tourists, rebounded more quickly.

Even now, Midtown’s traditional base of office workers has shrunk significantly as companies delay return-to-work plans, shift to hybrid schedules, downsize offices or move to cheaper locations. By mid-April, just 38 percent of Manhattan’s one million office workers were at their workplaces on a typical workday, according to a survey by the Partnership for New York City, a leading business group.

Still, there are signs that office life is coming back, if ever so slowly. Last month the Margaritaville Resort Times Square, which has two popular rooftop bars, was the site of more than 30 corporate events, from happy hours to welcome back parties (including New York Times gatherings).

In Bryant Park, the lunch crowd swelled to 3,500 people a day last month, or about 83 percent of its level in 2019, according to the Bryant Park Corporation, a nonprofit. It is offering salsa, swing and fox trot parties, an expanded outdoor reading room and a full lineup of summer movie nights.

Foreign tourists have been slow to return, in part because of United States travel restrictions during the pandemic. But domestic tourists have rushed back, with about 48.4 million visitors expected in the city this year, or 91 percent of the 53.1 million visitors in 2019, according to NYC & Company, the city’s tourism promotion agency.

Occupancy rates at Midtown hotels rose to 78 percent in May compared with 90 percent for the same time in 2019, according to STR, a global hospitality data and analytics company.

Ron Naples, an adjunct associate professor at the Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality at New York University, said the influx of tourists and other visitors had been building gradually but took off this spring as the weather warmed up and many virus-weary people, their confidence bolstered by vaccines, decided to return to normal life.

“I think people are getting off the Covid coaster,” Mr. Naples said. “It was up and down, and you couldn’t plan. Now people are just getting off the ride.”

Melissa Savage, 40, a banker from Albany, N.Y., recently celebrated her 9-year-old daughter’s birthday in the city with a visit to the American Girl store near Rockefeller Center and a ride on the carousel in Bryant Park. “It feels full compared to Albany; there’s a lot more people,” she said. “I’m comfortable with it. It’s good to get out and be around people.”

As Amtrak ridership has rebounded, the number of riders getting on and off its trains at Pennsylvania Station and Moynihan Train Hall has surged to an average of 27,600 on the busiest days — the same as before the pandemic — from a low of 300 a day in March 2020.

And then there’s the infamous Midtown traffic. It’s largely back, and crawling along at 6 miles per hour, in part because some transit riders switched to driving during the pandemic and car ownership rose across the city.

Pedestrian traffic is making a comeback as well. In the garment district, weekly foot traffic rose to 3.5 million people in mid-May, about 77 percent of the prepandemic level, according to the Garment District Alliance. On sunny days, every seat on the district’s plazas is taken at lunchtime. Nightlife here will also get a boost this month, when Angel’s Share, a shuttered East Village speakeasy, is scheduled to open a pop-up version.

In Times Square, Broadway shows are bringing in theater lovers, and costumed Elmos and Batmans are back to hustling tourists for photos. Nearly 81 percent of the 670 businesses in the area have reopened, said Tom Harris, the president of the Times Square Alliance.

Some restaurants in the area report being busier than ever. Carmine’s, on West 44th Street, has served 3,000 customers a day since April, compared with 2,700 customers in 2019. “It’s sold out every night, it’s doing better than pre-Covid,” said Jeffrey Bank, the chief executive of the Alicart Restaurant Group, whose other Times Square restaurant, Virgil’s Real Barbecue, is doing almost as well.

Farther west, about 40,000 people a week are visiting a 2.5-acre, 600-seat plaza that opened last year on a platform built over railroad tracks. It is part of Manhattan West, a new mixed-used development. Free art installations, including a whimsical lemon grove, table tennis games and an acrobatics show, have taken place there. Concerts are coming this summer.

Many of the people filling up Midtown’s public spaces these days are not tourists but New Yorkers who rediscovered its charms during the quiet of the pandemic. Less crowded parks and plazas offered a welcome respite from cramped apartments and a chance to enjoy the things about the city that they loved.

Corinne Workman, 71, a retired social worker, started taking the bus from her home in Harlem to Bryant Park to meet up with friends from Brooklyn and the Bronx. “I was getting cabin fever,” she recalled. “I need the trees. I need the grass. I need to be able to see this.”

Jim Hammer, a costume designer who lives in Brooklyn Heights, began regularly visiting Rockefeller Center again, as he used to do in the 1980s when he first moved to the city. But as the years passed, he spent less time there because it was always mobbed, he said.

Tishman Speyer, the real estate firm that owns and operates Rockefeller Center, has sought to update it, converting a former post office into an art gallery, for example. Flipper’s Roller Boogie Palace was installed at the site of the ice rink, which will return for the winter. Other new venues include Rough Trade, a vinyl record store that relocated from Williamsburg, Brooklyn; the celebrity-owned Pebble Bar; and an outpost of Other Half, a craft brewery from Brooklyn, which opened a taproom and outdoor beer garden.

The changes at Rockefeller Center have drawn visitors like Elisa Annenberg, 18, a New York University student from Brazil, who recently spun around the roller rink for the first time. “I’ll definitely be coming back,” she said. “I like the idea of taking advantage of the space they have.”

But some New Yorkers expressed mixed feelings about Midtown’s getting crowded again. “I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed; there’s just so many people,” said Rochel Pinder, 41, a college administrator who had gotten used to clear sidewalks and her pick of seating in Bryant Park at lunchtime — with no chair stalking required. “Personally, I’d rather have the space for myself to enjoy,” she said.

“But I think it’s a good thing for New York City.”


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