State of the Planet

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New York City’s Dynamism is Why Our City Will Not Fail

My home city never stops changing and is constantly adapting to new social, economic, technological, and cultural conditions. While official population counts vary from 8.5 to 8.8 million people, if you count the people who live here illegally, there are well over nine million people living in New York City. Viewed globally, there are many larger cities. In America, we are by far the largest city. What is always amazing about New York is how its neighborhoods circulate and change from generation to generation while the city’s energy and intensity are always maintained. The pandemic quiet of March and April 2020 was so profound because it contrasted so starkly with the norm.

But all of that is in the rearview mirror. When people escaped the city during the pandemic for the countryside, pundits once again predicted the demise of New York. We hear it again due to the spike in crime that the mass and social media amplifies constantly. New York is still one of the safest big cities in the United States, and the crime rate is far lower today than it was during the 1980s and 1990s. It also appears that the post-pandemic violent crime wave has crested, although some crime continues to increase. According to the NYPD:

“For the month of October 2022, the number of overall shooting incidents decreased in New York City compared with October 2021. Citywide shooting incidents decreased by 33.6% (85 v. 128), driven by significant declines in the Bronx, Brooklyn, northern Manhattan, and Queens… Overall index crime in New York City increased in October 2022, by 5.9% compared with October 2021 (10,930 v. 10,324) driven largely by a 19.3% increase in grand larceny auto (1,244 v. 1,043), a 9.6% increase in grand larceny (4,564 v. 4,163), and a 8.9% increase (1,388 v. 1,274) in burglary.”

According to Bloomberg’s Justin Fox, New York City’s crime rate needs to be viewed both historically and in comparison, to other American cities today. According to Fox:

“…the city’s homicide rate in 2021 [is] still less than a fifth what it was in 1990. The geographical context, which seems to be less widely understood, is that while homicide rates fell sharply all over the US in the 1990s, that decline slowed in the 2000s and reversed starting in 2015. In Philadelphia the homicide rate is now worse than it was in the early 1990s, and in Chicago it’s close. Which means there’s a growing gap between New York City and most of the rest of urban America.”

Fox also compares urban to rural safety, which he defines as accidental deaths, and concludes that people are generally safer in American cities than in rural America. Fox observes that: “New Yorkers are only about as third as likely to die in transportation accidents of any kind as Americans are overall. Put homicide and transportation risks together, and New York starts looking like a refuge from the American carnage.” Of course, the media image is far from accurate, and politicians this election season have probably convinced some people that cities like New York are living hellscapes.

The opposite is true. And if you checked out the five boroughs this past Marathon Sunday, you may have gotten a sense of a city that not only never sleeps, it never stops. It is a city in constant motion where the only thing consistent is change. Originally, New York was a trading city where the “New World’s” bounty was shipped to the Old World in Europe. With the completion of the Erie Canal, the trading outpost became America’s commercial hub where the Midwest’s produce and processed foods were shipped overseas. In the 19th and 20th centuries, New York became a manufacturing city where by 1950, we made over 90% of the clothing worn in America. But then, the technology of modern containerized shipping, information and communication, along with cheap labor, created global manufacturing supply chains. The manufacturing jobs disappeared from New York City, along with our now too-small docks on the west side of Manhattan. The 500,000 jobs in clothing manufacturing disappeared along with hundreds of thousands of other manufacturing jobs, and by the mid-1970s, the city nearly went bankrupt.

But we didn’t. The state’s governor, Hugh Carey, mobilized the business and labor community, the unions invested their pensions in city bonds, the federal government came through with loans, and under Mayors Koch through Bloomberg, New York City survived terror, economic transformation, and floods, and came out the other side as a reinvented city. We may not make America’s clothing anymore, but 100,000 New Yorkers design and market clothing. Over a million people attend college and graduate school in New York City. Over a million kids attend K-12 schools. Over 80% of the city’s GDP is in the service sector, with about 400,000 people working in education, 300,000 working in health care, 200,000 in social services, 175,000 in finance, 300,000 in hospitality, and 650,000 in technology, administration, and other professional services. The High Line, which once carried freight to and from the docks to our factories, is now a city park that welcomed about 8 million visitors in 2019. This is a different city than the one I grew up in, and thanks to investments in infrastructure and climate resilience, we are in the early stages of a transition to an environmentally sustainable city. This will take a generation to complete, but at the end of the transition, New York will be powered by renewable energy and will have implemented key elements of a circular economy.

Change is a constant in the always-evolving City of New York. The clothing factories are now art galleries, co-op apartments, and high-end watering holes. The misery of the pandemic has been replaced by a rapidly rebounding tourist industry. This past August, Ethan Wolff of City Guide reported that:

While governors in Texas and Florida are whipping up xenophobia and busing and flying immigrants north, New York City is trying to get folks work permits and providing food and shelter as they try to get on their feet. America may have forgotten that this is a nation of immigrants, but New York City remembers and knows the strength and talent of our global workforce. Nearly 40% of the people who live in New York City were born in other countries. Many of the rest of us are the children or grandchildren of immigrants. In addition, many New Yorkers have come here from other parts of the United States searching for opportunity, excitement, and for the places they grew up seeing on TV shows and movies. Diversity and tolerance comprise the secret sauce that fuels New York City’s creative and economic dynamism. We know that it takes all kinds, because New Yorkers come from all over America and everywhere on Earth.

This is not an easy place to live or work, but it is full of surprises, and beneath that tough and hard exterior, there is often a deep reservoir of kindness and community spirit. I am far from an objective observer of all of this, but through all the changes and ups and downs, we always seem to come back. Today we hear that Midtown office buildings will never be full again, but that was said about the financial district, which turned offices into housing and continues to thrive. Plenty of people leave New York, but they are always replaced by new arrivals. The energy and dynamism of New York City are often reflected in the music, art, and theatre made here. From jazz to folk to rock to punk to rap and from far off Broadway to the middle of Times Square; From street art to the Met, the energy and dynamism of New York City is always here and is why we will not fail.

I know that this is a treacherous political moment of great polarization and fear of violent discord. I am a political scientist, but I believe that technological change compels economic change and economic change compels social and cultural change—and all those other forces of change are more important than politics. We may have monetized political conflict, but my hope is that people will find an easier and less destructive way of making money. Meanwhile, I’ll find solace and reassurance in the latest comeback of my home city. Yesterday 50,000 people ran the NYC Marathon, and a million people cheered them on. New York City is back.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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1 year ago

I don’t know how long Steve Cohen has lived in NYC, but I lived here for 70 years. Talking about how NYC will not fail is missing the elephant in the room which is that NYC has already failed. Thanks to our last mayor and his cohorts who reversed 20 years of normalcy to where we are today. BTW, I recently moved out of NY ( along with thousands of others) because it’s going to get worse before it gets better

1 year ago

Great piece! I love this City. Like you said, it is not easy to live in but it is so rewarding, especially if you want to make something of you life. The City is not perfect but we will work on making it better every day. I am proud to call it my home