A visit to New York: Reports of the city's death are greatly exaggerated

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A jazz band plays at 1803, a New Orlean-inspired restaurant in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood, on a warm August night.
A jazz band plays at 1803, a New Orlean-inspired restaurant in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood, on a warm August night. Photo Credit: TW photo by Johanna Jainchill

On a warm Thursday night in late August, the scene on a corner of the Tribeca neighborhood belied any notion that New York City was dead.

Outdoor tables at 1803, a New Orleans-inspired restaurant, were full of diners enjoying a brassy jazz band as they threw back hurricanes and munched on buttermilk fried oysters, jambalaya and Cajun everything.

I was in the city for a one-night staycation, heeding NYC & Company's call to New Yorkers and people in the surrounding areas to help the city by playing tourist. Not only is it a good way to support a visitor sector that ground to a halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but it is also a chance to enjoy a place that is usually high-priced and often marked by crowds. I wondered if I'd have the city to myself. 

I didn't, but that's a good thing. The city felt alive, with residents out and about enjoying open-air restaurants, outdoor activities and rooftop pools. New York has one of the lowest rates of Covid-19 transmission in the country, and residents seem to want it to stay that way: People are out, but they take mask-wearing and distancing seriously. 

NYC & Company is encouraging people to visit all corners of the city right now, and so my staycation brought me to Tribeca, Brooklyn and the far reaches of Queens. 

The Williamsburg Hotel is in the Brooklyn neighborhood of the same name which for years was synonymous with hipster culture, but where you are now as likely to see stroller pushers and Wall Street executives. The hotel has always been a popular spot, but this summer has attracted staycationers with its open-air, rooftop restaurant and pool. 

People on their laptops at the Williamsburg Hotel's rooftop pool.
People on their laptops at the Williamsburg Hotel's rooftop pool. Photo Credit: TW photo by Johanna Jainchill

The 40-foot pool is only for guests of the hotel, and on the morning I was there, I was joined by a mix of parents with kids, a couple on laptops seemingly working poolside and some others just enjoying the sun and what is one of the best views of the entirety of Manhattan you'll get anywhere in New York, from the Freedom Tower downtown to the tip of Harlem.  

Louis Yan, senior sales manager for the Williamsburg Hotel, said that normally at this time of year, the hotel's top-tier rooms are taken by U.S. Open tennis players (this year they are in two "bubble hotels" in nearby Long Island). Each of the 147 rooms at the Williamsburg has a city view, and almost all have balconies. By night from my room, the city seemed to be putting on a performance, with various skyscraper spires changing colors and the Empire State Building's nightly light show taking place, along with a random fireworks display somewhere downtown. 

The Williamsburg never closed, Yan said, and that has paid dividends. 

"We wanted to be open for everyone," Yan said. "During the pandemic people needed a getaway from what was going on."

Now, he says, the hotel's guests are mostly staycationers and people who work from the rooftop -- often millennial professionals who can unwind "with wine and their laptop by the pool."

For those coming from Manhattan, the neighborhood and hotel are accessible by a ferry offering open-air transport. 

The hotel's rooftop restaurant is open for dinner on weekdays, offering fantastic sunsets, and on for all-day dining on weekends. Be prepared to wait to get in on the weekends: Like many other popular spots, limited capacity means there can be lines at peak times. Its Mediterranean restaurant, Seven Seeds, takes up much of the hotel's first floor. It currently offers outdoor seating in a "grotto" accessible from the hotel or street.

Don't miss a stroll around Williamsburg. The outdoor food fair Smorgasburg reopened recently, and one of the city's newest public outdoor areas, Domino Park, built on the East River site of the former Domino Sugar Refinery, features a factory-inspired playground, an elevated walkway with sensational city views and a taco stand. 

Far Rockaway watersports

My next stop was Far Rockaway, a Queens neighborhood that has in recent years become a summer hotspot for locals wanting to surf or just enjoy its long stretch of Atlantic Ocean beaches. It is also accessible from Manhattan via the NYC Ferry from Wall Street. 

On the near-90-degree Friday I was there, a visit to Rockaway Jet Ski was the perfect way to beat the heat. The company offers Jet Ski, kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals and tours of New York Harbor, the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay. The outfit also says that it's the only watersports company in New York City providing "self-directed Jet Ski rentals," which is what I did, for half an hour in Jamaica Bay, with planes landing at nearby JFK. 

The dock at Rockaway Jet Ski in Far Rockaway, Queens.
The dock at Rockaway Jet Ski in Far Rockaway, Queens. Photo Credit: TW photo by Johanna Jainchill

It was a really fun way to learn to ride a Jet Ski, and I felt braver knowing there were four employees on the dock watching to see if I fell in or capsized. Given the number of people that arrived before me and were waiting when I got back, it's clearly a popular activity for pandemic times. Owner Robert Kaskel said that in his nine years operating Rockaway Jet Ski, it's always been steady, but that this year, demand is stronger. 

"People are looking for an escape," he said. "We've also had great weather."

The watersports dock is connected to Kaskel's restaurant, Thai Rock, which has a large outdoor dining patio and on the day I was there, was hosting a small wedding. 

For those wanting a more in-depth Rockaway Beach experience, the week after my staycation, the 53-room Rockaway Hotel opened less than a block from the beach and comes complete with its own outdoor pool. It's a welcome addition to a neighborhood with lots to do but few places to stay.

A room at the recently opened Rockaway Hotel in Rockaway Beach in the New York borough of Queens.
A room at the recently opened Rockaway Hotel in Rockaway Beach in the New York borough of Queens. Photo Credit: Matthew Placek

The opening is also a good sign that far from being dead, New York is being renewed and revitalized as it always has been. The city has been declared dead more times than I can remember. Many thought it would never rise from the ashes of the 9/11 attacks and that the Great Recession would ruin the city's financial sector. Far Rockway residents and businesses like Thai Rock had to dig out from under the sand and rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, becoming one of the city's buzziest neighborhoods. 

So while this crisis is different, and I know that it is, I fully expect New York will again beat back the cynics' projections. And the reasons why were on display to me over the course of two days in August.

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