I can’t seem to read a newspaper anymore without discovering that New York, where I live, is a dying city. The New York Post and The New York Times, which rarely agree about anything, seem united in the message that New York is in deep trouble—because the people who fled the coronavirus will decide never to return and the businesses that are letting their employees work remotely will never go back to the old ways. So much for our tax base, so much for our city, the story goes.
It’s an old story, though—much older than the pandemic. “The obituary of New York City has been written more than once and it’s always been proven incorrect,” the head of the Real Estate Board of New York, James Whelan, told the Times in April. Whelan has a horse in this race. Namely, New York City’s most expensive asset: its land. Still, predicting the end of New York is so common, it’s practically a literary genre (one that never seems to have the ring of truth).
After 9/11, we were told that fear of terrorism would kill New York; during the Great Recession, rumor had it that New York would go the way of Lehman Brothers; after Hurricane Sandy, we heard that New York would soon be underwater. Lately we’ve been made to understand that affluence is destroying the character of the city. Now the cause of death is the pandemic, which will make cities in general, and New York in particular, deeply undesirable. The Times claims that pandemics “are anti-urban”; Foreign Policy warns that “if fear of disease becomes the new normal, cities could be in for a bland and antiseptic future, perhaps even a dystopian one.”
What’s true is that a lot of wealthy people in particular have left the city—something we know from cellphone tracking and mail forwarding. What we don’t know is for how long. Another old story is that the people who leave New York come back. Joan Didion wrote the classic essay on getting out of Dodge, “Goodbye to All That,” and guess what? She lives here now. Meghan Daum wrote about leaving New York in 1999 and she lives here now too. Well, not now now. Recently she fled to Virginia to quarantine. But she assured me via email that she wouldn’t stay away forever.