New York Isn’t Going Anywhere, and Neither Are Cities

New Yorkers are no strangers to challenges. The apartments are small, the rent is mighty, the Police can be brutal, the city is filled with trash.

The Coronavirus Pandemic has certainly presented this city, along with every other city, another grave challenge. Devastatingly, this one has too often been dire. It is not, however, an existential threat.

The Pandemic’s impacts have not been a question of urban density. Tokyo, Shanghai and Seoul, three of the largest cities in the world, have had far fewer cases per capita than their decidedly less dense American counterparts of Dallas, Phoenix and Tampa. Covid-19 has disproportionately impacted places where the response has been mishandled. The built environment’s density seemingly has nothing to do with the spread of this virus. In fact, denser areas in the US are associated with lower death rates.

A pandemic is, according to all historic data of its occurrences in the modern world, a relatively short term event. They can painful. They can be deadly. They can strain the last fibers of one’s mental health. When you’ve spent 6 months in your house without going anywhere and cease to recognize yourself in the mirror, they can feel endless, too. Luckily for us, they are not. The Coronavirus Pandemic will end. When it does, the world will doubtless be different than it was before. Will it suddenly reverse millennia of progress in urban development? I’m not so sure.

Chelsea Market diners enjoying reclaimed street space. Crowds have had to maneuver to keep socially distant. Credit: George Etheredge for The New York Times

Prognosticators have issued inexact proclamations for centuries decrying the end of cities. Medieval warrens, meccas of industrialization and the rise of the suburbs in the 20th century have served as signals to prophets that the end of cities is near. And yet, here we are in 2020 where 56% of the world’s population is urbanized. The most severe threat cities have faced in the modern era, that of the twin swords of suburbanization and urban renewal policies (emanating in America from the Housing Act of 1949 that subsidized the destruction of urban areas in favor of parking lots, highways, and those concrete buildings we do our best to run past without incurring their wrath), have only reinforced our desire to move back into cities after a few generations of deprivation. Robert Moses be damned!

American cities have rebounded spectacularly from their mid to late 20th century depths a few decades ago. So spectacularly, that the most pressing issue many cities now face is that of severe un-affordability. There are simply too many people who want to be a part of the magic of living in a major city, and not enough housing to accommodate them.

Anecdotes of your friends who have moved to other places, reports of wealthy families staying in the Hamptons for the summer, or 30 something couples decamping to New Jersey are not indicative of an exodus from the city. They are a part of the natural order. Like the Sun rising in the East or MTV green-lighting a reality TV show, these are unremarkable events that can hardly be heralded as a significant shift.

Where a family is faced with the prospect of buying a $300,000 home in the suburbs or a $3 million townhouse (on the cheap end!), there is no choice. The Coronavirus has not changed this consideration. What it has done is allow a measure of introspection for many to re-evaluate their lives. Who can justify spending $3,500, or $3,000 a month in rent to live in a one bedroom apartment with plans for a growing family? Want a little more space? Two bedrooms in New York averaged $3,400 in February, before the outbreak of the Coronavirus.

The 10 most expensive markets for a one bedroom apartment, before the outbreak of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Source: Zumper February 2020 National Rent Report

Many have pointed to falling rent prices and searches for housing as indisputable evidence of the death of New York. Of the New Yorkers who so happened to be using Redfin to look for new homes (how many is this, exactly?), a blistering 10% were browsing in Atlanta — it shocks the conscious! Well, if looking at apartments in another city online for a few minutes means that one has already moved, I would simultaneously be a resident of Atlanta, Charleston, Chicago, Copenhagen, Denver, London, Los Angeles, Paris, Philadelphia, Rome, and of course, New York.

As of September, the median one bedroom rent in New York had fallen slightly more than 10%. For those adhering to the generally accepted threshold of 30% of one’s income as the limit for which housing remains affordable, one would still need to be making $108,000 a year to afford the average one bedroom apartment in the city. Shouldn’t a dying city have cheaper housing?

The 10 most expensive markets for a one bedroom apartment, after the outbreak of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Source: Zumper September 2020 National Rent Report

There are those who may remain unconvinced by the data so far and think the ascendance of Zoom will crush cities once and for all. So difficult to please! I suppose I can tackle that one as well. Ever since the emergence of the Internet, anti-urbanites have announced that the death of distance would render cities useless. Remote work would enable one to live wherever they want, and those places would definitely not be the unsavory urban hellscapes of their imagination. Have we forgotten Skype so soon? Video communications are not a novel technology, but somehow this new platform is going to rectify the issues of the past and shepherd us into a new era? While the Coronavirus has absolutely shown employers world-wide that remote work is not the unproductive institution they feared, it has also affirmed the importance of face to face interaction, if only for a few days a week.

Edward Glaeser has argued convincingly in his various writings that technology has reinforced our desire to cluster together. San Francisco, the fabled heart of the engine that drives the so called death of distance, is home to some of the most powerful agglomeration effects in the world. Now, why would those creating the technology of a purported decentralized future pack so close together? Shouldn’t they know better? The desire to take part in a historic eruption of creativity has trumped such triflings and propelled the city to unimaginable highs. This distinctly urban prosperity, when combined with the city’s woeful management, has led to a housing crisis far worse than even that of New York. In an age where we can choose to live anywhere, we are choosing to live closer together to reap the benefits of proximity, at the expense of one’s exorbitant cost of living.

Native though I am, I am not New York’s greatest champion. Popular notions of the city’s exceptionalism can be insufferable. The city has real problems and faces immense challenges that merit meaningful considerations of moving elsewhere. But these challenges aren’t new. People will ebb and flow to and from New York so long as there is opportunity for them to pursue their dreams. I have ebbed my fair share, and certainly have flowed. What has always brought me back, along with countless others, is the inimitable vibrancy of the place. 8.5 million people live in New York. It is the financial capital of the world. It is the cultural capital of the world. It is one of the fashion capitals of the world. It is a burgeoning tech capital of the world. If there is a superlative to be had, New York will rush forward in relentless pursuit of it. Except for a select few metros in the world, there is nowhere else that one can pursue and experience so many various things as in New York. Don’t get me started on the pizza. Like I said, inimitable.

The beauty of life is that it is so diverse in what it offers. While I could drive from Florida to California and experience the best of local contexts, as well as a sea of placeless sprawl, I could never experience somewhere like New York. Until and unless that happens, New York is not going anywhere.

Do not heed the words of prophets from the lands of lesser urbanity, suburbia, exurbia, and parts unknown who cheer on the destruction of our great cities. They are false. They are also probably jealous too, empirically speaking of course. Look at the data. Look at the city itself. New York has weathered many storms, but Coronavirus is not the knock out punch many have smugly hoped for.

Central park goers enjoy a beautiful day lounging in New York wearing masks while socially distant from one another. Source: The Atlantic

Urbanist, Developer & Writer working to create more sustainable, equitable and people-oriented places.