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.
What’s also almost certainly true is that the city will be poorer when this is over. As anyone who listens to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily updates knows, the state’s finances are in bad shape, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seems disinclined to help. It’s possible that the deadbeat federal government will not support the Wuhan of America and that New York will have to endure rounds and rounds of devastating budget cuts, of the kind we haven’t seen in decades.
But even if the rich abandon us, and even if the people who were eventually going to move to the suburbs choose that life a little sooner, and even if the treasury runs empty, that doesn’t mean New York will die. At worst, it means that the New York of the present will die. And the New York of the present is always dying.
The city has survived many different versions of itself. My kids have grown up in the shadow of Gossip Girl. New York, to them, is a city full of ditzy wealthy people. I grew up in the graffiti-decorated, crime-filled New York of the ’80s. My parents grew up in the bohemian New York of the ’60s. New York can adapt. New York does adapt. Sometimes the city’s full of garbage, sometimes limos and super-tall skyscrapers, and once upon a time horse-drawn carriages and fur merchants. If the coronavirus brings back some of the grit we’ve lost, I won’t mind. I’m sure I’m not the only New Yorker who thinks it’s about time for a reset anyway.
Before we turn to the future, though, we need to mourn our dead—something those prediction pieces tend to just skip over. Whether or not New York is dying, its people are. We’ve lost some 20,000 souls in the city, and we’re still losing about 100 more every day. We have to wrap our minds around the sheer magnitude of our collective loss: the dead grandfathers and grandmothers, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors. The first thing we have to do when the pandemic ends is hold long-postponed memorial services and honor the first responders, the hospital support staff, the nurses, the transit workers.
Then we can go about proving the haters wrong, again. New York won’t be what it was, but New York is never what it was. Maybe the new New York will be a better place.