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Photos: Unreal New York City, Enveloped in Poison

Toxic air cannot stop tourists.

2:45 PM EDT on June 8, 2023

Two people take a selfie in front of the Brooklyn Bridge on June 7, 2023.
(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)

One of the most uncanny things about living in New York City in the spring of 2020 was how normal everything looked from the window of an apartment—it was dangerous to leave your home for any "non-essential" reason, but outside it was spring, lush and sunny. Yesterday, the danger was visible, manifested in the blanket of smoke that fuzzed out distant city blocks and swallowed the skyline. 

On Wednesday, even homebound New Yorkers could smell the campfire scent produced by millions of burning acres, hundreds of miles away. The smoke, and the toxic particulate matter it carries, seeped in through our doors and windows and pumped in through our air conditioners. But outside, things were obviously worse—the anxiety, like the pollution that caused it, was palpable.

(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)
(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)

The haze lent the city a sense of unreality, coupled with migraine-sparking, eye-watering, throat-and nose-irritating physical effects brought on by historically bad air quality.

(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)
(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)
(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)

That sense of unreality peaked in the afternoon, when the color of the sky shifted from yellow-gray to a weakly glowing shade of orange: apocalypse weather.

(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)
(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)
(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)

Still, quieter and emptier than usual, the city churned on. Masked pedestrians walked through the haze with purpose; enterprising store owners hawked PPE at discount rates, while activists handed it out; delivery drivers zipped across the city, underprepared and undertipped for their work in the midst of a climate disaster; children and teenagers spilled out of schools at the height of the air's toxicity, after a day spent indoors with nothing to rely on but leftover COVID equipment; a mayor rubbed elbows with movie stars before delivering PPE to NYCHA residents (on camera, of course).

(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)
(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)
(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)

And some people spent time outside, even if they didn't have to. Maybe they didn't know why the entire city smelled like something burning. Maybe they didn't really care, or maybe the pull towards experiencing something unprecedented was bigger than their sense of self-preservation.

(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)
(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)
(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)

Horrible day for a picnic—but, morbidly, a standout day for New York City sightseeing.

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