Is New York City Dead?

Robert Brooks Contributor
Is New York City Dead?
Read Time: approx. 2:45

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Is New York City Dead? March 11, 2020. That’s the day the world changed for most of us. The NBA suspended its season after a player tested positive for the coronavirus, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and President Trump interrupted our nightly news with an announcement that his administration was banning Europeans from traveling to the United States. For what it’s worth, news also broke on this day that Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson, had tested positive for the virus while in Australia, where he was set to begin production on a film. It was one of those where-were-you-when-this-happened moments, on par with other days that are etched in America’s consciousness. JFK’s assassination comes to mind and so does 9/11. Speaking of 9/11, and the city where it happened, March 11 also acted as a starting gun for the urban exodus out of New York City. As the initial epicenter of the virus in the United States, many people were spooked by news reports of limited intensive care units and low levels of personal protective equipment at surrounding hospitals. Even walking down the street to Trader Joes or D’Agostino’s was also a bit unnerving. There were lines around the corner to get in grocery stores and once you were inside, there wasn’t much there. In general, people simply wondered: is riding out a global pandemic in the most populous city in America a good idea? The answer ended up being “no” for a lot of people, who migrated elsewhere, and who may never return. With the rise of remote work and fears of a second wave during flu-season, many former New Yorkers aren’t in a rush to get back. There are more than 13,000 empty apartments in Manhattan, Broadway is shut down through January, and homelessness and violent crime are on the rise, making some speculate that a 1970s style city is fast approaching. This all begs the question: is New York City dead? Two high-profile opinion articles have gone viral over the past few weeks that highlight thoughts on both sides. Here’s what they say:

New York City is Dead: Author, comedy club owner and former hedge-fund manager James Altucher self-published this essay on Thursday, Aug. 13, under the title, “NYC is dead forever. Here’s why.” It was subsequently picked up by the right-leaning New York Post. In the lengthy piece, Altucher begins by espousing his love for the city, saying that when he first moved there “it was a dream come true, “Every corner was like a theater production happening right in front of me. So much personality, so many stories. Every subculture I loved was in NYC. I could play chess all day and night. I could go to comedy clubs. I could start any type of business. I could meet people. I had family, friends, opportunities. No matter what happened to me, NYC was a net I could fall back on and bounce back up.” Altucher continues to say that the city is dead now and that this time is different from past scares because, “the most important reasons to move to NYC: business opportunities, culture, food, commercial real estate and colleges are suffering.” Altucher says that a lack of “friends” is also making the city less appealing. In terms of business, he says, “Midtown Manhattan, the center of business in NYC, is empty. Even though people can go back to work, famous office buildings like the Time Life skyscraper are still 90% empty. Businesses realized that they don’t need their employees at the office.” In regards to culture and food, he says “Broadway is closed until at least the spring. Lincoln Center is closed. All the museums are closed.” He says, “Yelp estimates that 60% of restaurants around the United States have closed,” and guesses that “more than 60% will be closed in New York City, but who knows.” In terms of commercial real estate he says there is a “deflationary spiral. People wait. Prices go down. Nobody really wins. Because the landlords or owners go broke. Less money gets spent on the city. Nobody moves in, so there is no motion in the markets.” What makes this time different, Altucher argues is bandwidth. “In 2008, average bandwidth speeds were 3 megabits per second. That’s not enough for a Zoom meeting with reliable video quality.” Plainly stated, he believes that remote work will make people less reliant on the city.” In summary, Altucher said he and his wife moved to Miami after purchasing a house “sight-unseen.” According to his article he will be in South Florida for a while since New York City “is dead forever.”

New York City is Not Dead: In an op-ed for the left-leaning New York Times, legendary comedian Jerry Seinfeld writes, “So You Think New York is ‘Dead’ — it’s not.” Seinfeld begins by saying that when he “got [his] first apartment in Manhattan in the hot summer of 1976, there was no pooper-scooper law, and the streets were covered in dog crap.” He says he “signed the rental agreement, walked outside, and [his] car had been towed [and] still thought, ‘This is the greatest place I’ve ever been in my life.’” Seinfeld says that “Manhattan is an island off the coast of America. Are we part of the United States? Kind of.” He then acknowledges that “this is one of the toughest times we’ve had in quite a while.” Nevertheless he says, “one thing I know for sure: The last thing we need in the thick of so many challenges is some putz on LinkedIn wailing and whimpering, “Everyone’s gone! I want 2019 back!” Referring to Altucher, Seinfeld continues: “Oh, shut up. Imagine being in a real war with this guy by your side. Listening to him go, ‘I used to play chess all day. I could meet people. I could start any type of business.’ Wipe your tears, wipe your butt and pull it together.” After poking fun at Altucher’s comedy club Seinfeld points out the part about “bandwidth” mentioned above, saying: “Guess what: Everyone hates [working remotely]. Everyone… You know why? There’s no energy. Energy, attitude and personality cannot be ‘remoted’ through even the best fiber optic lines. That’s the whole reason many of us moved to New York in the first place. Real, live, inspiring human energy exists when we coagulate together in crazy places like New York City. Feeling sorry for yourself because you can’t go to the theater for a while is not the essential element of character that made New York the brilliant diamond of activity it will one day be again.” In conclusion, Seinfeld says, “This stupid virus will give up eventually. The same way you have,” in reference to Altucher. “We’re going to keep going with New York City if that’s all right with you. And it will sure as hell be back. Because of all the real, tough New Yorkers who, unlike you, loved it and understood it, stayed and rebuilt it.”

Flag This: New York City is not dead and it never will be. The city that never sleeps is simply taking a nap—a well deserved one at that. If anything, New York City may be struggling to redefine itself right now, but we’d be willing to bet that’s something we’re all dealing with at the moment. There’s life before and after COVID, a phenomenon that’s impacting people and places alike. The one-two punch of the coronavirus and violent looting after the death of George Floyd was a shot to the kidney for the Big Apple, but its obituary has been written before. Moreover, New Yorkers are enjoying perks of a less crowded city as Stephanie Yang detailed in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. Maybe it needed to hit the restart button before this and we just didn’t know. Additionally, if you follow the money, big firms are betting on the future of the Big Apple. Just last week Amazon said “it expects to create 2,000 jobs in Manhattan and plans to open a 630,000-square-foot office at the Lord & Taylor building on Fifth Avenue. That follows Amazon’s lease for 335,000 square feet of office space on Manhattan’s West Side, where it will have more than 1,500 employees.” Granted this was being negotiated before the pandemic, but Bezos didn’t decide to pull the chute, even in spite of being denied a second-headquarters in Long Island City in 2019. If that’s not an indication of why the city is still desirable, then we don’t know what is. In conclusion, it’s the people that make a place special, therefore we’ll leave you with this. On the Seinfeld article, a comment from someone named “Old Yeller” seemed to encapsulate what makes New York so special:

I’ve been a NYC taxi driver for many, many years. My favorite type of ride is the rare one of picking up a man who has just emerged from a hospital following the birth of his first child. It is the best day in his life and I usually find it difficult to hide my own tears of joy as he tells me all about it.

My second favorite ride is similar. It is a young person with a dream who is coming to New York City for the very first time. I am the taxi driver taking him or her to Manhattan from the airport. I insist on the Upper Level of the 59th Street Bridge as our route. Excitement grows as the city grows larger and larger as we approach Manhattan.  Finally, almost at ground level, the ramp takes us so close to the surrounding buildings that we can actually see the people inside.  Touching down on E. 62nd Street, my newly minted New Yorker is experiencing for the first time the “energy” that is so often spoken of.  It’s like watching a child approaching a roomful of birthday presents.  All things are possible.

It will take more than a crumby pandemic to change that.