Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 25 February 2021


The Old New York Won’t Come Back

‘The pandemic changed everything,’ we say. But we have yet to absorb fully everything that means.

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New York

You can know something yet not fully absorb it. I think that’s happened with the pandemic. It is a year now since it settled into America and brought such damage—half a million dead, a nation in lockdown, a catastrophe for public schools. We keep saying “the pandemic changed everything,” but I’m not sure we understand the words we’re saying.

It will be decades before we fully appreciate what the pandemic did to us, and I mean our entire society—our culture, power structures, social ways, economic realities. We’ll see it more clearly when we look back from 2030 and 2040. A lot is not fully calculable now, and some problems haven’t presented themselves. One is going to be the profound psychological impact on some young people—how anxious and frightened this era will leave them, even how doom-laden. Kids 5 and 7 years old were trapped in a house surrounded by screens, and the screens said “germs” and “death” and “invisible carriers.” The pictures were of sobbing people on gurneys. We should be especially concerned about kids who are neglected and have no calm in the house, because they were left most exposed to the endless vibrations of the adults on the screens, and had no schools or teachers to help them.

But we’re in a transformational time. Some things that might have changed inch by inch over the next few decades were transformed in one large, incredible, 12-month shift. So many institutions will have to be nimble and farsighted now or they won’t survive. They’re going to have to be creative and generous and leave old intransigences behind. To lead in times like this will require the eyes of an artist who sees the broad shape of things, not an analyst who sees data points.


Look at the cities. I’m not sure we see the implications of what has happened there. In New York we are witnessing, for the first time in a century and a half, the collapse of the commuter model. You had to be in the magic metropolis if you were going to be in the top of your profession—finance, theater, law, whatever. Many couldn’t afford to live in the city because it’s where the top, moneyed people were, so they lived in the near-outside—New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut. That is what my people did when they came to America a century ago, settling in Brooklyn and commuting to work as cooks and maids in the great houses of Manhattan.

But now you don’t have to be in the city. The top people are everywhere. You can be pretty much home and be the best. The office towers of Midtown are empty.

In the past year the owners of great businesses found how much can be done remotely. They hadn’t known that! They hadn’t had to find out. They don’t have to pay that killer rent for office space anymore. People think it will all snap back when the pandemic is fully over but no, a human habit broke; a new way of operating has begun. People will come back to office life to some degree, maybe a significant one; not everything can be done remotely; people want to gather, make friends, instill a sense of mission; but it will never be what it was.

The closed shops in and around train stations and office buildings, they’re not coming back. The empty towers—people say, “Oh, they can become luxury apartments!’ Really? Why would people clamor for them, so they can have a place in the city and be near work? But near work has changed. So you can be glamorous? Many of the things that made Manhattan glamorous—shows, restaurants, clubs, museums, the opera—are wobbling.

A lot of cities, not only New York, are going to have to reinvent themselves, digging down and finding newer purposes, their deepest value. They’re going to have to take stock in a new way: New York has the greatest hospitals, universities, the media, parks. What else?

And they will be doing this within a hard context. Public spending is skyrocketing due to greater need; the city and state budget deficits are through the roof. New York is Democratic and public sentiment will be for tax increases, big ones.

Here are some numbers from the Partnership for New York City, a business group. The city has lost 500,000 private-sector jobs since March, 2020. Tens of thousands of small businesses, and 5,000 restaurants, have closed. Less than 15% of office workers are back in the workplace they left a year ago.

Tourism, an approximately $70 billion industry, won’t be back until theater is back. When? Judith Miller had a good piece in City Journal on how Broadway’s older houses can’t be retrofitted for social distancing and still make a profit. No one is sure theatergoers will rush back. Theater will be reborn—man will always have shows and stories—but as what? Whatever comes—hybrid productions, tape and live, or more small and intimate theaters—it will have a whole new profit structure and financial realities. Show folk will tell you: A lot will depend on what the unions allow. Can they be nimble and farsighted? Or will they think everything is just an unending 2019?

The Partnership for New York City reports 300,000 residents of high-income neighborhoods have filed change-of-address forms with the U.S. Postal Service. You know where they are going: to lower-tax and no-income-tax states, those that have a friendlier attitude toward money making and that presumably aren’t going hard-left. Florida has gotten so cheeky that this month its chief financial officer sent a letter inviting the New York Stock Exchange to relocate to Miami.

Everyone in public life “knows” these things. But so far in New York’s mayoral debates no one is bluntly addressing these central challenges, no one is stressing them. The candidates seem like very nice people but not one that I saw in two Zoom debates radiated an appropriate sense of alarm or urgency.

“The pandemic has changed everything.” It has. Never have we needed visionaries more than now—people in politics, and out, who have an outsize creativity and a deep knowledge of human beings, who can come up with reasons people want to be here, have to be here, would be happy nowhere else.

That’s the long-term project. In the short term, New York needs to hold on to the wealthy—the top 5% percent in New York pay 62% of state income taxes—and force down crime. If you tax the rich a little higher, most will stay: There’s a lot of loyalty to New York, a lot of psychic and financial investment in it. But if you tax them higher for the privilege of being attacked on the street by a homeless man in a psychotic episode, they will leave. Because, you know, they’re human.

No one can stay fixed in the old world, in the Before Times. We’re in the After Times, and every stakeholder, as they say, is going to have to be generous, patient and farsighted in a way they’ve never been before. That’s the kind of bargain people who know how to survive make. We’re in a battle for our survival, and should start absorbing this.

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