Some Thoughts on New York City and the Dim Prospects for American Cities

I’ve been wanting to write for some time about the outlook for the economy in the coronavirus era, but the topic is too sprawling to fit into one post. I’ll start with the very much diminished prospects for American cities, based in part on a trip to New York last week.

The overarching theme is unless effective treatments and prophylactics go into service on a widespread basis soon (and by “soon” I means three to four months), the damage to productive capacity will be severe and lasting. As we said earlier:

The related point… is that Covid-19 will do far deeper damage than most experts anticipate because it is reducing productive capacity on a lasting basis in many sectors: restaurants, hotels, entertainment, air transportation, conferences, and conceivably higher education. In the days of the Spanish Flu or even the Great Depression, there were far fewer highly skilled and specialized roles, so it was easier for men to find work in new fields when jobs opened up, and for machinery to be retooled. What do sous chefs, bartenders, university administrators, and pilots, to name a few, do for their next act? Remember how malls have become white elephants? What happens to Class A office space in big cities now that WeWork is a thing of the past, and white collar employers are seeking to keep as many staffers as possible working remotely?

Before going into analysis, indulge me by starting with impressions. I wish I could convey adequately how deep and widespread the impact of coronavirus has been on New York. And as someone who has always strongly preferred living in cites and has chosen to live in high density areas, the new normal now means that density is a negative for most workers and residents.

Thinning out cities (which is clearly has happened already in Manhattan, witness the mass exodus of the well off and the plan of many employers to keep as many of their staff as possible working from home) is at odds with their raison d’etre: residents accepting more cramped dwellings as a tradeoff for ready and easy access to entertainment, services, and people, along with that mysterious quality of vibrant street life. Cities are about conducting most of your activities on foot and having those peregrinations be interesting. Having so many coffee shops and specialized food vendors and more broad-scale grocery stores die, IMHO, negates much of the rationale for living in a city. If you can’t forage on foot, and you are ordering in, and you aren’t much going to restaurants and bars (or theater and museums), why are you living in a city? If your job does not necessitate living there, it’s time to pull out a calculator and look at the cost of having a car and moving versus the housing and other costs of suburbs or even the countryside.

Some contend that people live in cities only for careers (and possibly mating) opportunities. But that is belied by the breathless press of the last decade plus about how more people wanted to live in urban settings for the vibrancy and convenience. And in New York City, despite it being child-hostile, when the city got cleaner and safer when it put the fiscal crisis, more and more upper income parents, chose not to follow the conventional path of moving to the ‘burbs before their kids hit school age; more and more, they remained in the city.

As an aside, yes, continuing population decline of American cities is a huge negative for global warming. The car is the enemy of the climate.

And the tragic part is that the high odds of what I saw in Manhattan becoming the new normal for US cities is a massive self inflicted wound. Hong Kong and Seoul have gotten Covid-19 infections down to impressively low levels through widespread mask-wearing plus aggressive contact tracing and testing.

I could discern many vectors of damage on a less than 72 hour stay, where I was not playing tourist or journalist and making a point of trekking about or interviewing a lot of natives. This was a particularly difficult and not at all pleasant trip due directly to the way Covid-19 has cut service levels on many fronts. Admittedly, this may have been a bit worse than conditions will be on an ongoing basis since I happened to arrive during Phase 1 of the unlockdown, or whatever the formal name is. But hardly anything seemed to be open, including businesses I was told by neighbors that were able to. Were they regrouping or had they already decided to close?

This was in keeping with how empty the city was. I can’t recall ever seeing so few people on the street in Midtown down to the Flatiron district, except on a hot weekend summer day, and even then, there would be more traffic than I saw. Most places were boarded up, and it was impossible to tell if that was due to the coronacrisis or the recent looting.

It was also extremely difficult to get taxis. The only time it was not bad was when I had to go all the way uptown to find an open bank branch; the Upper East Side on Third Avenue seemed a lot closer to the old normal

The state of my hotel suggests how hard it is going to be for a lot of businesses to adapt. I stayed at the Park Lane on Central Park South because the Covid-19 pricing made it affordable and its location ought to have been advantaged in terms of getting a cab (I’m badly injured and need to keep walking to a minimum, and I don’t do ridesharing services). I was warned they’d have reduced service but no service except for housekeeping was a more accurate statement. No help with getting my bags to the room, even after begging for it and visibly limping when pushing the trolley. Often I could not get an answer when I called the front desk. People trying to call my room similarly said they couldn’t get an operator to put them through. And even when they could get through, the sound quality was generally poor.

It had been important to me in booking the hotel that there be a coffeemaker in the room. An agent at the reservations number had assured me that there was, but when I got there, there was none, and I was treated as a fabulist when I called asking where was the coffeemaker. The breakfast joint that would deliver not surprisingly had a minimum, but also wan’t offering a lot of items it had listed on its menu like oatmeal and salads, so I wound up with an awful lot of bottled water. Ordering dinner in was similarly a lot of work for little payoff. Hardly any places were delivering. Par for the course, one that said it did insisted I order online. When I tried, I could not enter an address but had to choose from a dropdown and my hotel’s address wasn’t on it. I wound up eating all three nights from a mediocre Japanese restaurant.

The point of this shaggy dog story is that if this is typical what nominal four star and lower hotels need to do to slash costs in light of low occupancy, who is going to want to stay at one even at a bargain price? The only reason might be having greater confidence in the regularity of their cleaning than an AirBnB, or perhaps access to a hotel gym. And this means that traveling for business or nominal pleasure is a hell of a lot less fun (and don’t get me started again on the airlines) at least until hotels start closing so the survivors get more bookings.

Now let’s look more surgically at why cities are in trouble. The concern about them being dangerous to health isn’t new; recall how Shakespeare fled London during one of its plague outbreaks. In the days of tuberculosis and polio, fresh air and clean water were seen as conducive to health; I’m told that one of the reasons New York City types are so keen on sending their kids to summer camp is that it’s a long-standing tradition, dating to the time when swimming pools were seen as possible transmissions mechanisms for polio.

The decision of so many companies to keep workers at home when they can isn’t just for their health; it’s likely even more for the benefit of their managers and the execs.

A partial list of some of the things now working against cities:

Elevators. People are now afraid of taking elevators with others, which makes going back to the old normal of crowded lobbies and packed cabs a no-go zone for most. Megan McArdle, in a recent Washington Post op-ed, predicted that “If you used to work in a high rise, and are now working at home, then odds are that, come Dec. 31, you will still be someone who used to work in a high rise, and now works from home.” Elevators were the first reason why; in skyscrapers, there’s not ready way to space out arrivals and exits enough to prevent crowding.

And this applies to residential buildings. One of my friends claimed she was having a great lockdown because skipping the elevator and regularly climbing four flights, sometimes with groceries, had gotten her in great shape. Manhattan has had decades of tearing down small old townhouses and putting up residential high-rises. Those are now looking like albatrosses.

Mind you, these fears are not well founded if people are wearing masks.

Even back in 1997, the one time I visited Seoul, there were many blocks of residential high rises (20+ floors) on the way in from the airport, so the South Koreans have a more than adequate sample of elevator riders.

And when you think about it a bit, this result makes sense. You aren’t waiting in the lobby next to or crammed in an elevator with others for very long. The passengers seldom talk to each other, so that eliminates a high-risk event. So what you are left with is the occasional cough or sneeze. Going out for a drink or being in a cube farm next to someone who is on the phone most of the day is far more hazardous, but that isn’t how most people see the risks.

Mass Transit. New York City had already seen declining ridership on its subways before coronavirus thanks to investor-subsidized local transportation services like Uber sucking passengers away. Fares plunged during the lockdown since no one was supposed to be out and about; I had no feel as to how much activity had rebounded, but the death of activity in business areas says “not much” even before allowing for reservations about getting into subway cars. I did see more bikes out than when I lived there, but not considerably more.

Communters show a much clearer picture. Remember that nearly two million people used to come into Manhattan daily, with the suburbanites the biggest group, using the Metro North and the Path and to a much lesser extent, busses.

Yet even with the number of people in Midtown visibly very low, the word from execs and top managers who have to trek in for a deemed-to-be-necessary in person meeting say transportation is strained. Why? Anyone who has the option is driving rather than taking mass transit in. Yet Manhattan has been designed on the premise that most people who commute in would take public transportation most of the time. My contacts say that the garages and parking lots are packed. Supporting their claims, I noticed when I left, at around 11:15 AM, that the inbound lanes on and approaching the Queensboro Bridge were packed.

The Coming Thinning Out Reduces Density and With It, Attractiveness. Friends in the New York area estimate that half its restaurants will die. In the business areas, that number looks low. The same is true for all the little retail shops that depended on lunch time or after work traffic. And it’s also in order for hotels. Many need to shutter so the survivors will have high enough occupancy levels to be able to provide at least adequate service.

Mind you, what you’ll have is much like the Wall Street area of my youth, when there were only three restaurants good enough for recruits, where most ate at their desks and the order-in options were limited in number and merely OK in quality, and the near-office shopping was sparse. But this isn’t what urban workers have come to expect, and the absence of all that store stuff will feel like a degradation.

So while this kind of thinning of nearby businesses won’t make a business district unworkable, just boring and not very hospitable, it’s a different matter entirely for residential neighborhoods. Most people expect to have a decent grocer, a pharmacy, and say a bank and dry cleaner not too far, meaning a five to ten minute walk. Big bonus points for amenities like a good bakery or coffee shop. Who wants to live in residential blocks with nothing nearby and rely entirely on ordering in? That’s the lockdown lifestyle that most were desperate to see end.

Next Order Effects Will Further Damage Urban Life. It’s a no-brainer that municipalities will face big drops in tax revenues, which will lead to service cuts and make cities grubbier and nastier.

We already have commercial tenants, even ones that can afford to, not paying landlords. The bigger ones are very good at fighting to get their assessments lowered, so bye bye a big chunk of property tax income. The same is true on the residential side. Owners that can’t pay their property taxes and mortgages will default and face foreclosure. Even if banks leave the borrowers in place (which they did in some locales like Las Vegas in the crisis just past because it was cheaper for them to have the to-be-ex-owner maintain and secure the house), that does not solve the city’s tax arrearage.

Let’s continue down the list. Sales taxes stay down due to diminished restaurant bookings and lower retail spending generally. Older consumers and those with compromised immune systems will be particularly reluctant to go out and shop. Hotel taxes have plunged and will stay low. User fees for public transportation will also stay depressed, forcing systems into schedule reductions and fare rises, risking putting their systems in a death spiral.

And municipal jobs will be cut, leading to more losses of local sales and property tax revenues.

My write-up is if anything far too anodyne. From Mike Hiltzik’s column last week in the Los Angles Times, An apocalyptic collapse in state and local government employment is already upon us:

Employment by state and local governments has fallen off a cliff….

The employment report issued June 5 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that state and local government employment fell by 571,000 jobs in May. The month before, the loss was 964,000, for a two-month total of 1.535 million public sector jobs lost.

And the disaster may just be starting. Estimates of the size of the deficits faced by state and local governments through 2022 from the combination of heightened public health spending to combat the coronavirus and sinking revenues due to the economic shutdown and its continuing reverberations range from a catastrophic $500 billion through fiscal 2022 to a cataclysmic $959 billion through the end of next year….

“No state will escape the financial black hole created by this crisis,” Zandi told CNN last month.

Hiltzik is looking at both state and local governments broadly, as opposed to just cities, but the general point holds: a lot of damage has already occurred, and more is baked in unless the Feds ride into the rescue. How likely is that on anything other than a token scale? And you can be sure that any relief will be designed to be stingy with blue cities.

Before you think the severe downside is limited to particularly dense, lotta tall building cities with good public transportation, think twice. Other cities have gotten in similarly exposed positions via making tourism-related businesses important to the local economy. Consider Polar Donkey’s report last week:

I work at a very large restaurant in Memphis. Our business is predominantly tourists when there isn’t large events happening downtown (baseball game, concert, etc). Very few people are working in offices anymore. The hotels are at 20% occupance. No large events. We are allowed to seat at 50% capacity and on Monday will be able to go to 75%, but it will not matter because only doing 25% of our normal business. Restaurants in other parts of town that have local customer base have been able to switch over to take out/delivery pretty well. One restaurant I know was able to maintain its sales volume with half its staff.For decades now, Memphis has been focused on building it’s downtown. NBA arena, AAA baseball stadium, offices, resataurants, condos, and bunches of hotels. Baseball team hasn’t played a game this season and will most likely move to Peoria. NBA team trying to go to Seattle or Law Vegas. 5 new hotels will likely fold. Several restaurants will go under. Office space is empty and new construction halted. Covid19 is neutron bomb for downtown Memphis.

And the power struggle with police forces may prove to be another negative for commerce and budgets (and do not forget that we think making the police need to be brought to heel even if the short term cost looks high). I’ve heard from a few people on the ground that the police in Manhattan are refusing to pursue reports of crime in progress. The perception that cities might become dangerous isn’t a plus.

As I so often say, I wish I were wrong, but I can’t see a reason to be optimistic.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    I fear you are correct in this, although the impact won’t be the same worldwide.

    First off, it needs to be said that there is no clear relationship between urban density and Covid risk. South Korea and Taiwan are super-high density countries, likewise Vietnam and Japan, and they’ve largely controlled the virus (so far). I thought Bangkok would be a disaster, but it hasn’t been. In Ireland, the lightly populated border regions have been hit much harder than the mid sized cities, despite the first cases of community transmission having occurred in the cities. In the UK, London has gotten off comparatively lightly compared to the less dense northern areas. In many European countries, it has been small towns that were worse hit than big cities, for reasons that I don’t think are entirely clear.

    But perception is everything. I’ve heard many anecdotes about property surges in rural areas outside the traditional commuting zones. I must admit that I (as a dedicated inner urban area dweller), have found myself making a few price comparisons with some rural areas, and making a few calculations based on having to be in the office once a week (which is my current instructions, and that is likely to last for some time). A good friend of mine who lives in a beautiful small village insists on sending me brochures for local houses, pointing out how much more I’d get if I sold my urban apartment. Its getting more tempting.

    I think in Europe the big hit will be on those historic cities that bet big on the tourist euro, especially those with big business convention investments. I believe that traditional rural tourist areas will do ok – its just baked too deeply into European culture to have your summer seaside break. But city breaks? They may well be a thing of the past. Certainly, business travel will be very significantly reduced for years to come, and along with it, the associated infrastructure and jobs.

    I’m not quite so sure the business/residential side of city living will be hit as hard in Europe as in the US. There will be serious impacts on smaller businesses (but I think the political power of small business in countries like France and Italy are likely to result in far more government support than in the US or even UK). I suspect that damage will be sectoral – it will be serious, but not terminal for most cities, although individual cities, such as Amsterdam, may suffer particularly badly due to the make up of their economy.

    In Asia the power of cities is such that I really doubt there will be any significant impact, except for some specific sectors, such as small restaurants. Although a tourist heavy hub like Bangkok will really struggle (as will HK, for different reasons). But cities like Shanghai and Seoul and Tokyo are just too big and too important, and in many countries there really isn’t an alternative for most workers and residents.

    Just on one key point about cities – they are remarkably resilient. If you look at a list of the biggest cities in the world now – then go back 100 years – then another 100 years – what you see is remarkable consistency. A list of the biggest cities of Europe in 1720 isn’t that different from todays list, likewise in Asia. Very few big powerful cities die, and very few unknown hamlets replace them, except during periods of very deep change. They are also capable of change – NY was established a port city, an entrepôt to the US. When this function died, NY didn’t, it grew and thrived.

    But big dense cities exist for a reason. There is a pretty much straight line correlation between urban size/density and productivity. Big cities generate the big productivity advances that drive economies forward. They are more energy efficient and they are more ‘people’ efficient in terms of improving per person productivity. This is why they exist. If the big cities of the US go into terminal decline, they will drag productivity with it, and that means less wealth. They are also, it should be noted, the main drivers of social change. Most revolutions started in the biggest cities and spread outwards, not vice versa.

    1. vlade

      Re your last para – that was true because the ability to talk to people f2f and mingle (create networks) was critical to the productivity. I’m not saying internet replaced that (and I hope it never will), but the situation is different now that it was 100 years ago.

      The evidence I have seen so far on the WFH that after about a month of solving various issues (aka bedding down), the productivity of established teams is more or less the same as before. Where the big issue is is integrating new members, which is much better f2f.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I think it remains to be seen whether technology can replace f2f contacts – it probably depends on the industry. Even the most high tech industries still cluster in places like SF, presumably for a reason. Advertising is notoriously an industry that depends on personal contact, as with fashion and many areas of design. I’ve heard and read very conflicting stories about the impact on productivity – some, like yours, saying that things have bedded down nicely, others claiming massive drops in individual productivity from home working. I read one article last week in the FT where a business CEO says he estimates that there was a 30% drop in productivity from office staff. That could be an outlier of course.

        I’ve seen several times over my lifetime when computers were supposed to replace the need for offices, but for all sorts of reasons it never happened. This, of course, could be the tipping point. But I don’t really know for sure – a couple of weeks ago I thought it was, more recently I’m not sure, given the number of stories I’ve heard about people gradually returning to previous routines. But certainly they are still going full speed on building office blocks in my city, and just last month Amazon forked out a huge sum for a prime centre city office building in Dublin.

        1. vlade

          One thing I saw on the home office productivity – it can vary a lot. For example, if one has kids and the schools were closed, the productivity will suffer. Sometimes catastrophically so, and a lot of their managers didn’t understand it (especially the childless ones).

          Also, the exteroverted types in my surrounding had real trouble dealing with WFH and got mightily depressed. Which is weird, as at office they spent a lot of time on their Whatsapp and the like (more so than real human interaction).

          IMO, where your work is talking to other people (like the ad industry I guess), WFH is bad. Where talking to other people is often a distraction, WFH is good.

          So yes, YMMV. But still, I expect WFH to be way more prevalent than it was.

          1. JBird4049

            I’m extremely introverted and being on quarantine has depressed me. Also, while face to face meetings have often been a waste of time I think that some in person, group meetings, make a big difference. Whatever it does face to face is far more effective. Some personal human interaction is essential for success.

            1. Math is Your Friend

              So far there is a different experience for me, at least for weekly section meetings (about a dozen people). The online and/or phone meetings are half the length and quite a bit more useful, compared to the same meetings in person.

              The department meetings? I’m not sure. Those are 70+ people, and we’ve only had one. It wasn’t notably worse… but it is probably good to see the rest of the department three or four times a year.

              I happened to see an article on bbc [dot] com today, about starting a new job. The person in question found it a better way to meet and starting to know roughly 40 new co-workers rather than in person. I’m not sure if I would agree… but I am unlikely to have the experience.

        2. Anthony G Stegman

          It is very difficult to measure productivity for white collar workers. Anyone claiming a 30% reduction is blowing smoke. If truth be told, a good portion of white collar workers are actually not needed. Much of what they do is redundant and essentially make work projects for the edification of management.

    2. DJG

      Plutonium Kun: I appreciate your ode to the city. I suspect that many European cities are already in the process of inventing a post-tourism economy: I have dipped into articles about Greece and Italy that indicate such. And I am skeptical of vlade’s comment that work from home will re-form the cities. People live in cities for other benefits.

      Yves Smith’s post is an excellent summation of the current state of U.S. cities. One of the main differences between such eternal cities as Istanbul, Tokyo, Rome, or Lyons and U.S. cities is that U.S. cities exist almost in spite of the federal government. U.S. cities are semi-diposable. A hundred years ago, New Orleans was the dominant city of the South and had been for a hundred years. Atlanta and Houston were burgs. A hundred years ago, no one wanted to live in Washington, D.C. The real cities in that region were Phildelphia and Baltimore. Philadelphia continues on. Baltimore, no.

      So U.S. cities are in a precarious situation. Further, unlike European municipalites, which usually have extensive powers devolved to them by the central government, most U.S. cities have very weak governments. I have never been able to figure out how the government of NYC is set up. It’s a rickety structure. Then you have all of the taxing bodies that the municipality can’t control: School districts, park districts, sanitary districts. The unity in managing European municipalities doesn’t exist in the US. When a U.S. city goes into decline, the various taxing bodies start to fight among themselves, as Yves Smith points out.

      It’s a matter of national pride that Thessaloniki thrive in Greece. It is a matter of great pride to the Catalans to make Barcelona work and give it a post-AirBnB future. In the U S, less so. Once the office parks in the distant suburbs of PIttsburgh open, or in the hills and bluffs way up the Hudson Valley, New Yorkers will migrate.

      The lack of a coordinated effort to maintain public health in the U.S. during pandemic has shocked Europeans, who are used to more effectiveness and efficiency in government bodies–or at least some unity of purpose. This is not the case in the U S of A. The public health of cities is now in jeopardy–and there isn’t even an Anthony Fauci. (People may start evoking Jane Jacobs, but she was an exception and has been dead for some time.)

      1. Ignacio

        Don’t you think US would do something to keep NY as the vibrant city that has been for many years, and do it with pride? Is it too soon to say, and some of Yve’s observations possibly have to do with NY still licking it’s own profound wounds, and needing some more time to revive from the lockdown? Madrid was hit hard. Possibly the only big city in the world that suffered the epidemic in a scale comparable to that of New York. Now Madrid is reviving in a process that was somehow designed to be slow, gradual and controlled though sometimes looks too abrupt. The day that bars & restaurants terraces were allowed to open everybody rushed to fill them and the contrast with the previously dormant city was stark.

        1. paul whalen

          Obviously, you’re too young to remember- Ford tells City Drop Dead an infamous headline in 1975
          WASHINTON, Oct. 29 (News Bureau) – President Ford declared flatly today that he would veto any bill calling for “a federal bail-out of New York City” and instead proposed legislation that would make it easier for the city to go into bankruptcy.
          The City was a shambles in the 1970’s. Do you think there’s any reluctance among the mouth breathers to drive the City, gleefully, into oblivion?

          1. Jack

            Well it didn’t work did it? A lot of emphasis is placed on the public words used by the politicians but in many (most?) cases that’s just BS. New York City survived and the Daily News got its headline. Ford was a Republican parroting the party line. Then, as now, money talks, bs walks. Once the money leaves then bad things happen.

            1. JE

              Actually in many ways, NYC and much of the world didn’t survive 1975. This is called out in the very thought provoking documentary Hypernormalisation, which identifies this turning point in NYC as the break from reality and begining of the post truth world.

        2. kareninca

          Hahahahahaha. Well, if it didn’t cost anything at all, maybe.

          I grew up in CT in the 1970s so I remember.

        3. Craig

          The lack of a coordinated effort to maintain public health in the U.S. during pandemic has shocked many Americans too.

          And no, I don’t thing a bailout of any city, especially NY is a given.

      2. vlade

        actually, my comment was that the excellent reasons PK gave for having the cities are much weaker now.

        Historically, city centres were abandoned and reforged and abandoned again. Cities with history, as you say, will most likely survive this better as they never will be as abandoned and reforged as some multi-purpose stuff.

        For example, Auckland in NZ is technically a city. Practially, it’s a suburb sprawl over 600 km square – slightly less than the area of NYC (700km^2), but a fifth of its population. And I’d argue that with the exception of parks (One Tree Hill, anyone?), there’s nothing there that could not be reforged and redone without anyone in a generation considering it too much of a loss. Come back in a few hundreds of years, and maybe it will be different. Maybe.

        What I mean is that IMO the cities will survive, but not as we knew them.

    3. Altandmain

      Perhaps it is because the nearest large American city is one that has experienced a large fall from its peak, Detroit, but I would argue that cities can decline, at least relative to others.

      Detroit was once the wealthiest city per capita in the US at one point. Other cities that are manufacturing are too (Wolfsburg, Germany, the headquarters of Volkswagen is the wealthiest city in Germany for example). It has fallen relative other cities.

      To give another example, Ancient Rome was the centrepiece of Western civilization (let’s ignore other ancient civilizations such as the Chinese). Rome today still exists, and is a major city, but it is not nearly as important as it was at the height of the Roman Empire.

      I think that a case could be made that NYC and many of the large cities in the US (along with the UK, Canada, Australia, and perhaps throughout Europe) might see declines relative to the other cities in their nation.

      This may even prove to be a good thing in that the US is suffering from enormous regional inequality. Perhaps these cities making relative declines may even prove to be a blessing in disguise and reduce the political polarization the US has faced. Similarly, the UK is facing a huge divide between London and the rest of the nation, particularly compared to Northern England.

      As far as productivity goes, it seems like suburbs produce more raw patents, but cities tend to produce more “unconventional patents”.

      To be honest, I think the bigger issue with lack of productivity growth is our transition from a “MBA rentier finance” oriented society as opposed to a “R&D and capital investment oriented” society rather than say, the size of city we live in.

      I base this as well on the fact that many midsized university and college towns are very productive. They punch “above their weight” so to speak because of the presence of their universities, which can be very research intensive, and incubators for start-ups. Keep in mind that many college towns are not ultra dense large cities, but are instead medium sized cities, often with a high percentage of the population living in the suburban areas, even if the student areas tend to cater more towards university student needs.

  2. td

    Good and highly timely post.

    If online commentaries are anything to go by, there is great resistance by a substantial fraction of the population to wearing masks. In part that is a function of internet conspiracy theories. More importantly, it is fallout from early campaigns against mask-wearing by public health officials, including WHO, the CDC and health officers in Canada and elsewhere.

    Perhaps it is true that they were trying to reserve PPE for health workers, but the message was that masks were useless and dangerous and we ordinary mortals were too stupid to learn to wear them properly. There was always good evidence that even simple cloth masks had a beneficial effect that was enhanced if nearly everyone was wearing them. So once again we were lied to for “our own good”. This didn’t do much for the credibility of the authorities in question.

    Public security is going to be another murky and long-lasting problem. Being a street cop has always been
    a difficult job and it has always been a struggle to recruit desirable candidates and members of minority groups and to retain them. Now that task has become far harder and many forces may become self-defunding. It is difficult to reform that which is melting away and to train increasingly substandard recruits in complex social transactions. Where are we going to find masses of brave, trained social workers to answer emergency calls related to mental health issues?

    When there is limited response to crimes in progress, you are only a short distance away from life becoming that much harder for the remaining businesses and residents. I have already read of truck drivers refusing loads for places like Minneapolis because the risk of being stopped or hijacked is too high. Related issues will be refusals by fire and EMT’s to answer calls without armed escort. Slowly, these things will snowball if not checked.

    White flight becomes middle-class flight and upper-class flight and formerly solid cities become hollowed out. I can see the early stages even in Toronto which was long considered immune from such things.

    1. MT_Bill

      Does the military, with its ability to front-load incentives and benefits (enlistment bonus, GI Bill, student loan payoff, etc.), out compete law enforcement within the same overall pool of new recruits while simultaneously making some of the former unsuitable for the latter?

  3. Mikerw0

    I suspect this is coming in a future post. What are the implications of all the capital raised, much as debt, that will be used to attempt to keep large businesses alive until we emerge out the other side. This is not capital being used to support future growth, the textbook reason for raising capital. It is zombie capital. How can these businesses support their debt loads with smaller businesses? (The Fed can’t buy it all to protect the monied class. And, just because interest rates are low the principal needs to be repaid or amortized.)

    As to the above, I said to some Wall Street friends, some of which work in real estate PE funds, that the value of city buildings is down 50%. Despite the fact they are all raising capital to play this distressed asset, no one disagreed. Cognitive disarray.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I think Michael Hudson covered your concerns in his interview with Paul Jay “Holding the Bailout Bag” posted on his website. The CARES Act worked to raise stock prices to enabling the Big Money to cash out their holdings to bigger fools — speculators and pension funds[?]. After the dust settles the biggest remaining Big Money players can tap into the CARES Act low-cost line-of-credit from the Fed to to pick up bargains at fire-sale prices. I believe we can look forward to a future doing all our business with a very few, very large and powerful Big Money Cartels competing for who gets the biggest pieces of any residual wealth or income of the Populace.

    2. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

      Maybe not cognitive disarray, with the All-Knowing-All-Powerful (U.S. Federal Reserve Bank) riding to the rescue. That “money” (commercial mortgage-backed securities) can go to be euthanized on their “balance sheet” (in quotes because that term is normally reserved for entities that live or die based on things like profit and loss and whether their debtors can pay).

      This overall reminds me of a forest where the fallen trees no longer rot away, the trees would stay standing for a while but eventually new trees cannot get started and the whole shebang dies off and is replaced by a desert.

      Very sad report Yves, I’m wondering whether Sydney suffers the same fate or if it perhaps can follow a more Asian course. I think probably somewhere in between.

  4. Krystyn Podgajski

    The decline in sales taxes is interesting to think about. Where do you think they will look to make up the money, or will it all be local austerity? Do you think they will raise property taxes?

    1. Rhondda

      Property taxes have been sky rocketing across the country already. Ours in Kansas City has been a constant battle against an ineluctable enemy, the voracious county/city maw that manufactures its own facts (what your house is ‘worth’) and makes its own rules. Our local corrupt Dem functionary slipped and said on local TV that the huuuuuge 2019 increases were due to the ‘coming recession’ of 2020/2021. Many people are being driven out by this, especially older people on fixed incomes. With revenue sources drying up, I figure they’ll be squeezing us turnips ever harder. I don’t know what people are going to do. The squeeze is getting harder and harder. The grip tighter and tighter.

      1. DHG

        Best turn to God and his Word as the new system is about here, this old one is passing away daily and in a very short period of time it will be destroyed forever and Gods Kingdom installed here on this planet to time indefinite.

        1. kareninca

          The kingdom of God is within us.

          20 And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:

          21 Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

          Luke 17, 20-21

          Not that I’m hoping to start another religious war.

          1. Anarcissie

            ‘The kingdom of God is within us.’ So now we know the answer to the previous question, but we may not like it.

    2. Off The Street

      SALT in an open wound, likely to force staff and service reductions, if not outright municipal bankruptcies. The multiplier effects of all that revenue, income, expense and other line items vanishing will hurt the smaller, less diversified areas more. Way beyond library closures, like what so many California counties experienced in the wake of Prop 13.

      1. Math is Your Friend

        Ok, clearly not the mineral, Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, the movie. or the South African Large Telescope, which is all I really got from personal knowledge and the first 60 or 70 web search hits.

        What is SALT, and what does it do?

    3. Ian Ollmann

      I’m kinda wondering where Nevada is going to end up. Gambling isn’t going to be the money earner it once was for government, with people staying home. Since sales, property and income tax are low, I wonder where the money will come from.

      Alaska might be in a similar boat with oil prices so low.

  5. guilliam

    I recently decided to read the 1992 book ‘The 100 Mile City’ by Deyan Sudjic which had been sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read for a few years. It was a fascinating read, from just after the end of the cold war and just before the internet. It presciently detailed how the the planners and developers of the world’s global cities were increasingly becoming linked as a single system, with London, NY, Barcelona, etc increasingly competing to create environments to attract the international class of bankers, lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, consultants, etc, (primarily with prestigious private schools and lots of museums to visit and restaurants to be seen in) and of course optimal conditions for the rank and file to implement their plans as efficiently as possible.
    What was really striking reading this book at this precise moment was how many of those reasons were fraying even before the virus arrived and how the virus has hit the heart of pretty much all the assumptions about the expected trajectories for global cities.

    1. Basil Pesto

      ha! A few months ago I read Sudjic’s ‘The Language of Cities’, a more recent release, which touches on many of the same things as well as urban planning more generally. Worth a read for anyone interested in the topic of this post. His ‘The Language of Things’ is interesting too, though it’s been a long time since I read it and my memories are faint.

  6. a different chris

    Well the only sliver of light is the Megan McArdle comment, as she is unerringly wrong about everything.

    More seriously, “city” sometimes can be hard to define. The business district? The outer ring “suburbs”, which from the vantage point of modern sprawl don’t look like suburbs at all any more. Something in between?

    A mix I guess, but how do you weight it? And if you are going to stay inside anyway, do you want the Chinese take-out delivery 20 minutes away or 1 minute?

    The problem with suburbs is there’s nothing to do. So you work at home, great, but then what?

    As usual, I have no answers.

    1. Democrita

      “The problem with suburbs is there’s nothing to do.”

      Really? Do you yourself live in a suburb with nothing to do or is that based on stereotypes?
      [that question sounds aggressive, but I don’t mean it that way]

      My suburban home has movie theaters–including an indie one that shows all the non-mainstream stuff–parks, beaches and a couple of local theaters for live performances. Pre-Covid, there were weekend festivals in the parks, antique car shows, pet expos, you name it. Nearby public parks offer baseball diamonds and basketball nets. We even have a little skateboard park.

      That said, I recognize not all suburbs are equal. In my experience, the main differentiator is how long it takes one to access things. Not whether they are available at all. I am NYMetro, so these things are all nearby. My friends in California suburbs have the same things, they just have to drive a little further. I’ve noticed that West Coasters or non-Coasters (such as Coloradans), have a much higher tolerance for driving distances.

      Cities are remarkably resilient, as a prior commenter noted. One thing that may well interfere with their recovery now is the same problem across the economy. If people leave the city, then housing and other costs should fall, thus drawing people back. But our fearless leaders are unwilling to clean house by letting asset prices fall, so that cleansing/repair mechanism is broken.

      1. a different chris

        > but I don’t mean it that way

        No that’s cool. I don’t live in one now but I grew up in “one”… that being the age where you most want to just get the frell “out of the house”.

        My suburb was built a few years after I was born, in the early 60’s. We didn’t (and it seemingly still doesn’t) have any of that. If I got “the frell” out of the house I could go to, I dunno, Kmart. Can’t even think of a close movie theatre. There was a mall that had one, but it was 20 miles away. Weirdly enough, I could walk to Pittsburgh International Airport if I really wanted to leave! :D

        Your post, tied with a description of *my* suburb, which is basically “nothing, nothing and nothing” illustrates my comment which I hope (if the moderators didn’t kill it) is farther down. What are we really talking about? Can’t pin it down. Your place sounds like what I picture as the pre-white flight, and now returning, inner city suburbs.

        Have you ever been to a big city in Arizona? There are just horrifying suburbs around them. Make where I grew up look like paradise. Flat, walled in, big houses cheek-by-jowl and serviced by, and only by, a major highway.

        >But our fearless leaders are unwilling to clean house by letting asset prices fall, so that cleansing/repair mechanism is broken.


      2. rd

        We have great live entertainment at numerous indoor and outdoor venues in suburban and rural areas around us in an upstate NY city. Going downtown is always a pain, driving there, finding a parking spot, and then going to where you need to go. most othe entertainment that we do is in the suburban and rural areas.

        Driving distance in our area doesn’t mean much. It is a bit more than a minute per mile essentially, so driving 15-20 miles is the same as walking one mile. 30+ miles is starting to really get out of the way.

        On city resilience – I view this as a 2 year unmitigated disaster that is going to put many city restaurants, bars etc. out of business. at some point after that, there will eb a vaccine, lots of painfully acquired immunity, treatments etc. and it will bounce back. Rental costs etc will be lower because buildings will be begging for tenants. Always remember that the Roaring 20s came out of the 1918-19 flu, key periods of the Renaissance etc. came out of various Black Death periods.

    2. Off The Street

      But they promised us that those Edge Cities, nodes and what-have-you weren’t just ring road hub-and-spoke intersections with stark mercury vapor lighting or quiet industrial parks or insert image here. Not much of a nexus of anything that people really would, say, enjoy.

    3. MT_Bill

      Not sure if the “nothing to do” was sarcasm, but out here in the hinterlands our after work activities include:

      Play with kids and dogs in the yard
      Cook dinner for family and friends
      Try to keep up on never-ending home/vehicle maintenance
      Get to bed by 9 if possible

      On most weekends of the year hunting and fishing opportunities are locally available.

      There’s all sorts of things to do :)

      1. a different chris

        When your kids become teenagers, ask them what they really feel. My kids love us, but… we weren’t a substitute for kids their own age.

        And as they progress from say 15 to 25 years old, they need fresh blood even among contemporaries. Finally I’ve spent my whole life doing the below item, and someday maybe you’ll see it’s a trap created by suburban living itself, not some wonderful thing to do?

        >Try to keep up on never-ending home/vehicle maintenance

        PS: you can go to bed by 9 anywhere if you so desire?

  7. AstoriaBlowin

    Be careful not to mistake density for crowding, there are COVID-19 hotspots all across where housing is overcrowded, not necessarily where there is density. For example, Elmhurst and Corona in Queens and parts of the Bronx were hit hard because there is overcrowding, multiple people per room or multiple families in a housing unit making indoor transmission much more likely. As PlutoniumKun notes, other cities, much denser than NYC have no been as badly affected.

    NY’s biggest problem is awful leadership at the city and state level. It’s the reason we’ve had a huge number of cases and it’s the reason we’ll struggle to recover. Cuomo and de Blasio didn’t react quickly at the outset with a lock down and mandatory masking and utterly failed to help nursing homes. Now with the reopening there’s nothing happening at the same level of other cities to support new bike lanes for transportation, limiting cars to stop massive traffic issues, opening outdoor dining to help restaurants reopen and get some income. Just compare Anne Hidalgo in Paris to de Blasion.

    In NYC COVID-19 has been as much a human made disaster as a natural one. The city and region can come back with better leadership unfortunately that is not looking likely.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Thanks but I think you missed the argument of the post.

      Density is attractive in cities. Density is now perceived to be a risk. As I explained clearly in the post, getting on elevators and taking commuters trains and subways, which are essential for Manhattan to function, it cannot be rebuilt to be a “mainly cars” city, are perceived by many to be risky and to be avoided. Enough workers, particularly higher income white collar workers, have bosses who share those views and don’t want to take those risks either.

      Look at how rich people living in large apartments fled to the countryside.

      That has nothing to do with hotspots. It has to do with perceptions and responses and what that means for cities.

      1. AstoriaBlowin

        Perceptions can be changed with the right combination of public health policy and messaging. No one is talking about the “end of” Seoul or Taipei or Berlin because they’ve managed the crisis better and seem to be handling the recovery period well also. So the perception has not shifted to the urban life in and of itself being the danger.

        And subways and elevators are basically totally safe if everyone is masked up, worldwide there’s been almost no cases lined to riding short journeys on public transport or in elevators. Longer commuter trains like far flung metro north or LIRR suburbs and long distance buses, like from Pennsylvania are much riskier.

        I agree that there is a bigger hurdle with the high rise office, seating plans, ventilation, talking, movement within the office all have to be rethought.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          In America, this is the equivalent of the economist’s “Assume a can opener.”

          Even in NYC, which was ground zero of Covid-19 infections, I did see very good masking discipline among cabbies and the people I saw on the street, but I also saw tons of evidence of laxity, like some nurses at an MD’s office I visited wearing masks below their nose, and my chiro disconcertingly asking me if she wanted me to have her wear a mask, which screamed that she had patients that didn’t mask up and she didn’t either. Recall that some studies have found that droplets stay airborne 2-3 hours. One person who came to my hotel room to do some work similarly kept pulling his mask off to talk.

          Readers have also reported that on subways, they regularly see people pull down their masks to speak, assuring droplet spread.

          I can tell you with great certainty no one in Scarsdale who thinks riding on MetroNorth is a risk will be converted until they believe risks have been reduced via other means, like treatments or a vaccine.

      2. ObjectiveFunction

        Great post. The following are just related thoughts, not Covid specific.

        Like you, I’m a city dweller at heart, and an adorer of sidewalk cafe culture. In my life I’ve been privileged to live (i.e. kept a full time domicile) in some 18 cities of various sizes, mainly in North America, but elsewhere too. And I’ve keenly explored the cores of many more cities worldwide on foot or by bike whenever I could.

        In all these cities (even in Europe), I note that nearly all the public spaces that are pleasant to wander or linger in are based on core physical assets built over the same 50 years c.1880-1930. Parks and greenspaces. Rail and bus lines and terminals. Hike/bike trails (largely following old rail lines and parks). Libraries and museums. Pedestrian/ café friendly boulevards. Waterfront redevelopments (old industrial districts). Market halls (Quincy, Pike, Ferry, etc.) and tourist attractions.

        It has been my consistent impression that urbanites today, both rich and poor, dwell largely inside the gargantuan bones of an older, grander civilization. One that seems to have had a much sounder understanding of what a polity was, and what its physical infrastructure ought to be.

        Ever since the car changed everything, the only truly new public spaces that have been added to downtowns are: building atria and the under / overstreet mall arcades that give refuge from outdoor cold, heat and traffic in some cities. But these are at core private retail spaces, not places that draw you back, even very nice ones like the Oculus or Changi Jewel. Mainly utilitarian, generic and as ephemeral as the Charbux coffee sold there. Not intended for you to linger in. Buy and move on.

        Ok, enough words for now. This is a big topic and I hope you return to it soon.

        1. jr

          “It has been my consistent impression that urbanites today, both rich and poor, dwell largely inside the gargantuan bones of an older, grander civilization.”

          That is exactly the impression I got the other day when I walked past the NYC public library. The steps of that glorious building were filled with the homeless and the hopeless, most literally just staring into space, grungy clothing and hollowed out eyes. I felt for a second as if I were on the set of a film, yes a dystopian urban nightmare a la “The Warriors” or “Escape from New York.” I’m betting those two movies will be getting referenced a lot in the coming years…

          1. Kfish

            I got that same feeling outside the day markets in central Los Angeles. A big Art Deco street front facade, with a ‘Subway’ sign hung over the top and open-air stalls underneath. Very post-capitalist feel to it all.

        2. Janie

          Good post and comments. I often mull over a conversation from 30 years ago with an eastern European whose English was good but who had not visited the US. He asked about our town; we described our rural area. He was perplexed, asking but where do you go to meet your friends? No coffee shops, parks, plazas? Where do you go for chess or bocce? You can’t walk to these places? How far do you have to drive?

          That such places don’t exist in most of the US was incomprehensible to him. We are missing a huge part of life here, and most of the time we don’t even realize it.

        3. juno mas

          Actually, the beginning of the legacy park goes back to the 1850’s in the U.S. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux won the competition (1857) for what is now known as Central Park. Their inventive design was informed by the very large park settings in England. Olmsted was a prolific designer; in demand across the US. Golden Gate park in San Francisco is a take-off of the grand park concept. Many other cities followed along.

          Many of the grand buildings (and their settings) were built during the City Beautiful movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Then Modernism and WWII arrived and it’s never been the same. Highway design and a rush to the suburbs ensued.

        4. PlutoniumKun

          Thanks, I love your observation about urbanites living on the bones of an older civilisation, you are very right about that. Its a constant frustration to me that we’ve never really advanced in our abilities to build better cities than our forefathers – arguably we’ve not done anything much better than the Greeks of 2000 years ago. I recall one time chilling in a Bristol park with an architecture friend – it was a lovely small leafy square surrounded by late 18 century houses of what would have been the prosperous, but not super-rich middle classes of the time. The density and proportions seemed perfect for urban living. Looking around, we concluded that urban residential architecture has not actually produced anything better since that time, and 99% has been worse.

          I’d just add that in my own city of Dublin, the ‘bones’ were laid around 1780 to around 1860, well before your period, although thats an oddity of Dublin (a city that boomed in the period up to around 1820, but pretty much stagnated from the mid 19th Century onward). One of the pleasures of lockdown during an unseasonably hot and sunny spring has been wandering around on foot and bike, people watching. The places where people have congregated are the old city parks, the canals, smaller urban open areas and the long pier and promenade walks of early Port industrialisation. All dating from that period.

      3. Synoia

        People left London in 1666, to avoid the plague.
        Then they returned.
        London in Victorian times was full of sickness.

        Living in isolation in the Country is lonely, hard, miserable if you are a teenager, and requires a Car.

        1. J7915

          Living in isolation when you are past 70, and the nearest grocery store is 2 miles away, with dangerous intersection and you require a car @ 50cents plus per mile(AAA estimate) is miserable.

  8. John B

    The streetscape and population of New York are extremely sensitive to rent levels, which are now absurd. If the city becomes less desirable, there is plenty of room for rents to fall. That would make New York again accessible to small businesses and poorer people, which could make it a lot more vibrant. True, if the process goes too far the city becomes like Detroit with block after block of vacant buildings and scary crime levels, but New York already has block after block of vacant buildings (at night in lower Manhattan) and scary crime levels (during trading hours in lower Manhattan).

  9. Bob Hertz

    Thanks for a terrific article. Your combination of personal experience and historical observation makes for compelling reading.

    I do have to tease you about one small line (which actually appeared a few weeks ago), which was…..

    “What do sous chefs, bartenders, university administrators, and pilots, to name a few, do for their next act?”

    I for one do not have great sympathy for university administrators!

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I happen to agree but even them losing their jobs (and winding up being unemployed or in gig economy jobs) has an economic impact.

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        Or they should move to where the jobs are!

        Or they should die, as per the recommendations given to the working class…

  10. fresno dan

    Alright! learned a new word, and I always love doing that.
    I am thinking about upgrading and buying a more charming house. Fresno is essentially one huge suburb, but I still wanted to be IN Fresno, and that was solely to keep my drive time to restaurants and shopping short (along the lines of 10 to 15 minutes, and never longer than 30 minutes). If my retail excursions are reduced (and I am wondering if I should go to delivery) only to grocery shopping, well I will get a lot more house on a lot more lot for the same price if I move further out. As gardening is mostly how I occupy myself now, and it will be the main source of activity in the future, than fresno dan becomes fresno ex-urb dan….

  11. BillS

    This is what societal collapse looks like. I wonder if the USA is at the start of its “Crisis of the Third Century” moment.

    At the close of the second century CE, the Roman Empire was beset with a combined crisis of plague, political succession struggles, economic/social instability and military demands. Internal trade and commerce began to break down as cities began to empty out. Imperial power began to devolve to local governors and warlords. The central authority began to break up. Emperor Diocletian (286-305 CE)was able to stabilize the Empire by reforming the imperial bureaucracy and taxation systems under his autocratic rule. He ended up having a nervous breakdown and abdicating his reign after ruling about 19 years.

    Commerce and travel never recovered to preceding levels and the legal framework for feudalism was being laid (limited movement for agricultural workers, etc.). Diocletian was not able to reduce military expenditure (it increased), so economic drain on society continued to sap the Western Empire until the central authority definitively collapsed 150 years later.

    We can see similar things occurring today: emptying of cities, debasement of currency, epidemic, breakdown of commerce and travel, bloated military budgets for little gain, religious strife, rise of localism. Whether today’s crisis leads to a New Middle Age is a big question.

    1. a different chris

      >crisis of plague, political succession struggles, economic/social instability and military demands.

      >was not able to reduce military expenditure (it increased),

      OMG. That is today in a nutshell. Horrifying.

    2. Synoia

      You have explained why Constantine moved the center of the Roman Empire to Constantinople. Rome is useless as a trading hub, while Constantinople dominated the Western end of the Silk Road.

  12. Musicismath

    I moved out of London a year before COVID hit and am extremely thankful that I did. Before March, I regularly travelled in to the city for work (at least twice a week), but now I simply cannot imagine doing so for any reason.

    London depends to a very large extent on the Underground and bus system for getting people from one place to another. I simply don’t know how the tube will be able to function when lockdown eases. It was already running at scarily high levels of overcrowding before 2020; if social distancing is to be maintained in corridors, platforms, and in carriages, queues for many stations will need to be several kilometres long and the process of getting on a tube could take hours. How is that going to work?

    1. PlutoniumKun

      The latest research strongly indicates that public transport is nowhere near the hazard it was thought to be. I think compulsory mask wearing and regular cleaning should make buses and trains safe. The problem of course is one of perception.

  13. Alex morfesis

    Ah…Manhattan has returned to life in the mid to late 70’s, when the piers closed, the police refused to even file police reports, and Times Square was best known for its Minnesota strip with NYTimes reporters and editors not noticing all the underaged drug addicted girls they walked by on their way into work…the “allure” of fresh suburbia and its wonderful walk nowhere options and not having to worry about the “unwashed” seemed quite inviting…

    Urban Instititute had fulfilled it’s phase one purpose…and it keeps on chugging along… But to paraphrase one simple little man…

    “And yet it moves”…

    1. neo-realist

      Oh yeah, where are the cheap apartments in the lower east side? Where’s CBGB? Max’s Kansas City? The Academy of Music/Palladium? Club 57?

      NYC has returned to the destitution w/o the culture (or less of it).

  14. chuck roast

    Let’s talk about your mask…

    In Seoul City and the rest of SK people are wearing the equivalent to an N-95 mask. Without going to an industrial strength contraption, this is the highest quality and safest face mask available for the cooties. This may well be adequate protection for Koreans in elevators since everybody else is wearing one. In my little town everybody wears masks in close proximity. That’s a good thing, and I’m thinking that it provides a lot of protection for me and others.

    Unfortunately, I have no idea of the efficacy of everyone’s mask. The N-95’s I found in the bottom of my boat repair box are long since toast, and I’m wearing a mask provided by an old girlfriend and a mask provided by a woman down the street. They look like the make-do masks everybody else is wearing except for the blue tissue-paper throw-away masks. I’d be crazy to get in an elevator, and there is no way I’m getting on the 60 bus any time soon. Moreover, there are way too many casual knuckleheads who feel the need to cover their noses with the masks. Way too many mouth breathers around.

    Things will not change until everybody is required to wear N-95 masks everywhere in public. That will not happen any time soon in ‘merica…me an ham e da.

    1. mtnwoman

      I’m surprised there isn’t more public uproar that it’s 4 months into this and it is still impossible to order or buy off the shelf a N-95 mask or isopropyl alcohol.

      Like, does anyone “in charge” care? Apparently not.

      Anyone outside of USA who has access to N-95 mask and isopropyl alcohol?

      1. George

        Staples in Southern Nevada had KN95 face mask last three weeks. Three for $14.95. Also some office hand out variety in packs of 40, face shields and hand sanitizer. I was surprised they were 20% off last week.

      2. Aumua

        Yes, these N95 masks should be available everywhere by now, for free. Like a large bin of them in Walmart parking lot, take as many as you need. That would serve two purposes: it would remove the cost barrier for people, and it would make them feel like the authorities are serious about this, and that they really want us to wear these masks. That could create a sea change in public attitude about it.

        This “just improvise your own out of cloth, it’s better than nothing” coming from official channels is so half-assed. Like they don’t care and why should I?

      3. Stuber

        It’s strange comparing my experience living in Bangkok, Thailand with the USA. We have to register using an app to enter shopping malls, large office buildings or public transport, so that it’s easier to track and trace us – it takes all of about 5 seconds to do, so not a major hindrance. We also get our temperature checked when entering.

        We’ve had N95 masks available since January, and no problem getting hold of isopropyl alcohol. There are cloth masks with disposable N95 inserts sold on street corners, at the entrance to metro stations and in all major stores, though I suspect that many don’t use the inserts as they tend to slowly fall out. You can go to any pharmacy and buy N95 masks made by 3M.

        Alcohol is available from the same outlets and all public buildings, shops and market stands have to offer alcohol to use to wash down after paying.

        All elevators are marked with standing places, each facing the wall to avoid contamination of other people and you’re not allowed to talk in the elevator to reduce the spread of infection. The buttons are masked with plastic sheeting which is washed down frequently and there are of course alcohol dispensers in the elevator.

        Thailand has a population of just under 70 million, has 3100 cases and 58 deaths, which puts it into perspective.

    2. The Pale Scot

      Partial solution is to get a cloth mask that has a pouch to put a filter (Etsy has them). Throw out the flimsy filter it comes with and replace it with one made from a MERV13 or better electrostatic HVAC filter. A 20×30 one costs about 25.00. Fitted properly they can be as effective as a N95. swapping them out every 4 hours get you 3-5 days per filter. Don’t have the links on my current machine to post. They are stifling if you have to be active, but for a bus or subway they’re sufficient

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      This is incorrect. Read Taleb’s post that we featured today.

      Moreover, I can pretty much guarantee that the n95s are almost without exception not properly fitted. A properly fitted n95 is difficult to breathe through; doctors and nurses complain about the difficulty and most have to to take breathing breaks every half hour to hour. See:

      Face masks or respirators are commonly worn by medical professionals and patients for protection against respiratory tract infection and the spread of illnesses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome and pandemic influenza (H1N1). Breathing discomfort due to increased breathing resistance is known to be a problem with the use of N95 respirators but there is a lack of scientific data to quantify this effect. The purpose of this study was to assess objectively the impact of wearing N95 face masks on breathing resistance. A total of 14 normal adult volunteers (seven males and seven females) were recruited in this study. Nasal airflow resistance during inspiration and expiration was measured using a standard rhinomanometry and nasal spirometry. A modified full face mask was produced in-house in order to measure nasal resistance with the use of N95 (3M 8210) respirators. The results showed a mean increment of 126 and 122% in inspiratory and expiratory flow resistances, respectively, with the use of N95 respirators. There was also an average reduction of 37% in air exchange volume with the use of N95 respirators

      As a result, it seems extremely unlikely that people outside medical professionals who had n95 masks fitted actually have masks that fit, because breathing would be too difficult to keep them on all day.

      I had a reader be so kind as give me some n95s. Unfortunately, I am pretty sure they did not much more good than a surgical mask. Despite my trying to fit it myself (having watched video instructions), it was not the right size for my face and hence would never fit. It leaked at the bottom, under my chin, big time.

  15. ChrisFromGeorgia

    Just a few observations from Atlanta (I live out in the ‘burbs but read the crime reports from the city and drive around town.)

    Parts of it are going feral, there was another small round of looting over the weekend in the Buckhead (upper class area with higher end retail) where a store got broken into. Also some neighborhoods near the edge of downtown are going feral with all night street parties, folks doing donuts in the middle of major intersections and the cops refusing to even come in to enforce order. Businesses are going to face some difficult choices. Not as dire an outlook as NYC but still problematic and I expect flight out of the city into the ‘burbs (Atlanta is already notorious for sprawl.)

    1. Carolinian

      going feral

      But you are talking about a different issue than Yves, no? She’s suggesting the huge Covid impact will K.O. NYC whereas Atlanta’s problem is more the recent protests. I’ve lived in both cities and Atlanta was already a car/suburb city. When I lived there attempts to get people into downtown Atlanta with projects like Underground Atlanta eventually fizzled. I get that the “new urbanism” has now brought a lot more people (and traffic) into the core, but you could take that away and Atlanta would go back to being what was before–a place where most of the people do their living on the edges.

      And I do think the above may be a bit apocalyptic. Covid will eventually fade and many will once again be attracted to the glamour of a place like New York. Small town life can be enervating and particularly for the young who were never the main targets of the disease. As for people my age, I’m done with cities. Nature is my thing now….

  16. Eric Schmid

    Having lived in NYC for almost 40 years, since the [very] bad old days , I have watched the city go from spooky, neglected ghost town (which was fun in my late teens and early 20s as downtown was a dynamic, wild west playground of art scenes, drug scenes and exotic nightlife in unlicensed clubs) to re-blooming urban mecca full of idealistic (and opportunistic) pioneers to a place where I’d be happy to send my kid to public school (which I did, and do) to a glossy, soulless, overpriced and Disneyfied playground for tourists and one percenters.

    While the near future for cities, especially New York, looks grim indeed, as the primary engines of innovation they will survive; it’s not like the suburbs are suddenly going to become something other than what they’ve always been: minor moons dependent on the gravitational pull of big, vibrant planets. And it’s not like Westchester and Montclair aren’t going to be facing the same municipal crises on a smaller scale. No cities, no nothing. Let the rich flee to the Hamptons, good riddance. Unless you’ve got a bunker in New Zealand, there is nowhere to run.

    I suspect, Yves, that your age has something to do with your outlook. The streets of Brooklyn, where I live, were packed yesterday with young people (wearing masks for the most part) out and about in the parks, having drinks on stoops, riding bikes, protesting the decades of the city’s over-policing (which supports the over-pricing, the over-developing, the over-everything). Let real estate prices crash, let the expensive restaurants close, and do you think any real New Yorkers care that Prada and Dolce & Gabbana were looted? Cities have become old and ossified. It’s time for the urban re-wilding to begin, for the cities to be reimagined and redesigned for the people, and if that doesn’t happen via thoughtful top-down planning (unlikely with our current vision-less mayor) it will happen organically.

    Either you believe in the future or you don’t, and those who don’t are welcome – encouraged! – to leave.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Many of the young people you saw out and about in Brooklyn used to work as sous chefs, bartenders, waiters, retail clerks, cashiers. How will they pay rent if their jobs are gone? How many of the small shops and restaurants will re-open and how many new shops and restaurants might open and how long will it be before they do, if they do? What banks will loan these start-ups and returners the money they will need? The City may be reborn, purged and cleansed by Corona ‘creative destruction’ — ready for a new life after Corona. But how long will that take? Will it happen before the City meets a new sea level?

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      I have to beg to differ. I too lived in New York for nearly 40 years and considered myself to be an adopted native. New York however, is famously a city of transplants. I can’t find good data but fewer than half the residents are even from New York state.

      Brooklyn became hip starting around 20 years ago, as did the Upper West Side in the mid 1980s. I don’t consider people who mainly moved in recently to be that attached to the city, particularly if it starts moving towards fiscal crisis type grittiness. which per the post seems likely.

  17. K teh

    Moses destroying the communites in NY was probably the worst and most pivotal point in US History.

    It’s ok to be an imperialist if you are a hippie, tell the mob what it wants to hear, give it the materials to burn what remains, and put a BLM sign on your fence, a hundred miles away.

    Summer of love.

  18. BlueCollarAl

    Anecdotal, from a NY’er born and raised, now living in a close-in L.I. beach suburb. Never lived in the Hamptons (wouldn’t want to even if I could afford to) but have close friends who do — service sector servants (plumbing) to the rich and famous (and good $$ there, mind you). From what they have told me, initially all of the vacation “cottages” (“mansions” in my world) filled up in late March by escapees from the NYC pandemic, entire families along with service attendants in some cases. Kids home from school and all. A lot of complaining after initial relief to be away from the City: dull, bad weather (we had a terrible spring), kids underfoot, takeout only, long evenings at home, etc. Now that it is summer season with things opening up, boats and beaches at the ready, and the usual ritual of fun and games, far less complaints.

    The interesting point is that my friends say that from what they hear, there is almost universal confidence that come fall, the privileged crowd will be back in their NYC dwellings. No one is planning permanent change. There seems to be great (perhaps misplaced, you think?) confidence in vaccine availability by winter in time for Broadway and Met Opera reopening in January. All expect their restaurant favs to survive, with some of the others going under but seemlessly replaced by new and “better” ones.

    The contemporary American mega-rich are a relentlessly optimistic sort, “real” Americans (N.V. Peale and all of that rot; not for nothing does only the USA have “optimist clubs”), not given to looking too long or hard at long-term downsides. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    1. jr

      “All expect their restaurant favs to survive, with some of the others going under but seemlessly replaced by new and “better” ones.”

      This particular delusion has roots deeper than COVID. The restaurant industry in NYC is, for all its lauded opportunities and “if I can make it here” bravura, a destructive and wasteful enterprise. The story is that, brace yourself, only the very best survive and those that perish deserved it. The sharp minds and palates of New Yorkers weed out the unfit. Sound familiar?

      The truth is that this industry is built on lies. Lies from the real estate agents who extol a neighborhoods cuisine culture but fail to mention the property you just leased housed six similar restaurants in the last four years. Or, alternatively, that the place has stood vacant for three years. Lies from the city who constantly hypes itself as a hotbed of food entrepreneurs but who then ignores the fact that north of 80% of those projects will be gone in two years, most in one. Lies from the food culture media whose legion of food writers and bloggers and influencers breathlessly cheer every new project but have nary a word about the wreckage of jobs, lives, capital, and dreams left laying about by the last “Chef innovater.”

      And last but not least, the lies you tell yourself when you open a restaurant here. Very few people decide to open a restaurant because they are looking for a low profile job that you leave at the desk come 5 PM. This is the stuff of dreams, owning a restaurant brings with it a very certain catchet, instantly you are an innovator and an artist and a Bringer of Light and no where else more so than NYC…ok, maybe Paris, but that’s it.

      So when you realize that you’ve sunk your savings into a economic dimensional rift, you tell yourself it’s just the first year and maybe we need some new wines or let’s go steal the menu from that place down the street that’s always busy or we’ll run a lunch special* …then you shutter in six months.

      * The next time you see a new restaurant, not a diner or greasy spoon, that suddenly starts offering a great lunch special get ready for the vacancy sign. Sometimes it’s just a promo but oftentimes it’s the chef trying to move food that was slated to sell at dinner but didn’t. It won’t make it till next weekend so voila! soup and a sammy. This then becomes a recurring theme. In an NYC brick and mortar restaurant, a good lunch special isn’t making anyone any money….

      A telling joke: Wanna make a million bucks with an NYC restaurant? Invest three…

      1. BlueCollarAl

        My experience as well, especially for the overwhelming number that open in rented spaces. The few old “neighborhood joints” that I have been visiting for 40 or more years are all located in buildings that the original owners or their families had the foresight or simple good luck to purchase when R.E. valuations made that still possible. They are their own landlords and most likely with survive Covid as they have survived previous calamities.

        Your comment, however, in its indirect confirmation of a kind of “creative destruction” in the NYC restaurant business, would seem to lend support to the position taken by my friends’ plumbing clientele in the Hamptons, viz., most restaurants come and go in any case so this time it will be no different. Let them die; new investors and owners will move in to take their place.

        Yves’ point of course is that this time we may simply have fewer, maybe markedly fewer restaurants en toto. That presumes significantly less demand and that implies depopulation of the urban core. Maybe. I am not convinced, and my Hamptons’ “pals” right now would suggest otherwise.

        I have lived through the purported death tremors of New York City before. I am 70 years old. Rumors of its demise have always been greatly exaggerated. NYC has changed, in many ways into a city far different from the one of my youth. Change like this is a major source of my melancholy in older age even though I recognize that in some (not, in my opinion, most) ways NYC has improved. But in either case it has survived and indeed thrived, so much so that my earlier plan to move back, at least part time, from suburb to urban core has been thwarted by the high real estate prices that reflect residential demand caused by the ability to attract a certain well-heeled demographic from all over the country and the world.

        Stuff happens, often with unexpected results. Vaccines and cures are sometimes developed. Any Manhattan resident who is convinced otherwise and would perhaps like to sell me a 1 BR in a nice location, maybe the West Village or Upper Westside at a deep discount given the demise of the City? Please contact me.

        Like I said, we shall see.

        1. jr

          Thank you for your comments and allow me to clarify, I only meant to point out that the “creative destruction” dynamic in the restaurant scene is at the foundation of the delusion that the scene will spring back. I don’t for a second believe it will be returning anytime soon…

          And there is a rent +controlled+ 1 bedroom going for +1700$+ a month downstairs….though the fact the guy is leaving such a marvelous bargain has me even more worried about the future around here…

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          This is straw manning the post. No where do I say anything about demise. I see good odds of fiscal crisis conditions. Look at the reluctance to use public transit from the burbs v. parking. That’s not solvable. The loss of activity in the central business districts (Midtown, Wall Street, Flatiron) has huge revenue knock-ons for the city.

          And I don’t see how entertainment comes back meaningfully either. All the patrons to the symphony and Met are older. They will be loath to take disease risks. Broadway is heavily tourist and people are loath to fly, and word will get out about the crappy state of hotels (generally, not just in NYC) at low occupancy levels. Tourism is another big source of revenues and retail activity, and that will be way off absent effective treatments or a prophylactic soon.

      2. albrt

        The primary purpose of the restaurant business in the US, especially franchising, is to harvest the 401Ks and credit ratings of the would-be entrepreneurs.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Many of the most celebrated NYC restaurants, like Le Bernardin, are midtown and depend on business lunches and to a lesser degree, dinners. Very little of that until Covid-19 risk is perceived to be lower.

  19. Roquentin

    I too have wondered if we’re witnessing the reversal of the decades long trend of capital flowing into urban city centers from the suburbs. Maybe we’re going to relive the white flight of the 70s and 80s again, with urban blight and shredded municipal budgets. I can’t shake the feeling that on some level that’s what is waiting in the wings of these riots. So many people were hopeful, but to me it looked more like New York in 1970s. Frank Serpico and NYPD scandals, blackouts and riots like in 1977, painful cuts and municipal bankruptcy looming ominously in the background. Social unrest might be the last straw for a lot of people, and at the obscene price it costs to live in these urban neighborhoods, why would people do otherwise?

    I think that’s one thing you really didn’t touch on in this piece. Another key feature of the push towards urban living in the 00s and early 10s was that the cost of living in rougher urban neighborhoods was a pretty significant discount to other options. That is gone, long gone, and has been for years. Now there’s all these negative things that go along with urban living and you have to pay a premium for it. It just doesn’t seem likely to me that the high end of the real estate market is going to pay for luxury in an environment like that and there’s no getting around it, the basic premise of the economy in most of these urban areas is that people like that will be there, both earning and spending a lot of money. If and when that goes away, the whole machine will grind to a halt.

  20. William Hunter Duncan

    Minneapolis was celebrated last year for eliminating zoning requirements for single-family dwelling, and their plans for density uber alles by 2040.

    The number of 75-125 unit apartment/condo buildings have sprouted like mushrooms the last year. Now that so much of the frustrations of living in the city on low income oppressed by police have exploded into widespread looting and burning, plus with our city council talking about disbanding the police department, while offering no ideas about what would replace it, while offering up sentiments like it is the abuse of privilege to ask who you might call if someone breaks into your home at midnight, plus with so many businesses still boarded up and the sense of diversity of choice the city offers effectively wiped out, density in this city in the future looks more and more like oppressive, dangerous squalor.

    You can add remodelers/builders to your list of what the heck do I do now. Frankly I would like to put the security forces to work demoing what is left of that burned out, sterile, ugly retail district at Lake Street and Minnehaha, and build an educational food forest, farm and restaurant.

  21. jr

    The West Village has been hemorrhaging small businesses for years but the residential population seemed steady. I’ve lived here for about 7 years. Now, it’s obvious that people are leaving. The truly epic piles of trash that the Village generates provide clear evidence of the flight: lots of old clothing and books, old furniture, the stuff you get rid of when you move. I’m sure some is spring cleaning but I’ve never seen it like this. The guy who runs the extremely popular coffee spot I frequent tells me he has had several customers bid him goodbye, they’re out. The few businesses that are open or half open actually look kind of weird because they produce these clusters of people (don’t get me started) surrounded by empty streets. It livens up during the weekends a bit but that will fade with the passing of summer…which is when the queer tourist season wraps up too. The loss of that revenue is going to be >disastrous< for this particular part of town.

    Now here are some other angles to consider. About a year ago, a vape store opened a few blocks away, nothing new there, but this one attracted a clientele who were obviously looking for something much stronger than an e-cigarette. It turns out the place is a front for a crack or meth operation, I can’t pin down which exactly. There are people who literally camp out in front of the store, on camping chairs and in sleeping bags, waiting for the store to open in the morning. A guy I know who knows the community liaison detective at 6th precinct told me the detective said the cops know what’s up but their hands are tied. The vape store owner is the largest vape store owner in NYC and he is loaded, whenever they bust him he is back up and running in a few days. He has the lawyers to game the system AND the word is there are some crooked cops on the take, “white shirts”, the bosses. It’s known on the force that if you smoke or vape, cops get good deals from this guy.

    The Village has always had a high homeless population. It has train stations from both MTA and NJ PATH and at one time a plethora of food establishments to scavenge from. In the warmer months especially, but really all year round, it hosts groups of dispossessed queer youth of color, often fleeing hateful parents and the violence they meet in their own neighborhoods. When the rent moratorium ends in, what, less than two months, those numbers will explode. They already are, their numbers are visibly up and it’s not just the absence of the non homeless making them suddenly stand out.

    This is an image of the Villages future. Wealthy criminals flagrantly committing crimes for the public to see, no one lifts a finger. People leave, businesses shutter, which means even less pressure on authorities to address the issue. The homeless, bereft of even the meager scraps once generated by the food culture, growing angrier and more desperate, forming encampments around heat sources, in the train stations and at the USB power pylons. People leave, businesses shutter.

    Which is why, when my partner returns from her mothers in a week, we have to have a long, serious conversation about next steps…

  22. freedomny

    I moved out of the NYC area in December and 3 family members are subsequently leaving. Why should they pay ridiculous rents/mortgages when the city no longer offers the amenities that made it attractive? I also know several people who are planning on selling their primary homes near NYC and making their secondary homes their primary. All can now work remotely and are seeking to lower their living costs. I suspect NYC proper will see both commercial & residential real estate prices fall. My old building in Queens has already been impacted – the resident who lived one floor below me put her apartment on the market shortly after I left. It still hasn’t sold and the listing price is 100K lower than what I sold for….

  23. The Rev Kev

    Lots to chew on and think about in this post and already over thirty people have commented on it. If there is no vaccine for this virus and it becomes endemic to the country, then what we may be seeing is a complete re-configuration of the economy. Yves’s experiences with that hotel may be what amounts to cogs slipping in that machinery. There is so much going away that may not come back again from tourist jaunts, business trips, conventions, mass football crowds – the list goes on. And this means that those buildings constructed for this way of life may no longer be needed. Do corporations need so many staff in skyscrapers when they can work for home? Do they need to pay for all that expensive floor-space?

    For years now we have seen malls close all over America and there are websites dedicated to abandoned malls but this took place over decades. The Age of Coronavirus is taking place in a matter of months and it remains to be seen what can be salvaged and what can no longer be done anymore. Unfortunately a lot of people are going to be finding themselves in the middle of those slipping cogs and if help is not given to them, then the riots that we have seen over the past few weeks may end up being a practice session.

  24. IMOR

    Great piece, Yves. In the low-cost run (ten years?), are we not likely to see an urban activity rebound along with many other changes in behavior as warming, mass extinction, pandemics, and permanent war inculcate modified values toward living and dying among the young? There’s nothing genetic or determined about our currenly dominant ‘to the very very last drop’, ’80 is the new 55′ paradigm toward aging and the back half of lifespan. As I used to ask during the 1980s fitness boom, “Fit…For what?” Perhaps in urban living as well as other areas today’s unacceptable risk will become tomorrow’s ‘ So, what’s your point?’

  25. Susan the other

    Jon Huntsman is campaigning here in Utah for Governor. He’ll probably win. His pitch was that he wants to make Utah a “haven” – a refuge for people looking for safety in bad times. Interesting. I don’t wish him good luck with that because Utah doesn’t have enough water as it is to accommodate a large influx of interstate refugees. But something is afoot because the real estate market here – always conservative – is picking up. This in a time of deep budget cuts for all the small touristy cities as well as Salt Lake. I read an article last week about people abandoning San Francisco and heading out into nearby cities in California. Making me wonder how on earth a city like San Francisco which has been allowed to go to the dogs for 3 decades or more will ever make a comeback now in the middle of this crisis. If cities were neglected before they are probably done for. imo. And that’s awful to think about because San Francisco was once a very wonderful place.

    1. Elizabeth

      I left SF not quite 2 years ago and moved to a small town in Northern Iowa. SF long decayed before Covid with the intractable homeless problem, filthy streets, high crime, high cost of living – if it weren’t for the natural beauty of the area, SF would be just another ugly city.. I lived there for nearly 50 years, so I have perspective on how it went from pretty good to horribly awful. Calif. is going to take a major hit on lost tax revenues and cities will lose millions in hotel, restaurant and industries related to tourism. Commercial real estate will take a hit also. Public transit is also going to be hit – pre-Covid BART ridership was down because of the out-of-control crime. I’m not sure why anyone will still want to live in such a city. Last night I looked up apt. rentals located in a large complex – and a one bedroom rents for $3k+. Absurd and insane.

      The only things I miss are a good bookstore and a nice bakery. Unfortunately, we don’t have either of those. I think everyone has to realize what they can and can’t live without. I’ve been able to buy a house, take up gardening, and just de-stress in general. However, I think some smaller communities are going to have higher property taxes because, like everywhere else – groaf – our town decided to build an ice hockey rink, which has been closed since Covid – not sure if it’s ever going to live up to its billing – so I’m expecting a hike in property taxes to pick up the slack. I do think the cities and the rest of the country will be transformed (for good or bad), but not sure of the big picture yet.

      Thanks, Yves for a great post.

      1. Altandmain

        The whole Bay Area has become a pretty grim sight IMO.

        Appalling levels of inequality between the poor and the rich who bought houses decades along with the techies.

        The days the Bay Area offered anything to anyone who does not work in the high paying jobs in the tech industry or who bought houses decades ago are over.

  26. HH

    Hiroshima was back to its pre-war condition 10 years after being hit by an atomic bomb. I think NYC will take much less time to recover from COVID-19.

    1. neo-realist

      I suspect that Hiroshima (and Japan in general) was helped in large part by the Marshall Plan, which helped to reinvigorate their economy. NYC may need similar assistance to get it back on its feet.

      1. jr

        “NYC may need similar assistance to get it back on its feet.”

        Perhaps we should wait until after the Greater Depression and the Climate Apocalypse to apply for that assistance….bundle em, less paperwork…

      2. Jessica

        The rapid recovery of Japan in general after WW2 (Hiroshima physically was not in worse shape than many other Japanese cities, Tokyo included) demonstrates that if the social connections are maintained, it is fairly easy to rebuild the physical structures. The problem in the US is that the social connections have been decaying (made to decay) for decades.

      3. J7915

        Korean War, quality products, leica was not competitive vs Japanese cameras even in the PX in Germany by 1969. Then followed cars, electronis, motorcycles, ships etc etc.

  27. Sutter Cane

    Great piece. I am a musician (with day job, thankfully, that allows me to work from home). Never trying to make a living full-time as a musician is looking like an even more prudent decision than it used to.

    Some of life’s little pleasures, for me, were going to see live music in a small club, enjoying a drink with friends in a favorite bar, and of course playing a gig, myself. My city also has (or rather, had) a great film society that screened classic and obscure movies regularly, I would go several times a month. And a wide variety of restaurants, of course. Record stores, book stores, places where you could browse around and find something surprising (unlike buying books or records online, where being surprised is impossible). I grew up in a small town in a rural area in which none of these cultural options were available. I couldn’t wait to leave, and never had any desire to return. I liked city living just fine.

    Now, all of those things that made living in city preferable to living in the middle of nowhere are gone. I am not sitting in a movie theater again any time in the foreseeable future. I don’t see how small live music venues can make a comeback. Needless to say, I don’t have another gig booked and have no idea when I might ever get to perform in front of an audience again. Browsing at a record store is no longer appealing in the middle of a pandemic, even if they were still open, which they are not. Now that my days consist of logging into my laptop for work, and then NOT doing that, it has also occurred to me that I could be doing nothing much more inexpensively in the middle of nowhere. I hated the limited options of small town living and couldn’t wait to get out, and now I feel like the small town life has followed me here.

    And as an aside, I am not looking forward to a world where the only music being made is on a laptop in a bedroom and is never performed live.

    1. neo-realist

      As far as performing and checking out live music, lets see what’s happening in 2022. I suspect there will be an attempt by people to open or resurrect clubs, assuming the pandemic has either burned out, vaccinated into a non-entity, or reached an end with an interlude before the next. Hang in and good luck.

  28. k teh

    Once again, when this is over, we are going to see that the headline, defund the police, is going to be misdirection absorbed by the buffer.

    The real target, the real victims, are going to be the women and minorities who permanently lose their jobs and businesses, to an MMT entitlement class using the mob for the purpose.

    Taking away other people’s lives and giving some to the mob, faster and faster, is not the path to enlightenment.

  29. Musicismath

    There was a piece in Unherd a couple of weeks ago, which is essentially a wraparound commentary on this New Yorker story by Michael Shulman in the 1 June 2020 issue: The Bushwick House Share Was a Haven—Then COVID-19 Struck.

    Unherd being Unherd, they extend this micro-portrait of a single Bushwick house share spiralling into chaos under lockdown into a somewhat overgeneralised statement on the future of hipster culture in New York, but I found it all very interesting, the article as well as the framing commentary:

    Shulman does not offer a post-liberal argument. But in the gentlest and most affectionate terms, it’s all there. The Everywhere precariat left behind by the receding tide of globalisation is revealed not as the future of anything, but skint, lonely hipsters.

    These lost souls mix a yearning for mutualistic community with a mindset and lifestyle tailor-made to evade the kind of collectivism that would enable such a community to develop. The story has [an] almost elegiac feel, as if mourning the evaporation of the last shreds of optimism still untouched by the Great Crash.

  30. ShamanicFallout

    I live in one of Seattle’s more dense neighborhoods (nothing like NYC of course) and have been wondering what will happen as well. I love to have grocery, restaurants, gym, coffee shops, parks all within a couple of minutes walk. And my five year daughter loves it too. But if this starts to disappear (hard to tell right now because we are still in basically a lockdown situation) I may have to reconsider. A lot will depend on the real estate, rent situations. Will prices and rents in cities crater?

    Also wanted to let Yves and there crew know that the 2018 Seattle Meetup bar (Barca) is right in the middle of the Chaz. NC is full of portents!

    1. Melancholy

      I, too, live in one of Seattle’s more dense neighborhoods, Capitol Hill. In my case, I’m about a 15-minute walk from the new Chaz/Chop district that has been in the news. Downtown Seattle and the the environs leading up the Hill are depressed. Boarded up shops, graffiti, plastic bags blowing in the wind. Downtown now, you can almost jaywalk at will. (During the height of events in April, one could jaywalk at will.) There is no pulse, no life. No tourists. No business. No tax revenue. No income. The sense of loss is saddening.

      A $1.8B convention center expansion was in progress. This was being funded by tourist-related taxes such as from hotel occupancy. There is a portion of a five-story, steel skeleton erected of what was to become of the expansion. It may be completed if there is a bailout (who knows). Or, it may sit uncompleted, waiting for a return to normal, if that happens, and what it looks like, who knows. The girders stand as a reminder of what was a thriving, vibrant city that now does hardly even afford a place to buy coffee any longer.

      There is no a sense that a recovery is in the offing. The V-shape recovery is a lie. Our country was left to waste by the same elites who looted it.

      The salient, burning point is that this was a self-inflicted on our country.

  31. John Wright

    Perhaps there will be some areas attempting to emphasize their relative safety wrt Covid-19.

    I live in a less densely populated region north of San Francisco.

    Wine Country tourism is a big part of the local economy.

    Yesterday an email from a local city had this:

    “Sonoma County public health officials are asking everyone in Sonoma County to get tested for COVID-19, including individuals without symptoms. Health professionals say upwards of 40% of people who test positive experience no symptoms but are still spreading the disease. Community-wide testing allows health experts to assess how widespread and contagious the virus is in our communities and is a critical step toward re-opening the county. With this information health workers can do timely contact tracing of individuals that may have been exposed to the virus and take targeted measures to help prevent the spread of the virus. The County offers free COVID-19 testing for all community members at multiple locations”

    Having an area viewed as safe for “pre-screened” tourists to visit and businesses to operate may be a new “competitive advantage” for a region.

    This may be far easier to implement in less densely populated regions.

  32. polar donkey

    It has been several days since I wrote that comment about downtown Memphis, I wish I had some better news to report now. Yesterday, the county has 256 covid19 cases. A record number by a mile. Protests are not declining but increasing and now targeting restaurants with racist/sexist policies. Former employee of a restaurant posted on Reddit and the story exploded in 12 hours. Protesting has gone mainstream here. Hotels still empty. Restaurants still empty. Phase 3 re-openning delayed. The evictions start cranking up this week in the city too. Moratorium ended. The higher unemployment payments stop in July. PPP money drying up as well. It is going to be a long hot summer.

    1. JBird4049

      The evictions start cranking up this week in the city too.

      This is something that I really do not understand.

      After evicting everyone, just who do the landlord’s expect to rent from during the Second Great Depression? Some income, or perhaps a guarantee of something in the future, is better than nada and having an empty space is not good for business either.

      Is it some kind of ego thing?

      1. Jesper

        My guess is that it is an attempt to detect who:
        1. Can pay but won’t pay
        2. Can’t pay

        Not evicting can, in theory, lead to widespread non-payment. By evicting the ones who don’t pay then the ones who can but won’t pay might change into paying…. It might also delay the correction of the market, the ones who pay might in effect be paying higher than market price until it is clearer what the new market price is.

  33. Dita

    commercial rents being what they are, many of the fancier shopping opportunities in Manhattan are loss leaders, there for prestige. Closing those stores makes sense, even though the lawsuits will drag on for years, if business and tourism don’t come back. It could get very ugly since many varied businesses rely on tourism, hotels, Broadway. I expect prices and fares to go sky high while funding is cut even more. It’s all very depressing, the prospect of trying to navigate another collapse of New York City.

  34. k teh

    Peace is the most sought after product, but you have to build it. Fortunately, it’s a 10 year process, so you just need an interest, not so much skill in the beginning. The experts obviously have no idea how to build peace, so throw away the textbooks and ignore the experts.

    What do other community small businesses need and when do they need it?

    Let your office do the advertising. Take small jobs you can do and branch out. Real business is word of mouth, beginning with one and going exponential at tipping point. Keep that part-time job until you have survived a few recessions and see what is real.

    Take a load off your customer’s shoulders and you will be successful over time.

  35. TBT_1OF4

    I feel weird when I think about this. I left Brooklyn a year ago for a new job but have always had the intention of returning after I got a few years under my belt. I feel upset when I see what’s happening, it feels like my “home”, but I also feel like I don’t deserve to be since I’m so removed.

    I wasn’t much of an “event” seeker but I always enjoyed the sound of human life outside my window, a counterbalance to the news which always makes me think the worst of our species. Now all I hear is birds and lawnmowers and it’s not as calming for me as it must be for others. I worry about how all those people behind the sounds will fare. Many born and raised, not enough money to just up and move and relied on the subway for work.

    Also NYC delivery was always the best and nothing in the suburbs truly compares to the easily accessible variety. Now I mostly cook for myself which may be healthier (or at least I’m more cognizant of what’s going in) but also blander.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I would love to return to NYC but I don’t see how. I moved in many years ago just after the fiscal crisis so I am not overly deterred by higher property crimes and more grittiness, but I’m injured and may never be the same, and city living is about walking, which I now do only with great difficulty. And old and not walking well = a target so I might actually be at physical risk if things got really bad.

      But on top of that is the cost. The rent plus the taxes are killers (the NYC Corporation Tax is nasty).

  36. vegasmike

    Old New York was organized around ethnic communities. In mid-century New York the main communities, were Irish, Jewish and Italians. The Wasps were a small minority with large amount of power. Black people were a large minority without much power. My guess New York will re-organize itself. And ethnicity will play a big part. Young people rebelling against their elders will create new cultural expressions. Low immigration and low birth rate will also be a factor.

  37. ScottS

    I imagine in the long-term cities will more resemble old towns. If you’ve been to Pasadena, South Pasadena, Glendale (suburbs of LA), you’ll know that you can have walkability and relatively low density. Combine that with more people working from home and light rail and micro mobility (electric scooters and bicycles) to fill in transportation gaps, it may be the best of both worlds.

    After light rail, then next biggest problem for suburbs like OC is zoning. That can be fixed with the stroke of a pen, though.

    Or, you know, Americans can get used to wearing masks in public like they do in HK and Seoul.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You don’t like the conclusion but you don’t/can’t dispute the reasoning. Sorry, that sort of intellectual laziness does not cut it here.

  38. Altandmain

    These are long term challenges that have no easy, simple solutions. The city must reinvent itself, and indeed, it’s economy as people flee for greener pastures, or pastures they see as greener, so to speak.

    The first thing New Yorkers ought to do is to vote out Andrew Cuomo or better yet, impeach him. Upstate NY tends to trend more conservative, so if NYC removes Cuomo, he’s done for pretty much.

    Bill de Blasio should also be removed from office too. He has not been a very good mayor either.

    If New York is facing a long term decline, it is going to take real leadership that is up to the task to provide as high as possible a living standard given the hand they’ve been dealt. There is also the matter of preparing for another wave of COVID 19 or other disasters (who knows – with global warming, I imagine NYC will with more hurricanes in the future to give an example).

    The brutal reality is that someone who actually sees it as their job to serve ordinary NY residents. That is literally the antithesis of how Cuomo has operated over the years he’s been in power. Literally everything he has touched has ended up in a corruption scandal.

    When I crossed over the border from Canada to upstate NY, a distressed Bernie Sanders supporter once remarked to me, “You know that saying that conservatives have that government never does anything right? I don’t agree with it, as in the hands of a good leader, government can do a lot of good, but Governor Cuomo is literally the embodiment of why that saying exists and has credibility around a lot of folks around western New York.”

    1. Altandmain

      I should clarify:

      The brutal reality is that someone who actually sees it as their job to serve ordinary NY residents is urgently needed.

      But yeah, the point is that poor and outright corrupt leadership has amplified the situation and arguably set up the state for long term decline. People were leaving NY even before this crisis, and this trend will likely accelerate.

  39. Jack Parsons

    Young people like cities because young people are bored all the time!

    Cities are fun culturally because a few young people create entertainments, and a lot of young people support them. Us old folks drop in occasionally on stuff we know we’ll like, and won’t tire us out.

    The ATA in San Francisco is a prime example- I’d still be a regular if I lived there even though I’m in my 50s.

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