New York Isn’t Dead — But New Yorkers Are Dying to Keep It Alive

A blog post titled “New York is dead forever… here’s why” has been making the rounds recently. Written by a hedge fund manager, it tells a story about how and why the city will not recover from the COVID-19 lockdown and what that means for the city’s future. It is a pretty interesting example of catastrophic rhetoric and symbolic annihilation of the poor and people of color.

Full disclosure: I don’t particularly like NYC. I lived there and it wasn’t for me, for a variety of reasons. It has some things I like, but it also embodies many dark sides of capitalism in ways I have rarely experienced that close and that much, and in some ways I can certainly plead guilty of wanting to see “NYC” die. But the aspects of NYC I like and the aspects I dislike are part of my internal “map” of the city, my cognitive skyline. They’re not everything the city is or everything it can be.

The exact same is true for the author of this piece, even though he seems less willing to acknowledge that his view is also blinkered.

The third paragraph pronounces the city “completely dead,” with no chance of resuscitation and goes on to make some bold claims:

“But NYC always always bounces back.” No. Not this time.

“But NYC is the center of the financial universe. Opportunities will flourish here again.” Not this time.

“NYC has experienced worse.” No it hasn’t.

NYC will bounce back in some form. Of course it will. Rumors of the city’s demise have been greatly exaggerated before, and they will be again. NYC isn’t the center of the financial universe, but a node — a significant one, no doubt, but to think that it will not retake something like its former role or, failing that, find a new one, is a pretty bold claim.

And yes, of course New York has experienced worse. Pretty recently too, if you want to rank pandemic deaths over empty offices or closed restaurants. The effects of Robert Moses’ ravaging of the city, which are still ongoing, are another contender for worse things happening to the city. Of course, like many other things plagues that have ravaged the city, we are looking with Moses at systemic issues that disproportionately affect people of color. That means a whole other New York than the one this post considers.

This much is clear from the framing of the post’s major sections:

Three of the most important reasons to move to NYC:

* Business opportunities

* Culture

* Food

This is a framing available only to a person of means. There are plenty of reasons to move to New York other than these expensive ones. And although it may surprise some, not everyone in the city has moved there — some were born there (including, one might add, James Altucher, who wrote the post), even if gentrification and increasing cost of living keeps displacing low income residents residents further from the urban center and creating “islands of exclusion.

When it comes to the death of business in NYC, the evidence is anecdotal: office space is not being filled, ostensibly because “[b]usinesses have realized that they don’t need their employees at the office.” No doubt the increase in work from home will lead to changes in how business is conducted, and most likely in how the precariat is treated. But the emptying out of Midtown office space is nothing new. COVID-19 has undoubtedly had an effect here, but it is more fuel to a fire that was already burning rather than a fresh flame:

Numerous headwinds have weighed on New York office landlords in recent years as rent growth has stalled and values plateaued. Then a hurricane began to form in 2018, as the $10,000 cap on the state and local tax (SALT) income deduction hurt New York’s competitiveness. Things continued to worsen in2019, as WeWork (NYC’s largest office tenant) began its implosion. Now in 2020, this existential hurricane has become a Category 5,as NYC is the epicenter for COVID-19 in the United States–and Empire State Realty Trust is poised to bear the full brunt of this storm.

There’s been more office space than there’s been demand for in the city for a long time. New technologies are changing the way people work. Putting what is happening now on the pandemic means denying longer perspectives on economics, culture, and technology.

The business perspective takes precedence over everything else in this post. If you’re not seeking a very specific opportunity, your experience doesn’t count. “When has NYC been through worse,” Altucher asks:

Even in the 1970s, and through the ’80s, when NYC was going bankrupt, even when it was the crime capital of the U.S. or close to it, it was still the capital of the business world (meaning, it was the primary place young people would go to build wealth and find opportunity). It was culturally on top of its game — home to artists, theater, media, advertising, publishing. And it was probably the food capital of the U.S.

Nothing here about the systemic marginalization that helped create a bankrupt city, about the insurance fires set by owners of vacant buildings, or the people who bore the brunt of what was happening to the city. There were still opportunities for those who knew how to play the system, who could afford not to be hit by white flight and systemic racism, and who have since been able to avoid the continuing effects of segregation and racialized policing.

On the topic of culture, most of the space is given over to the comedy club Altucher owns. But he also points out that “Broadway is closed until at least the spring. The Lincoln Center is closed. All the museums are closed.” This is true, as is the fact that many people have lost their jobs because of these closures: “People who have worked all of their lives for the right to be able to perform even once on Broadway, whose lives and careers have been put on hold.” At the same time over 120 MTA workers have died to keep the city running at any capacity at all. No sympathy for the cab drivers who used to shuttle people to and from theaters, concerts, comedy clubs, who are seeing their industry decimated and their colleagues dying?

Theaters, museums, the Lincoln Center will bounce back, and so will the “hot dog stands outside of the Lincoln Center” that Altucher declares are “Finished.” Theaters might change ownership and new hot dog stands and carts will take their place. To my mind, the bigger question isn’t whether the opportunity to take in art and culture or whether there’ll be hot dogs for after, and it’s not about whether “performers, writers, producers, investors, lenders, stagehands, landlords, etc.” will have to “wait a year” before treading the boards or cutting checks again. It’s about who will get a chance to: aspiring Broadway, television, or music stars in New York rarely make enough to pay rent on their cultural work. Few of these people can afford to “wait a year.” Some are doing online shows, fundraisers, putting out new material, to help make ends meet. But the system was inequitable to begin with. (One can wonder how many of those performers could afford to go to shows, with Broadway tickets skirting a $100 average already eight years ago.) Many cultural producers have to tend bar, wait tables, maybe drive cabs or Ubers or for a car service. In order to afford the hope of one day providing one of the “cultural reasons millions come to New York City every year” in “normal” times, people who live and work there also have to help keep the city running in thousands of other ways, many of which now come with high attendant risks.

The third major reason “people move to NYC” is food, but it is disposed of quickly: many restaurants are closed and few new ones will open (“Restaurants breed more restaurants”). The people who worked there are gone, Altucher writes: they’ve moved to where living is cheaper than in NYC. He personally knows a lot of people who have moved. This is a good a place as any to mention that this, too, is nothing new. Even rich people have been leaving the city for a while now, because the city is so expensive. But moving isn’t cheap, and it’s easier for some scrape together the funds to get out of the city than it is for others. Being able to pack up and leave is a privilege in the best of times, and even more so these days.

In the meantime, the restaurant industry is not ailing only because some people’s favorite dining spot is closing. There, like elsewhere, people have been dying. A largely immigrant work force of delivery people have been risking their health to keep New Yorkers fed. Right now, it might be more prudent to focus on how to minimize the risk these essential workers are forced to subject themselves to than to wax nostalgic over “For Rent” signs.

The piece continues on through the headings “Commercial Eal Estate,” “Colleges,” “Ok, Ok, But NYC Always Comes Back,” and “And What Would Make You Come Back?” The pattern is pretty much the same: anecdotes offer the image of a dying city, seen through the eyes of the privileged. That landlords will go broke is a tragey, but the eviction freeze in place is a temporary stopgap that doesn’t protect people who were being evicted before the pandemic isn’t mentioned. Colleges doing remote learning will mean unrented apartments, further harming landlords. Landlords are to be pitied, tenants ignored.

In the end, the reason given for why NYC won’t bounce back this time is bandwidth. People can do things online now, from work meetings to “‘live comedy’ on Zoom.” The problem with this is apprently that “Everyone has choices now.” Those “choices” people have now boil down to this:

You can live in the music capital of Nashville, you can live in the “next Silicon Valley” of Austin. You can live in your hometown in the middle of wherever. And you can be just as productive, make the same salary, have higher quality of life with a cheaper cost to live.

It’s hard not to see this as lamenting a hostage situation ending, if this were actually true. Many people can do a lot of things online, and some of us like that, but far more common seems to be a longing for in-person meetings again. Whatever happens with the business world, however, the working classes cannot do their jobs from a distance. The work of people who don’t have the luxury of complaining about Zoom fatigue keep us in that privileged place. And these are people who still don’t have many choices beyond “work a dangerous job or starve on the street.” More importantly, if people are leaving NYC in search of a higher quality of life with a lower cost of living, maybe it’s worth considering why that is?

Not so in this post. The final paragraphs are worth quoting at length, because they show exactly what the supposed “death” of New York entails:

I love my life in NYC. I have friends all over NY. People I’ve known for decades. I could go out of my apartment and cross the street and there was my comedy club and I could go up onstage and perform. I could go a few minutes by Uber and meet with anyone or go play PingPong or go to a movie or go on a podcast and people traveling through could come on my podcast.

I could go out at night to my favorite restaurants and then see my favorite performers perform. I could go to the park and play chess, see friends. I could take advantage of all this wonderful city has to offer.

No more.

Restaurants, shows, Ubers, property ownership, a feedback loop of podcasts… Taking advantage is the operative phrase here: the city offers, but the view is free of the pesky working people who perform and provide services to the moneyed classes. What we’re seeing throughout the post is a series of systemic issues that plagued NYC for a longer period, reduced to pandemic-caused nuisances that will hamper business, food, and culture. It’s a paean to lost conveniences and luxuries available only to the lucky few. It that can be summarized, then, as a plaintive cry that the people who are currently making money in Manhattan (mostly midtown) might not be able to make money anymore. Others will take their place — the horror is that those others might be in “all the second- and then third-tier cities.” But at heart, the post is about how it’s more difficult for the rich to live at a distance from the poor these days. It’s a pity, it is implied, that people of means cannot remain comfortably above the fray of the everyday, but have to feel some of the aftereffects of a pandemic that ravaged and killed poor New Yorkers at far higher rates.

Everything written about the “death” of NYC is blinkered by a white, affluent perspective that can only take into account a seriously limited view of what the city is, has been, and could be. NYC might be (temporarily) dead for business people, cultural connoisseurs, and foodies — but it’s proven downright deadly to the workers who have struggled, risked their health, and died to keep the city afloat throughout the pandemic, who kept it running without sleep before COVID, and who will be instrumental in putting everything the rich are missing back into place. But hopefully the New York described in this financial Jeremiad is dead, so that something better may rise in its place.

Martin Lund is Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at Malmö University who mostly researches comics.