How NYC Came Back from a Pandemic A Century Ago, And Can Do The Same With COVID

With so many businesses shut down, it seems hard to imagine when life in NYC will get back to normal — but the city was in a similarly precarious situation more than a century ago, and recovered to build the Empire State Building and lead to the Harlem Renaissance

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Alexander Hamilton is masked up at the The Museum of the City of New York, and the history hotspot is welcoming visitors back once again. One new exhibit there may help answer the question: Can New York City come back from the coronavirus?

With Broadway shut down, office buildings empty and so many stores and restaurants closing, it seems hard to imagine when life in the city will get back to normal — if ever. But the museum shows what lessons can be learned from the past, as visitors can explore how NYC came back from the last time the country was so devastated by a pandemic: the Spanish Flu, more than 100 years ago.

"New York at its Core" charts the city's complete history, including the recovery from the flu that killed 20,000 city residents from 1918 to 1920, which was the same year a huge crowd gathered in Harlem.

"There were definitely regulations in place. People were asked not to cough, not to sneeze and not to spit, but it was thought that with education, people could gather in public safely and did so during the course of the pandemic," saif Lilly Tuttle, the curator at the museum.

When the worst was over, photos at the museum show people returning to restaurants, the city's public beaches, big events and even New York bars — despite Prohibition Laws.

Similar things happened around the same time all over the U.S., according to J. Alexander Navarro, from the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan.

"While there was a growing sense that medical science could be a savior, it wasn't to the same extent we have today," Dr. Navarro said. "So when the pandemic finished and the war ended, people wanted to get back to a sense of normalcy, but there was also that sense of resignation that people were going to die of diseases."

Post Spanish Flu New York City saw the rise of the Empire State Building and the skyscraper skyline, as well as the Harlem Renaissance. A hundred years later, another pandemic presents another challenge for the city.

"The story of the 20th and 21st century in New York is one of resilience and rebound," said Tuttle. "New York is not over, New York has always come back from setbacks."

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