Are cities over?


Last week, a hedge fund guy proclaimed in a blog post on LinkedIn, that bastion of very smart and nuanced takes, that as a result of the pandemic, New York City is dead forever (which I read in the voice of Lexi Featherston declaring New York “O-V-E-R” in one of the most iconic scenes in TV history). His take went viral, got picked up in the New York Post and many morning cable news shows, prompting many to wonder if he was right.

He’s far from the only one making such grandiose, evidence-free predictions. Since the pandemic swept the nation in March, we’ve been hit with an ongoing series of stories proclaiming cities “over.” Everyone’s decamping for the suburbs, they say! You can have space and cheap housing and a yard! Remote work is the future! The virus spreads more easily in densely populated areas! (As we have seen from Texas, Arizona, and Florida, this is not true: the virus spares no one.)

But I think this conversation demands a lot more nuance than that.

Who can afford to leave?

The many articles written about the “exodus” from cities focus primarily on two groups of people: college-educated millennial transplants who are moving back home with their parents, and wealthy people who can decamp to their vacation homes. But many residents of New York and other cities don’t fall into those two categories. Most city dwellers are much more diverse than that; they include people of all generations, people without college degrees, people in working-class industries. These residents’ stories are largely excluded from the “everyone’s leaving the city” narratives. The “everyone” here is hardly inclusive.

For many, living in cities isn’t necessarily a conscious choice they made, but is simply their home, and there is no other place to go. And even if they wanted to, many simply can’t afford to just up and leave and transplant themselves and their families somewhere else. Those who are leaving New York and other cities right now are those who have the means and the types of white-collar jobs that allow them to choose to live somewhere else.

There’s also an argument to be made that cities might actually be made better by rich people fleeing. Over the past decade, rents have soared in cities like New York and San Francisco as more wealthy people have moved in and snapped up apartments, pushing property values up, ushering in gentrification and displacing communities of color who are now finding themselves priced out of the very same neighborhoods where their families have lived for generations. If wealthier people are truly leaving in large numbers, it might finally make the cost of living in these cities more affordable than it has been in years, making cities accessible once again to a wider range of diverse people.

And finally, there’s very little data to back up claims of major shifts in urban demographics: many of the articles claiming a mass exodus from cities have based these claims on rising search data on real-estate websites outside of cities. This is seriously weak data that has no correlation to actual concrete trends: I mean, who among us hasn’t browsed Zillow to kill time even though we have no intention of buying that $2 million five-bedroom house in the Hamptons?

Restaurants and museums and bars aren’t what make a city

I love restaurants and bars as much as anyone. But to assume that people only live in cities for access to bars and restaurants and museums is to misunderstand some of the fundamental principles of what makes cities great places to live.

What makes cities great is people. As Hamilton Nolan writes in In These Times:

Cities are — or should be — fre­net­ic quilts where every type of per­son lives togeth­er. The mag­ic, and the ben­e­fit, of cities is that they bring togeth­er rich and poor, young and old, artists and busi­ness peo­ple and col­lege kids and retirees and hus­tlers, facil­i­tat­ing unpre­dictable rela­tion­ships and smash­ing (to some degree) the bub­bles that we form to sep­a­rate our­selves from one another. 

The defining feature of cities is their ability to attract and house a diverse, far-ranging group of people of all ages and all walks of life. It’s why major companies are usually headquartered in cities: to attract the best and brightest workers from the largest talent pools. Cities are more diverse — suburbs are much whiter due to post-war “white flight” from cities (and even when they become more diverse, studies show white residents still continue to leave diverse neighborhoods to live in more white neighborhoods). Cities are walkable, have affordable public transportation options, and contrary to popular belief, offer tons of public parks and green space. Cities are home to career opportunities, innovation, and cultural stimulation.

It is, admittedly, still far too early to predict anything about what the post-pandemic American city will look like. Many major cities will likely need federal government support to get back on their feet after the pandemic and the recession it has wrought. The future of work could forever be changed by the year (or more) that we spend working from our homes; or we could all find ourselves returning to offices once again in a year, desperate to get out of our homes and have in-person interactions that aren’t mediated by a screen. We don’t yet know which way things will play out, and since the end of the coronavirus is still pretty far off in the future, anyone making predictions right now with any perceived degree of certainty is either an epidemiologist or completely full of shit.

As hard as it is right now to wrap our heads around what the future may look like, we have to remember: pandemics are temporary. Even at their worst, they do not last forever. Historically, cities have emerged from pandemics stronger than they were before. And they will do that once again.

What I’m reading

Your surge capacity is depleted — it’s why you feel awful, Elemental/Medium. If you, like me, have been randomly feeling down 6 months into this pandemic even though the first couple months felt manageable, this really helped to explain why.

Kamala’s complicated relationship with the South Asian community, Zora/Medium.

The unexpected joy of the worst summer of our lives, Vox. A delightful comic about quarantine life.

Why are there so few Black directors in the criterion collection?, NYT.

The best 80 cents I ever spent: a pen I use to write my friends, Vox. This is seriously making me want to send more snail mail.

One Twitter account’s quest to proofread the New York Times, The Ringer.

The bull rider, Vox. If you need an “escape” read this week — aka something totally disconnected from the current news cycle — make it this piece on Maggie Parker, one of America’s only female professional bull riders.

The therapeutic power of gardening, The New Yorker.

What I’m cooking

This week I made a Mexican-style cheesy quinoa casserole, roasted sweet potatoes and chickpeas with yogurt, and a spicy zucchini and ground pork stir fry.

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