A native New Yorker contemplates the city that now sleeps.
If you are reading this in the near future, you might have heard stories of how bad the start of the decade was. The 2020s, were initially viewed with great excitement. There was unprecedented employment, cars were on the cusp of driving themselves, and party goers were eager to dress up like flappers a la The Great Gatsby for Halloween.
New York City too was in the throes of great change. Brooklyn was just about recolonized by condo developers and wealthy transplants who came seeking the tax abatement and cultural gravitas respectively. Queens was now known to the broader world not only for producing a president, but for being so unattainable, even the richest man in the world couldn’t buy the borough. Manhattan was becoming a literal island of wealth- with new towers being erected every week, and scrubbing clean any semblance of its gritty past.
Even the Bronx was undergoing a radical evolution. The South Bronx is fast becoming unrecognizable. Politically, the 14th district shocked the world by electing a young firebrand who clamored for radical, progressive change for the nation. The times, to paraphrase Dylan, they were a-changin’.
Then the Pandemic.
Then the Recession.
Then the Riots.
The uncertainty of the times, brings up a lot of questions, and challenges a lot of assumptions. One of the big ones- is New York still “worth it”?
For many, the answer seems to be a resounding no. Just stroll through any once popular neighborhood in Brooklyn or Manhattan and you will see moving trucks up and down the block. Young, fashionable women hug and cry as they help their roommate put the last of her mid century modern imitation furniture into a Uhaul. She gives the neighborhood one last, longing glance before she departs for Scarsdale, Short Hills, Highland Park, or any number of safe, and wealthy suburbs across the country.
New York was fun, but not during the pandemic.
New York was safe, but not during the riots.
New York had a great quality of life, but not during the recession.
Cramped quarters and draconian restrictions on everyday life soon made life in the more densely populated parts of the city untenable. In fact, I recall a pre-2020 conversation with a close friend and his wife. He had been waxing poetic about their apartment in Spanish Harlem, and how they’d just had the best Argentine cuisine at a new spot. He boldly proclaimed that he’d never move out of an apartment, or out of the city. I tacitly accepted the folly of that statement, until months later- the same friend was now looking for a residential house in Queens. I feigned surprise and curiously asked what had changed? Of course he wanted to move. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go. The spark of what made New York City, well, New York City was all but gone. With all the bars closing at 10pm, all the parks closed, no museums and shows- NYC had about the same cultural appeal as Columbus, Ohio (with the greatest of respect to “Cowtown”).
My friend and his wife are not alone. While the data on the so-called exodus is specious at best, the perception is unshakable. And sometimes that’s enough. Lots of young and young-ish people are considering options that were previously unthinkable. One such acquaintance told me that she and her boyfriend were trading their Upper West Side apartment for a townhouse in New Jersey. And that’s not to say anything about leaving the Northeast altogether. An old classmate of mine was saying how he and his girlfriend are contemplating moving to Texas next year. The better weather, faster growing economy, and affordability made Austin seem like manna from heaven compared to the increasingly hellish situation in the Empire State. And these were certifiable yuppies- she’s in her last year of dental residency, and he is a tech consultant at a big consulting firm! As my friend pointed out, the pandemic has brought business to a standstill, and earnings are being standardized irrespective of region- so, why live in NYC when you can earn a living anywhere?
Why indeed? The prevailing wisdom had been that NYC, SF and a couple of other cities were the only urban centers worth living in, on this side of the Atlantic (or Pacific). Everywhere else was devoid of culture, public transportation, and jobs. If you weren’t in one of five cities, you were stranded in ‘Middle America’. But as many are now discovering; there are many livable tier II and III cities that provide a great quality of life, at a price that won’t have you working till death. And, because of technological improvements, most jobs have either gone fully digital or will be by the end of 2021. So, who really cares what zip code your W2 gets sent too?
The cachet of saying that you rent a shoe closet in Hudson Yards or cool loft in DUMBO is quickly being replaced by that of saying you work remotely from home. Digital nomad-ism, once a fringe tactic employed by “influencers” and techpreneurs is now in the mainstream. But instead of twenty somethings taking shirtless selfies in Bali, it’s middle aged millennials in the burbs doing the annual budget for their department while simultaneously guiding their children through common core.
Will people really leave NYC en mass, never to return? Unlikely. This city has endured plagues, acts of war, and more. And after every one of those seminal events- people always come in droves, attracted by the promise of the Big Apple. But this pandemic really might change the nature of the city. Just like 9/11 irreparable changed the fabric of New York with increased surveillance, security, and suspicion; this pandemic and the ensuing fallout will alter how things are done. We simply cannot go back to business as usual.
So what does post pandemic NYC look like? That’s the $7 billion dollar question that everyone is trying to figure out.
People don’t want to live in a city that’s had it’s veneer scuffed up. We knew NYC had problems- and these events have only brought them closer to the surface. The subway sucks. Inequality has become more extreme. We’re becoming more and more segregated in our neighborhoods and schools. We’re accepting less pay, and higher taxes for subpar municipal services. It ain’t a pretty picture, any way you look at it.
Things will return to normal- at some point. And when they do, all the amazing things NYC has to offer will be right there for the taking. This little archipelago is one of the greatest cities on the face of the planet. But if we don’t resolve the underlying issues- we’ll find ourselves right back here again come the next big crisis.
So I pose to you, the reader, is it worth it?