I keep reading about the emptying out of Midtown, the end of the office, people moving to Florida and the death of New York City. It is complete nonsense, but it’s an old tune that never seems to fade. For most of my life, I’ve been told about the demise of my home city. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the city was dying as people escaped to the suburbs. After that, it was the big move to the Sun Belt. Now it’s the end of commuting and fear of crowds due to the virus. It has been a horrific year of illness, isolation, hunger, death and sadness. But we fight back anyway, it’s all we know how to do, and no one ever said living here was easy. Through it all, New York remains a magnet, its human energy pulsating and from the reopening of Coney Island to the jazz band playing for contributions in Riverside Park by 107th street, that energy simply will not be denied. This past Saturday, volunteers flooded Morningside Park, kids screamed with glee in the playgrounds and the streets and sidewalk cafes were crowded with New Yorkers.
The pre-pandemic New York City of 2019 calls back to us, but the post-pandemic city exerts a stronger force. We all wonder what it will be like when the virus finally fades. Yes, some real estate investors and developers are going to lose money because the buildings they built will not command the coin they expected. But they will not go empty. There were plenty of empty storefronts during the boom years, and perhaps those commercial rents will be lowered enough to make it possible for less lucrative but more interesting businesses to rent space. What will the next New York City look like? Let’s first examine the past New York Cities for some clues.
New York started as a trading city, sending produce from the “New World” to Europe. The Erie Canal opened the Midwest’s bounty to the port of New York, and we became a center of commerce. In the late 19th and 20th century we became a manufacturing city. We made clothing and automobiles in Manhattan, bicycles in Brooklyn, and processed food in every borough. Follow this link to a manufacturing map of New York City from 1919 that appeared in a piece by Rebecca Onion in Slate. The map illustrates New York City’s industrial base just after the Spanish Flu epidemic and shows 32,590 factories in the five boroughs.
This industrial city lasted well into the 1970s when technology created a need for larger horizontal spaces for factories, and Manhattan’s docks were too small to handle containerized shipping. Our land-use patterns didn’t fit the modern factory. New York nearly went broke as it deindustrialized, and the situation became so bad that the city’s finances were taken over by the state of New York. But what saved New York then will save it again. The unions and business leaders worked with elected officials and started the often-painful process of reinvention. Creative people arrived and joined with long-time New Yorkers to invent new forms of music and art. Loft factories in Soho became dwellings, print shops in Tribeca became art galleries, and by the second decade of the 21st century, our manufacturing city had been reborn into a city of services: education, health care (eds and meds), arts, entertainment, high tech and tourists. New York’s ability to draw talent from around the world culminated in our attracting the creative factories of the brain-based economy: Google, Amazon, Apple and scores of firms involved in the design, production and updating of all that stuff we spend our day seeing on screens.
The foundation of the next New York City was brought into being during Mike Bloomberg’s time as mayor with his emphasis on environmental sustainability, economic development and enhancing quality of life. From the Gates exhibition in Central Park to bike lanes and bike shares, to the effort to make the streets available for people instead of cars, the infrastructure of a sustainable city was being born. Billions of dollars were invested in the third water tunnel and in building parks like the High Line. The city government worked with cultural institutions and the private sector to make New York City an exciting and interesting world capital. At its heart, the key attraction was the diversity and energy of the people of New York City. Our distinctiveness became the backdrop to scores of movies and television productions.
While the brain-based city was being built, the contradictions of this place — its racial segregation and extreme income inequality were not being addressed. The empty storefronts, even in prosperous neighborhoods, and the visible persistence of homelessness made it clear that the post-industrial city came with costs that needed to be understood and problems that cried out for a solution. The pandemic brought out these contradictions in stark terms. The COVID-19 infection death rate in wealthy neighborhoods was far lower than that in working-class neighborhoods. Crime, which had been on the wane for decades, started to increase. The digital divide exacerbated educational inequality as schools went virtual. The next New York City will need to address these inequities.
What shape will the next New York City take? It is impossible to predict, other than to say it will be intense and a little surprising. The work ethic, ambition and diversity that makes New York City what it is has not gone away and will continue to attract people to the city. Yes, people will leave. New York is not for everyone and never will be. When the pandemic ends, we will return to many of the activities we now miss. Restaurants, bars, theaters, art galleries, sporting events, gyms and parties will attract us again and be savored all the more for the time we were unable to partake in their pleasures.
I suspect that decentralized downtowns like Long Island City in Queens will continue to grow along with similar areas in Brooklyn and the Bronx and that the new residential areas in the financial district will be replicated in Midtown. Zoning that separated factories from homes is less important when factories don’t have smokestacks and manufacture ideas and software applications instead of cars and clothes. While we now have proven we can do much of our work at home, we still seek some distinction between those spaces. Work-life balance has been impossible this past year. But the reduced need for office space may change the real estate market and encourage more residential development in business districts. That can allow for shorter commutes and a “workday” punctuated by non-work activities.
My hope is that the Biden administration’s policy initiatives directed toward reducing poverty, especially child poverty, coupled with local New York initiatives like universal pre-K and discounted metro cards, will provide opportunity we did not see pre-pandemic. The renewed struggle against racism and bigotry increases the probability that we can reduce systemic racism, which should also enhance opportunity. A century ago, my grandparents escaped poverty and pogroms to find opportunity and safety in America, which is exactly what they found in New York. New York City is not simply a place but a symbol. It is symbolic of a dream and a hope, and those hopes and dreams remain. They are part of our collective historic memory and form a critical component of our culture. If we are successful in modernizing our economy and greening our infrastructure, and if we do this in a way that expands opportunity, then New York City should seamlessly regain its symbolic and actual place in our economy and in our consciousness. And in that sense, the next New York City will be directly connected to all the New York Cities that came before.