Covid in the Big Apple: how New York’s Sydneysider community coped

Australian author, copywriter, cultural commentor and journalist Amanda Smith (pictured in New York City) has checked in with the Big Apple's large community of Sydneysiders to see how they've coped with Covid-19. Photo: www.amandasmithwriter.com.au.

No nation has been hit harder by Covid-19 than the United States – and within the US, New York City was particularly affected. Amanda Smith checks in with the Big Apple’s vibrant community of Sydney expats to see how they’ve fared.

Over 32,000 Covid deaths, massive job losses, yo-yo lockdowns, haunting protests, shuttered businesses, an historic election and the insurrection … New York City has emerged from a year of chaos, previously unimaginable in the modern day. 

No person was untouched by this hybrid health, social and economic crisis. Expat and immigrant communities were hit hard, including the thousands of Sydneysiders living in New York who faced difficulties returning home, with Fortress Australia‘s borders closed. Many fled, others stayed. 

For some people, it was a conscious choice to stay. But others couldn’t afford the $10,000+ flights or handle the emotional tax of packing up a life they’d built in New York.

Jack Feldstein wasn’t able to fly home following the death of his mother and had to attend the funeral via Zoom. 

“At that time, even if I was fortunate enough to find a flight, chances were it would be cancelled the day before. It was one of the most difficult challenges I’ve ever faced. Previously in my mind, I’d always figured that if there was an emergency in Australia, I could hop on a plane and be back within 24 hours,” Feldstein says. 

Sydneysider in New York, Jack Feldstein (pictured), was forced to attend his mother’s funeral via Zoom due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Jack Feldstein/Facebook.

“Everything has a price, you see. I left Sydney to further my career as a writer of plays, musicals and animations. Paradoxically, the past year has been wonderful professionally. A musical I was working on, Falling in Love with Mr Dellamort, went up in smoke once Covid-19 hit but the producers soon pivoted and created an audio version of the show for Audible. We cast many Tony award-winning Broadway performers, many who were suddenly available.” 

That’s the thing about New York City. It has a way of surprising and rewarding those who claim it as home.  

All expats can sympathise with the tug of war between New York and home. The pandemic only worsened this sensation. For Ty MacLennan, watching children go back to school in Australia was difficult to handle, as he remained home schooling his young son. 

“We stayed in New York because of the stability of work, and we were uncertain of being able to return if we left. It was also important for me to stay in New York and vote in the 2020 election,” MacLennan shares. 

“The hardest part about living abroad right now is worrying about my ageing parents. I’d return to Sydney for the better quality of life and being close to all of my people. I have had so many friends leave the city, so I do feel pretty isolated right now. I need to do the best for my family, so that’ll guide my decisions moving forward.” 

Sydney-born Bree Pereyra, meanwhile, took the opportunity to move from New York to Orlando, Florida mid-pandemic.

“The US is home to me now and I have access to more opportunities and growth,” she says. “But I do miss my friends and the amazing breakfasts at Zubi Café in Narrabeen. In the end, I have to remind myself that it was my dream to live here and that remains the stronger feeling.” 

Sydney-born Bree Pereyra (pictured) moved from New York City to Florida mid-pandemic. Photo: supplied.

While the Covid-19 rollercoaster has dislocated the lives of Australians living in New York, it’s served as the great equaliser and offers foreigners the chance to shape the Big Apple’s future – much like 9/11 did. It’s given a sense of home, of belonging, of comradery and has conferred on those who have stayed the label of ‘New Yorker’ – an identity that can usually only be proclaimed after having lived in the city for at least 10 years. It’s no easy feat. 

Amy spent her entire 30s in the United States, where she met her (American) husband and had two kids. “New York is the centre of the universe and there’s quite literally nowhere like it. Being part of that is a buzz I hope will never leave me. When you make it through those tough times, it’s even more rewarding. Life at home was never slow or dull but it also wasn’t hard. I had a good support network and everything was familiar. In New York, I was forced to learn and take enormous leaps and risks.” 

Amy is relocating back to Australia to be close to her family, the beach and not having to ‘schedule’ everything anymore. Her family chose to stay in New York during the pandemic because she had a job, mortgage and was pregnant. During this time, they all caught Covid-19.  

“12 months ago, we didn’t know it would last this long. I think if we did, we probably would have left immediately. We always planned to move home, though. Covid just brought that timeline forward two to three years.” 

She believes there is no rule on how long people should stay abroad and whether to return home. “But, out of all the Australians I know and have met during my time here, 99 per cent move home eventually. Sometimes that’s after three, five or even 20 years.

“The Australian culture is such that many move away but the end goal is to eventually return,” she adds. 

To those who remain abroad (and the many who will leave Sydney in the years to come), her advice is to enjoy it.

“Do what makes you happy and make the absolute most of it because once the pull comes to move home, it will tug you harder and harder,” she says.

“But in saying this, I’m feeling optimistic for America and we will continue to visit yearly once we settle back in Australia. We’re not just going to let the life we’ve built here, go.” 

The streets of the usually bustling New York City eerily quiet during Covid-19 lockdown in April, 2020. Video: The New Yorker/YouTube.

Feldstein, who decided to stay, mirrors Amy’s sentiments.

“I think it’s great for Australians to return because it means there are strong bonds between us and the rest of the world. Australians in New York also make sure we know about our amazing country, which is also vital,” Feldstein says. 

Living through this period in New York will forever be etched into one’s psyche. New York, in her fiercest, unapologetic form, is hard to deny. But so is the Australian lifestyle. And maybe that’s the plot twist in each of these stories … the privilege of having the choice. 

Amanda Smith is an Australian-born author, copywriter, cultural commentator and journalist based in New York City. Her website is located at www.amandasmithwriter.com.au.