Although Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen headlined New Year’s Eve festivities in typical inebriated fashion, the scene at Times Square was anything but normal. With New York City facing a new coronavirus surge and lagging vaccination rates, Times Square, already a ghost town with Broadway shows closed until late May at the absolute earliest, was blocked off from the public for an eerily empty ball drop.
It was a surreal end to what was a brutal year for the Big Apple. Like many cities, New York has indisputably suffered from the one-two gut punches of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown measures instituted to combat it — and the unrest that, in many instances, escalated far beyond anything like legitimate protest of George Floyd’s death last May. It also faced a mass exodus of residents and some $34 billion in lost income. For the first time in a generation, people are openly wondering about the fate of the Big Apple.
Back in August, comedian Jerry Seinfeld took to the New York Times to dispute a viral LinkedIn essay (yes, really) written by James Altucher, an ex-New Yorker who had recently moved out of the city and declared it “dead.” “We’re going to keep going with New York City if that’s all right with you,” Seinfeld wrote in response. “And it will sure as hell be back.” Yet the debate is more alive than Seinfeld admits.
Last year represented the first time many New Yorkers of millennial age and younger began to question the status of their current urban residence, having never before thought of their yuppie playground as anything but. And Seinfeld’s argument rests on a key assumption about why people come to and live in New York City. He believes that New York will return to its prior strength, thanks to “real, tough New Yorkers who, unlike [Altucher], loved it and understood it, stayed and rebuilt it.” This could happen. But in doing so, New York runs the risk of closing itself off to non-New Yorkers, which would make it a very different place from how it has been and from what helped to make it great.
I won’t pretend that my New York City experience is representative of anything, except perhaps the bizarre anomaly that 2020 turned out to be. But my decision to move there explicitly for the sake of an opportunity, as I did at the beginning of last year, is quite common. For hundreds of years, New York City has been the destination of strivers the world over, from immigrants taking ships into Ellis Island to college graduates ready and willing to slum it to get their start in one of the many fields that have historically been present there. As recently as 2018, New York University professor Steven Pedigo was hyping Manhattan as “powered by the creative class,” disproportionately attracting both high-level talent in certain fields, such as media, finance, and academia, and the capital necessary to grease its wheels.
Working with his colleague Richard Florida, who famously wrote about how cities prosper by attracting such well-pedigreed, highly mobile individuals in the first place, Pedigo identified New York City’s finance and media sectors as 75% and 331% more concentrated there than elsewhere, respectively. The pair also estimated that New York City alone captured 5% of the world’s total venture capital in 2016. This agglomeration of talent and capital made New York City a destination for opportunity seekers not just across America but around the world. This is a fact amply reflected in popular culture. From the 1977 song “New York, New York,” as popularized by Frank Sinatra — “If I can make it there/I can make it anywhere” — to Alicia Keys singing in Jay-Z’s 2009 song “Empire State of Mind” — “These streets will make you feel brand new/Big lights will inspire you” — New York has become a byword for strivers and dreamers everywhere.
For this striver, New York offered a job in journalism. But it has had far more than that. People came to New York, and stayed there despite its pre-coronavirus flaws, namely high taxes and expensive cost of living, crowded subways and cramped apartments, and garbage-covered sidewalks with the occasional smeared dog (best-case scenario) feces, because its population and wealth had created untold cultural and commercial wonders, and sustained them in a miracle of diverse cohabitation. More than 800 languages are spoken in the city; there are about as many Jews living there as in Tel Aviv. To say nothing of the world-class museums and restaurants, Broadway and comedy clubs, Wall Street and Madison Avenue. All were sustained by a kind of urban churn that New York had seemingly mastered.
Then came the coronavirus. Or rather, first came the initial fumbling that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo would like us all to forget about. On March 11, 2020, de Blasio told New Yorkers, “If you’re not sick, you should be going about your life,” then later threatened to shut down the city but hesitated to close its schools. Meanwhile, Cuomo initially forbid such a shutdown, infamously stating that “ catching the flu right now is a much greater risk than anything that has anything to do with coronavirus .”
New York did, ultimately, impose a lockdown, the kind that was totally alien to the experience of virtually any American before this year but has now become sadly commonplace. Yet the fumbling by both leaders continued as New York became the site of one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world anyway: nearly 39,000 deaths, about 2,000 per million people, as tabulated by Worldometers. That is, when they weren’t actively making things worse, as with Cuomo’s controversial March 25 order forcing nursing homes to accept residents with coronavirus cases, leading to at least 6,600 nursing home coronavirus deaths (and possibly nearly twice as many, according to the Associated Press).
Lacking the kind of loyalty that Seinfeld (from Long Island, it should be noted) and others would have demanded of me, I had fled the city before all of this unfolded. I was not the only New Yorker to watch the horror from afar. Hundreds of thousands of residents left the city during this time, upward of 400,000 people, by one estimate. Some of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods lost up to 40% of their population, according to the New York Times. And thus we also watched as, in the aftermath of the death of Floyd last May, New York became one of many metropolitan areas afflicted by riots and looting. The unrest was almost certainly amplified by the fact that, for weeks, there was virtually no aspect of life outside their homes available unrestricted to city residents. New York was not the only city faced with this new reality. But the city’s sheer bigness seemed to amplify the scope of both crises. As did the fact that both seemed specifically aimed at the heart of the city’s appeal.
This past year not only eerily emptied New York’s streets (outside of protests, anyway); it debilitated its amenities. Seinfeld believes that New York City has a kind of “energy” that can’t be replicated anywhere else. Well, for most of last year, that energy was suppressed, even as it flared up in other channels that were often not conducive to the city’s livability. And most worrying for the political and cultural leaders who had come to assume that people would always want to be in New York, whatever its faults, the long absence of many from the city proved the opposite: Many people didn’t have to be there. Trading on the Wall Street floor eventually returned, but many of its firms have allowed remote-work flexibility. Some have even moved entirely, such as the hedge fund Elliott Management, or are considering serious moves, such as Goldman Sachs. Other businesses throughout the city have done similarly. The many employees of Google’s New York office aren’t returning to it until sometime later this year. Last December, there was more empty office space in New York City than at any time since Sept. 11, 2001, according to Bloomberg News. Even the New Yorker managed to produce an issue of its magazine completely remotely for the first time early on in the pandemic. It hasn’t been perfect, but many have figured out something like a workable, work-from-home model.
This included my own employer, which let employees work remotely before the wake of widespread office building closures forced by lockdowns and has continued to do so, thus enabling my own departure from New York City in March. It wasn’t a hard choice: Having lived in New York City barely long enough to have gotten comfortable there, much less to have developed the kind of loyalty that Seinfeld apparently believes is a prerequisite for inhabiting it, and with the city deprived indefinitely of most of its supposed benefits while keeping many of its costs and adding more, there was no reason for me to stay. So back to D.C. it was: the very place I fondly valedicted in these pages when departing it early last year.
When I returned to New York in late July to move the remainder of my things, the city had changed. I had been in it for so short a time earlier last year that I was only barely leaving tourist status; it now seemed like a new place all over again. Still traumatized by an outbreak that, despite its prior strength, seemed to have abated, New York remained in a fiercely precautionary mode. Masks were omnipresent, indoors and out; in their used, discarded form, they now even gave cigarette butts a run for their money as the go-to form of sidewalk detritus. Those sidewalks were now partially taken over throughout the city by outdoor seating for restaurants and, at least in my former Upper East Side neighborhood, dotted with helpful reminders of how far apart 6 feet is, to help social distancing. Smokers, meanwhile, were the primary dissidents of this regime, obviously going maskless when outdoors for a puff. Not even pedestrians could match their rebellion; most of them were masked, and masks were expected of them, as I learned when several walkers in Central Park tried angrily to scold me as I quickly moved past them while running without one.
There was also the specter of things less directly experienced but that I knew to be true. Boarded up establishments dotted the city, as brands such as J.C. Penney and Subway cut back their business. Shootings doubled, and murder was up 50% last August from the year before. Meanwhile, in June, Mayor de Blasio cut $1 billion from the New York Police Department budget. The New York I returned to gave me little reason to want to stay.
Added to this is the fallout of Cuomo’s and de Blasio’s continuing coronavirus mitigation measures. Having deluded himself, with help from his brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, and other friends in the media, into thinking that he helped New York to “beat” the coronavirus, Cuomo sought to impose mandatory 14-day quarantines on visitors from other states that have had it better with the disease even if their worst surges came after New York’s. (Notably, he upbraided the governor of Rhode Island for attempting something similar on visitors from New York last March.) He also leaned heavily into a kind of martial atmosphere, urging people to be “New York strong.” All well and good, I suppose, but he did it with the help of literal propaganda, of the sort that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the Soviet Union. One bizarre poster he produced, for example, showed the coronavirus struggle in the city as a mountain — one presumably, and eerily, made up of the bodies of those who died of the disease.
For his part, de Blasio last August ordered certain out-of-state visitors to fill out a “ quarantine form” before being allowed to use city hotels. At the same time, he also remains blindly, ironically optimistic about New York’s draw to outsiders. Asked in July how New York will recover, he said: “Again, people had left us for dead after the ’60s and ’70s, after 9/11, after the Great Recession. Consistent pattern — the strength of New York City and the appeal of New York City comes to the fore, and people start investing, people start coming here.” The overall impression was to make New York into a coronavirus sanctuary, one that must be protected from outside visitors, and one that will return to greatness automatically on the basis of those who remained — a New York for New Yorkers.
The problem with this approach is that New York has always depended on people who weren’t from there, who once came for its opportunities and amenities. They have been the ones responsible for a great deal of the “energy” of which Seinfeld speaks so highly. But plenty of those people today are either less dedicated to New York City or more mobile. And so, with its opportunities reduced and its amenities indefinitely attenuated, they’re leaving. Seinfeld and de Blasio are both humorously uncomprehending of the possibility that such people would depart for places such as Tennessee and Indiana, and that they might not wish to return. But these people are going to such places for reasons similar to those that once motivated them to come to New York City. And even if native New Yorkers are staying, New York is becoming uncharacteristically inhospitable to just about everyone, but particularly the kind of opportunity-seeker it has historically tended to draw. The number of apartment vacancies in Manhattan last summer was twice what it was at the same time in 2019, and was by one measure the largest on record. When I tried to reserve a U-Haul several weeks in advance of the weekend I had chosen to leave, they were severely understocked; I had to turn to another moving company. Deep down, Cuomo, at least, recognizes this. Last summer, he resorted to claiming that he would cook dinner himself for wealthier New York City residents currently in exile if they returned.
But who knows when, or whether, they’ll come back. Or, for that matter, when the city itself will. There are dark rumors about, of the kind not heard since the city’s late-20th-century nadir. The ex-New Yorker Altucher’s full case goes something like this: As the state of its attractions remains tenuous indefinitely, as its social and fiscal situations deteriorate, and as many businesses realize they don’t need office space there, the city will slowly but surely die. This may be overstated. Even in its enervated, depopulated state, New York remains the biggest city in America, a fabulously wealthy and diverse center of culture and population. Seinfeld pushed back against his claims, and made some good points. But it’s worth pointing out that Seinfeld was born in Brooklyn, and went to college in Queens. He wrote as though a move to New York was a gigantic leap for him, but in a sense, he’s been there his whole life. He was already New York loyal, and New York strong. What about those who are not already either of those things? Why should they come in?
Whatever happens to New York, there is always room to decline, and plenty of bad fates short of death. The city once seemed to carry on its own momentum, but it was actually a highly delicate balance, one now knocked off course by exogenous events exacerbated by its leaders and further skewed by the willing departure of many of its opportunity-seeking former residents. As the late philosopher Roger Scruton said, “Good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”
This destruction has already begun. By some measures, New York City’s population was already stagnating, if not outright shrinking, even before the coronavirus. With many now departing outright, business suffers. The New York Times estimates that as many as a third of the city’s small businesses may close, especially as indoor dining remains in its unsustainably meager state. And with a departing population and dwindling business comes a smaller tax base. De Blasio, as big a fan of big government as there is, said last August that he may be forced to lay off as many as 22,000 city government employees; that September, he furloughed himself and his staff for a week to fight a budget crunch. Such reductions have real consequences: uncleaned parks, dirtier streets, more crime. With New York’s character likely to atrophy and remote work more feasible than ever before, many of its virus-induced relocations are likely to become permanent. According to a September 2020 survey by the Manhattan Institute, 44% of high-income New Yorkers have considered relocating outside of the city since its current struggles began. And at least 300,000 New York City households requested a USPS change of address for an outside locale between March 1 and Oct. 31 of last year, according to the New York Post. With numbers like these, a cycle of decline could take on its own momentum.
To be sure, many people will stay. They are true New Yorkers, those who wouldn’t leave their city, or can’t. Some, to be sure, are even now moving in. They will all be faced with the difficult task of digging the city out of the hole 2020 has left it in. I wish them luck. The latter group especially, for they will be expected to embrace immediately a kind of dedication to New York City that is unique to its history, all while its many faults, old and new, are laid bare before them. But I don’t want to be part of it, and I know I’m not alone. The prospect of a severely degraded New York is no joke, even if Jerry Seinfeld says otherwise.
Jack Butler is an associate editor for National Review . He lives in Washington, D.C.
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