Recently, a millennial friend who was moving out of New York after nearly a decade posted a farewell photo of an elegant Broadway streetscape in Flatiron, where he had worked for about half his time in the city. The art deco buildings still stood proudly under a bright summery sky, but even as the city approaches Stage 4 of its reopening from the pandemic – which is admittedly not as final or comprehensive as it sounds – something was missing. That normally busy thoroughfare connecting midtown with downtown had almost no traffic and not a pedestrian in sight. New York, it finally seemed to me, had reached the end of an era. Is it possible that it could even be ‘over’?
Just what had gone wrong? If one listens to the media, the US’s federal health bureaucrats, and New York’s self-congratulatory politicians, things are going remarkably right. They would have us believe that the city has all but triumphed over the pandemic, and that its only remaining problems are systemic racism caused by all people who happen to have been born white, rich individuals and businesses who don’t pay enough tax, police officers, and a federal government that refuses to give the city the billions of dollars that its urban leadership just knows it deserves. It is almost as though New York alone was not the final resting place of nearly 25 percent of all US Covid-19 deaths and that all the blame is on horrible, backward places like Florida and Texas, with their open hair salons, golf courses, indoor dining, and (soon) schools.
Rank-and-file New Yorkers are more guarded in their pronouncements. There are few boasts these days about living in the ‘capital of the world’ or being able to ‘make it anywhere’. Protestations of civicmindedness about anti-virus precautions quickly yield to complaints about the dearth of culture and nightlife, how recently permitted ‘outside dining’ at the city’s struggling restaurants often means ‘dining in the street with rats’, and, for the city’s large young and single population, long and grating months of mass abstinence. The New Yorker’s vaunted tenacity has been redirected toward sober assessments of financial concerns, remaining health risks, and the continuing fallout of unresolved eruptions of racial discord. All of these trials rest on the enduring inconveniences of urban decay, declining civility, and cutthroat professional competition that used to be buffered by delights and diversions now placed ‘on pause’ for what may be a very long time.
Sadly, New York’s paucity of positive attributes has long been oozing through the shadows. The pandemic, economic crisis, and racial unrest merely brought it to the forefront of the city’s landscape faster and more dramatically than it would have otherwise emerged. For some time now, the more critical observers among us have played a kind of morbid parlour game pinpointing the exact moment at which New York lost its edge. My first inkling came as early as 2011, when the former premises of the storied and decadent Limelight club were rumored to be the new location of an International House of Pancakes. I sighed with relief when that did not happen, but the mere thought that my Chelsea haunts could become emblems of self-satisfied petit bourgeois brunchtime gluttony made me seriously question my commitment to the city.
Not everyone may have shared that particular trigger, but others were pulled. Shortly thereafter, otherwise hot and hip millennials began to decamp in noticeable numbers to – shriek – Los Angeles because its cultural life was more vibrant, then – raised eyebrows – London because people are nicer and the exchange rate was becoming more reasonable, and then – gasp – Washington, DC, because its relentless gentrification, buffeted by a sheen of naive Obama-era sincerity, had allegedly made it a better place for young people. By 2015, they began to spill out into suburbs and supposedly liveable provincial cities like Austin or Cleveland or Pittsburgh. The Cult of Safetyism sucked the marrow out of high-energy nightlife and urban adventure long before their recent extinction event blasted them out of existence like so many hapless dinosaurs under a falling meteor. The Cult of Busyness diluted arts and letters well in advance of the palace directives, legal liabilities, and institutional meltdowns that have virtually ended New York’s musical, theatrical, and public intellectual life for at least the rest of 2020. New York’s much despised mayor Bill De Blasio abandoned tougher policing in the name of social justice years ago, with corresponding rises in crime and blight that anticipated more recent events. Hypercompetition in higher education and junior professional careers indentured the younger generation of adult New Yorkers to a hot mess of anxiety and personality disorders that drove them to avoid intimacy on Tinder before the moment came when they could exchange their firms’ proverbial white shoes for a correctional facility’s orange suit after firebombing a police car.
Recent events served as an accelerating agent for New York’s breakdown. Within days of the March panic, the city’s professional employees and students were sent home from their crowded offices and classrooms and quickly figured out how to perform their dreary tasks online. Their employers and administrators wasted no time examining the bottom line, which showed that they could run businesses and institutions much less expensively if pesky human beings were not around to consume energy and resources and waste time gossiping and harassing each other. A flood of studies buttressed their newfound sense of economy by demonstrating that working at home, courtesy of already existing and almost cost-free technologies, makes employees happier and more productive. According to one recent study, 54 percent of New York City jobs can be done remotely. Why put on a suit and tie and endure the grim Metro North train and human freakshow on the subway to reach some soulless office space when you can write your briefs in your briefs and no longer have to find an excuse to miss some dreadful after work happy hour with your asshole ‘teammates’? It is hardly surprising that as New York rescinded its restrictions, a great many employers deliberately chose not to call their employees back into the office and adopted ‘work-at-home’ as what will almost certainly become a permanent feature of American employment. Some 60 percent of those assigned to stay home are not expected to return to an office before the end of this year, regardless of how much the city is released from lockdown.
The effect on New York is palpable. All the newly ensconced home telecommuters are no longer consuming goods and services downtown. One-third of shuttered small businesses report that they may never reopen, a figure that will likely rise in the absence of a miracle solution. Many of the retail shops on Fifth Avenue and in Lower Manhattan are still boarded up nearly two months after the initial racial unrest. The student and young professional crowds who freshened up Manhattan with their youth, good looks, and credit cards may well remain camped out in their parents’ basements for the foreseeable future, fixing their avocado toast in their mums’ kitchens between Zoom meetings. Better off New Yorkers who own homes outside the city have decamped to them in numbers so great that the wealthy Upper East Side of Manhattan has recorded a historically abysmal 46 percent participation rate in the 2020 census, while mail forwarding requests to addresses outside of New York have doubled. Among my wide range of friends, neighbours, acquaintances, and business associates with homes outside New York, I cannot identify even one who has not fled to it. Among the less fortunate middle class, many have taken refuge with relatives (often in red states) or sought long-term accommodation anywhere they can find it outside town. In Palm Beach, Florida, where I am weathering the storm, so many seasonal New Yorkers stayed put in what is normally a summer ghost town that restaurants (where one is even permitted to eat inside) often still require reservations, heretofore unheard of in the empty summers. It seems gratuitously cruel to add that our average temperatures, moderated by the Atlantic Ocean and a persistent sea breeze, have been about 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than New York’s weather in the last weeks. Sales of single-family Palm Beach homes, mainly to fed up northern buyers and always in the multimillions of dollars or more, have increased 98 percent compared to the first six months of 2019. In that same period, residential sales in New York have fallen by 41 percent, with Manhattan the worst affected area, while the median sales price dropped 13 percent. Even if our fellow New Yorkers here wanted to return north, they would face serious logistically challenges. As of this writing, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has decreed that anyone arriving in New York from Florida and 30 other American states must self-isolate for 14 days on pain of criminal sanction.
The general economic situation, despite some improvement in the country overall, has combined with continuing pandemic-related limits on services, entertainment, tourism, hospitality, and the arts to preserve an unemployment rate approaching 20 percent in New York, a figure unknown since the Great Depression. This alone poses a significant loss in revenue for the city, which is one of the very small number of American municipalities that has the temerity to impose its own tax on income in addition to federal and state income taxes. Some commentators suggest that New York’s arts community, which is particularly vulnerable to public health and related economic concerns, may never recover. An internationally famous soprano friend who just applied for state unemployment support estimated that as many as half of her singer colleagues may no longer be working in music a year from now. Conferences, conventions, charity galas, society balls, and the like – mainstays of New York’s social and economic life and great boosters of tax revenue – have been wiped out in their entirety. Even Stage 4 in New York will still exclude cinemas, gyms, museums, indoor dining, alcohol sales to people who are not also purchasing food, attendance at sporting events, and all sizeable public gatherings except for Black Lives Matter protests, which De Blasio thinks are too important to be prohibited alongside dangerously risky weddings, funerals, and religious services.
On a more prosaic level, New York is a spiralling, five-borough budgetary disaster in the works. De Blasio announced at the end of May that the city was $9 billion in the red, despite about $2 billion in aggressive budget cuts made earlier. New York State is in no position to help, with a projected $16 billion deficit of its own. Some US federal assistance came by way of the expansive relief package approved by Congress in March, and more may come in a planned second round of federal relief spending, but De Blasio’s and Cuomo’s relationships with President Trump are so contentious that they are unlikely to win any special favours for their immiserated constituents.
All signs point to further decline. Businesses that have downsized on leased office space have sent commercial rents plummeting. Residential rental vacancies in Manhattan in June were 85 percent higher than in June 2019 and are expected to grow in number as rents fall for the first time in a decade. A record 36 percent of existing rents have already been reduced. According to one organisation, 25 percent of New York tenants have paid no rent at all since March, with many more joining their numbers in more recent months. Still more can pay only part of their rent. In a weird case of “trickle-up” economics, some 45 percent of New York landlords are now unable to pay their property taxes in full, let alone mortgages. The city government has declared a moratorium on evictions, but the unpaid rents and taxes will remain due barring a radical solution that would almost certainly involve their cancellation, a step that would make New York look like more like Caracas than the world’s financial capital.
Basic municipal services are suffering, too. Even with the recent climbdown in infections, ridership on New York’s creaking old subway system remains plateaued at about 20 percent of its normal volume, threatening an estimated $7.2 billion loss for 2020, a figure that includes the $3.8 billion in emergency financial assistance it received from the US federal government earlier this year. Over the next five years, the subway is projected to lose a total of $16.2 billion with which it must contend before even approaching the astronomical $51 billion estimate for a comprehensive and badly needed modernisation of the whole transport system.
One of the city’s worst responses was a hasty $1.5 billion cut in police funding, which resulted from nothing more than a demand from Black Lives Matter protesters aggrieved by the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in another city over a thousand miles away. Some of the cuts reduced overtime and accelerated planned retirements, but much of the savings came from not hiring young new officers and from eliminating plainclothes and other detachments that were instrumental in controlling street crime. This went along with the release from city jails of some 2,500 convicted criminals, ten percent of whom have already been rearrested for other crimes (sometimes more than once – the total number of arrests among the released was 450), and the elimination of bail for many offences on the dubious premise that bail is racist because it is disproportionately unaffordable to minorities.
The results are already with us. Shootings in New York, which boasts strict gun control laws, are up by over 200 percent compared to the first six months of 2019, with the heaviest increases unsurprisingly in the weeks since the city reduced police funding. In the five-day period from July 7 to July 12, the annualised increase in city shootings was 277 percent. Just three days later New York City’s police chief was beaten by protesters on the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. Thefts, muggings, vandalism, and lesser forms of assault are also dramatically up. City representatives have unconvincingly tried to blame the violence on unemployment, which has been consistently high since March, and on the pandemic, which they also claim to have solved. As the presidential election polls start to narrow, skyrocketing urban crime is now one of the Trump reelection campaign’s most persuasive talking points and is hammered at daily. Meanwhile, Democratic politicians and their allies in New York and other American cities are adamantly refusing any assistance from federal law enforcement or the US military, in significant part because resolving the urban crime wave would help Trump politically. When a US Senator published an op-ed in the New York Times correctly stating that use of the military was legally valid, well established in precedent, and favoured by 58 percent of Americans, the politically liberal editor who approved its publication was forced to resign, while a prominent Times opinion writer who defended him quit, protesting that she could no longer endure an alleged atmosphere of pervasive and officially tolerated workplace harassment.
So ends New York. For some time at least, we are looking at a metropolis that will be poorer, sadder, duller, older, cheaper, dirtier, more violent, more dysfunctional, more suspicious, less populous, less lively, less appealing, and more divided on multiple fracture lines than at any time since it nearly hit bankruptcy in the 1970s, and perhaps even then. Nietzsche said that order is born of chaos, and our civilisation does tend to see cultural phenomena that must die to be born again. It is sad to think that New York’s best days may be behind us, but we have little reason to assume anything else.
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