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Cities Aren’t Dead, They’re Ready to Be Reborn

The pandemic may have accelerated migration from urban centers, but neighbors are keeping city alive


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Patrick Sisson

3 years ago | 10 min read

It pained Lynette Morrow that she was considering leaving Manhattan for the suburbs. But then again, nothing felt like it did before. “It’s not going back to normal,” she told the New York Times.

“This is now going to be normal.” Mariam Zadeh, also from Morrow’s neighborhood of Battery Park City, felt the same way. “We love Manhattan and will continue to love Manhattan,” she said.

“Maybe one day we will return. But for the near future, I can’t envision living down there.”

Both women spoke to the Times for a piece that ran on October 1, 2001: “Suburbs Beckon to Some Who Might Be Rethinking Life in the City.”

Aidan Menzul was also starting to think the unthinkable: Putting his stuff in storage and moving in with his parents in Florida. He had been laid off from his job at a Manhattan private equity firm and was coming face-to-face with the student loan debt and maxed-out credit cards.

“But I really don’t want to leave New York,” he told the Times in 2008, a month into the Great Recession.

Since the coronavirus first hit New York City in March, and the lockdown closed businesses and emptied streets, the media has foretold the approaching downturn, and even death, of U.S. cities.

All the signs were there: The run on rural real estate, young adults moving back in with their parents, and new parents hearing the siren call of the safe, spacious suburbs.

In our age of social distancing, remote work, and small business failure, why tough it out in our dirty, dense cities? New York is over. Get out while you still can.

The obituary for urban living has been prewritten for decades, penned with prejudice and a convenient misreading of what truly makes cities attractive.

Yes, cities have and will suffer tremendously during the coronavirus pandemic. And yes, many people will be leaving them in the coming months.

But by dint of their size, cities always have people heading for the exits. And by dint of their history, cities have survived crises before. They have evolved, and they have thrived.

Equating the movement of those with the wealth and privilege to instantly pack their bags with the entirety of a city’s population misses the great mass of residents who endure and ensure a city bounces back.

“This debate about whether cities are over is really about whether cities are over for college-educated white people who have the means to choose where to live and work,” says Kenan Fikri, director of research for the Economic Innovation Group, a D.C.-based policy organization that researches entrepreneurship and inequality.

Even the booming suburbs are more dense, walkable, diverse, and ultimately, city-like.

“It’s also incongruous to me that we’re having this discussion about the next generation of white flight in light of the George Floyd protests, where marchers in the street” — a large percentage of whom are white — “are talking about economic inclusion and racial justice.”

Streets become a path for those who can and want to leave. But for those who stay, the streets have become a platform for protest — a stage on which a new city can be reborn.

The pandemic will fast-track the trends that have already been reshaping our cities for years — including the growth of remote work and the boom in e-commerce — and worsen entrenched problems, such as the housing affordability crisis.

According to Fikri and other researchers, this fast-forward still retains desirable urban areas — even the booming suburbs that so many are running to tend to be more dense, walkable, diverse, and ultimately, city-like.

“For the last few decades, the economy has become more and more service-oriented,” he says.

“You don’t have a sophisticated service economy in rural regions for a reason. Urbanism and economic growth go hand-in-hand in modern economies.”

Beyond anecdotes, there’s still only limited data on long-term relocation due to the pandemic. A much-discussed June survey of 10,000 Americans by the rental search site Apartment List found that 17% of respondents were now more likely to move and 30% more likely to stay.

Economist Christopher Salviati, who co-authored an analysis of the survey, says it’s fair to look at the findings as typical of any recession.

Financial drivers across the income spectrum are the most powerful motivators for movement. (In a country where economic and physical mobility have declined for decades, 26% of respondents “were in no financial position to move.”)

“Folks switching to remote work and leaving cities are the flashy headlines,” he says. “My sense is that maybe this is accelerating moves for some people already considering moves, not a sharp, rapid transition.”

In the 20th century, American relocation to the suburbs has been fueled by a good economy, says William Frey, a demographic researcher with the Brookings Institution; as we’ve seen in recent years, economic expansion is required to drive jobs out of city centers.

Frey also sees the next generation as likely to prefer city living. “Gen Z is much more racially diverse. A quarter are first- or second-generation Americans and many have urban roots they won’t eschew,” he says. “Young Americans go where the jobs are.

Assuming safety issues are eventually taken care of, cities can still attract these young people.”

A door in Kew Gardens, Queens. Homemade rainbow signs supporting essential workers in Forest Hills. Photo: Lindsey Nicholson/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

While Americans have been worn down by a constant focus on health, safety, and economic security, city dwellers have seen their neighborhoods come together in new ways. Seiji Carpenter, 40, lives in the bottom floors of a brownstone in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn with his partner and 10-month-old baby.

A pollster for progressive political candidates, he’s never considered himself part of the “New York-or-bust” camp.

“New York was always great in part because of music, theater, food, shows, and when that wasn’t accessible anymore, there was a little crisis of confidence,” he says. “Is it awesome without these things?”

But the process of going through both the lockdown and recent protests in support of Black Lives Matter made him feel more connected to his life in Brooklyn. During the nightly salute to first responders — for many weeks, the only time he’d leave his home — Carpenter enjoyed seeing an Argentinian man on the corner play drums on his doorstep.

During a bike protest, he was awed at the crowds that gathered to cheer riders. And he says watching the white-clad Black Trans Lives Matter protest with a crowd of nearly 15,000 in front of the Brooklyn Museum was a “powerful moment.”

“It’s complicated, as race politics and gentrification are. But I feel there’s more of a sense of community across class and race lines in the city than there was before,” he says, “This has shifted my relationship to New York, Brooklyn, and to our neighborhood in particular.”

Across the nation, there has been a boom in neighborly care. The rise in mutual aid groups and community fridges underscore how neighbors band together to feed and provide for those in need.

Limited social interactions are buoyed by park hangs, street drinking, and the various ways small businesses are reclaiming streets and sidewalks. In my neighborhood in Los Angeles, where flyers for community support groups are taped to lampposts, an office parking lot has become a de facto scooter track for socially distanced play.

“New York was always great in part because of music, theater, food, shows…Is it awesome without these things?”

But for many small businesses — especially niche operations that provide character to a city neighborhood — the economic fallout of the pandemic has been brutal. The Independent Restaurant Coalition estimates roughly 85% of the nation’s independently owned restaurants may close by the end of 2020, with Black-owned businesses being hit the hardest.

Randall Felts will tell you that community is one of the few things keeping his business afloat in Chicago.

The 39-year-old opened up a cheese shop called Beautiful Rind in Logan Square, a center of the city’s culinary and cultural scene that has seen a boom in luxury apartment buildings.

Felts’ store, which passed its final inspections the day before the city’s March 20 lockdown, is on the ground floor of one such building.

The initial idea for the store was to be upscale yet accessible, with tastings and a classroom for live events. During the lockdown and gradual reopening, Felts has managed to pivot and stay afloat. He’s teaching online classes while retail sales are booming — cheese can be a comfort food during an uncertain time, he says.

Community sentiment and crowdfunding likely won’t save everyone’s favorite store or regular bar; there are still bigger questions about the future of urban real estate. Space quickly becomes a proxy for economic activity.

Will we have a glut of unused restaurants and stores? Will companies survive and still want a downtown location? Will anyone work in an office again? Companies are shedding square footage, leading to fears of a glut — though CBRE, a national office broker, believes most companies will pursue phased reopenings, with prices in most markets recovering by 2022.

Michael Colacino, CEO of SquareFoot, a commercial real estate brokerage in New York City, says he’s seen a considerable drop in demand since the lockdown began on March 25.

In Midtown Manhattan, an office stronghold, demand has been cut in half. But he’s also seeing more and more companies, especially in tech and private equity, begin evolving into a “hub and spoke” model, ditching a sizeable central office for a series of smaller locations, often set up on or near transit lines.

This shift in urban geography, which favors neighborhoods like downtown Brooklyn, or areas in Queens near train lines, means more workers may be able to bike to work and live a more neighborhood-centric existence.

Frey says the shifts we’re seeing right now may accelerate one of the last decade’s lasting trends: The growth of more affordable mid-size U.S. cities like Austin, Nashville, Salt Lake City, and Madison, Wisconsin. Others see sky-high rents in coastal cities coming back to earth.

San Francisco rents have been in free fall. In New York City, while home sales volume has dropped precipitously, rents have inched down 1.8% over the last three months.

⁠And what about the work-from-home revolution? Research from Upwork, a remote talent network, found that in April half of the U.S. workforce was remote⁠.

But Kenan Fikri of the Economic Innovation Group says that while the radical experiment in working from home has proven workers can do it, no big corporation has successfully proven people can innovate, or build professional networks from home. (Although some tech firms, such as 37 Signals, would disagree.)

Co-workers still need to congregate somewhere other than Zoom. People still need each other.

Not everyone can choose to move away from a city right now — nor do they want to. DuShaun Branch Pollard, a 37-year-old Black woman, lives in West Garfield Park in Chicago, a predominantly Black neighborhood on the city’s disinvested west side. She’s currently living on the top floor of a two-story apartment building owned by her grandmother with her husband and two children. Pollard had tried moving to the suburbs before.

She’d spent three years in Oak Park, west of Chicago, but felt the schools weren’t as good a deal for her kids as she imagined, especially considering the high cost of an apartment.

“It does sound like a privilege to talk about moving somewhere different,” Pollard says. “So many people can’t think about moving now.

They need to make sure they have their jobs, make sure they have access to food and transportation.” Brookings research found that 30% to 62% of the overall workforce in U.S. metro areas is considered low wage; they likely won’t be joining any exodus to country homes or cabins upstate.

While Americans have been worn down by a constant focus on health, safety, and economic security, city dwellers have seen their neighborhoods come together in new ways.

Despite a summer of surging Covid cases across the country, and a massive, peaceful protest movement demanding foundational change to urban policing and systemic racism, many of those invested in their neighborhoods have a renewed sense of optimism.

Pollard has seen the outsized impact Covid has taken on Black and Brown communities in Chicago, but she’s also seen the resilience. “Every time something has happened, there’s been such a great response,” she says.

“People still feel hopeful.”

Pollard says she’s optimistic seeing all the organizing work done in her community. North Lawndale, a neighborhood a few miles south of West Garfield with a similar demographic profile and economic challenges as Pollard’s community, was the site of a famous campaign against housing discrimination by Martin Luther King Jr.

“Seeing people like that work hard and have homes, and love the community they came from, I can’t imagine why I couldn’t do that.”

Seiji Carpenter, the Brooklyn pollster, has marveled at how life in the city has become, in a way, more suburban. He stays at home more, cooks at home more. Cities, he says, are places where you can’t choose who you have relationships with. Close quarters can be a big frustration for city living — but in the last months, it’s also been the best part of living in one.

“Neither the coronavirus nor the protests have impeded my relationships with my neighbors,” Carpenter says. “They accelerate them. I feel like I’ve fallen in love with the city all over again.”

Residents living under lockdown stand on their stoops to celebrate medical workers in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

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