Pandemics, Elites, and the Future of the Cities

Pandemics have not historically been equal-opportunity offenders. Those with resources tend to decamp to country estates while those without bear the brunt of infections and deaths. Two maps from recent editions of the New York Times illustrate how nothing is more constant during pandemics than human nature.

Figure 1, below, shows how many residents departed New York City by May 1, 2020. We’ve heard a lot about how Manhattan has become a ghost town due to social distancing. It’s also a ghost town because, in many neighborhoods, 30 to 40 percent of residents have left. The same holds for the neighborhoods immediately across the Hudson in the trendier sections of Brooklyn. These evacuations tend to overlap well with fatality rates: some Manhattan neighborhoods have had few if any deaths while communities in places like Queens have seen dozens.

Figure 1: Percent of residents leaving New York City by neighborhood (Quealy, Kevin, “The Richest Neighborhoods Emptied Out Most as Coronavirus Hit New York City,” New York Times, May 15, 2020).

Overall, the population of NYC has fallen about 5 percent; in Manhattan, the population is down by 18 percent; in areas like the East Village, the population has fallen an eye-popping 50 percent. Meanwhile, in lower-income areas where the virus struck hardest, those of more modest means have mostly stayed—and suffered.

A time-traveler from 14th-century, plague-stricken Florence or Paris would perfectly understand these patterns as the wealthy exercising their option to avoid disease. Today’s wealthy have a bigger range of destinations available. While Charles II fled to Hampton Court during the Great Plague of London, many upper-income New Yorkers escaped to the Hamptons. Other New Yorkers traveled further afield to places like Miami, Los Angeles, or even, in extremis, the suburbs of Washington, D.C. (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: Top 50 Metropolitan Destinations of New Yorkers (“Where New Yorkers Moved to Escape Coronavirus,” New York Times, May 16, 2020).

Historians are divided on the effect of pandemics on class divides and social cohesion. During the bubonic plague, which ebbed and flowed across Europe from the mid-1300s to the end of the 1600s, the results were mixed. Jews, who have often been scapegoats in times of upheaval, suffered violence and persecution. In Strasbourg, on Valentine’s Day 1349, two thousand Jews were burned to death even before the plague had struck the city. Later that same spring, the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Mein was wiped out in a plague-related pogrom. In Italy, there is evidence of husbands and wives abandoning one another and their children to disease and death. One historian argues that the phenomenon of priests fleeing their communities combined with the church’s impotence in halting the plague helped bring on the Reformation.

There seems to be significant evidence that the plague unsettled economic relationships. A number of studies have attempted to show how the mass die-off of 30 to 50 percent of Europe’s population raised the cost of labor and helped undermine feudalism—serfs and peasants simply refused to work for their old wages and sought out new, better-paying masters if their old one refused to budge.   

But there is another view. Samuel Kline Cohn, author of Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS, believes persecutions, abandonments, and social divisions were comparatively rare. Further, he argues that human societies have generally shown great resilience in meeting the challenge of at least some mass lethal illnesses. In 1665, the Lord Mayor of London and the city Aldermen stayed behind to administer badly needed relief to a city where one in four residents succumbed to plague. This kindness is more than a historical artifact. As we’ve all seen over the past month, doctors, nurses, and critical staff in other industries have stayed on the job in the face of great risk. If flight is a common human response to pandemic illness, so is soldiering on together.

Given these acts of selflessness and solidarity, what does elite flight from the COVID-19 crisis tell us? At one level, not much. The human survival instinct is powerful. Just like the knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail our first response to danger is typically to run away. (In fairness, Bill De Blasio and Andrew Cuomo, like London’s Lord Mayor, have stayed and provided leadership—deficient and bullying though that leadership has sometimes been—through the worst of the crisis while much of the economic gentry departed.) If low-income individuals and families were offered the opportunity to escape the health threat, many would have chosen to leave as well. But at another level, the readiness and degree to which high-income individuals and families left a New York experiencing widespread illness suggests a certain threat to urban vitality, especially if we are unable to secure a vaccine or effective treatment in the near future.

It is impossible to say for certain what would happen to people living on the geographic and economic perimeters of America’s urban centers if major downtown business districts disperse in the wake of COVID-19-induced trends.

At the heart of the challenge is the fact that COVID-19 is accelerating economic trends that were underway before the pandemic struck. While the virus will eventually become just another feature of our lives like the seasonal flu—something we prevent with a vaccine and treat with anti-virals—it nonetheless threatens to become the precipitating event that reshapes the way we think about work, commuting, and urban living.

In places like New York and San Francisco, important employers, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google have announced that telecommuting, which has accelerated rapidly as part of shelter-in-place policies, is likely to play a much bigger role in company operations permanently. Working at home reduces the risk of disease, certainly, but it also means companies can cut costs for expensive office space. Employees, at least those not trying to homeschool or care for young children, don’t seem to miss their commutes. Far from reducing productivity, telecommuting seems to have increased it.

Zoom meetings aren’t a substitute for in-person meetings and can’t match the kind of informal information sharing and innovation that occurs in casual office and hallway conversations. But rapidly improving internet communication technology, like hologram meetings, may close that gap further as we learn how to stay in touch, problem-solve and innovate effectively at greater distances. This combination of economic, health, and social incentives could turn what started out as temporary accommodations into a permanent feature of business life.

If corporate America permanently shifts to a new, more decentralized normal, the subsequent departures from the business cores of our megacities would have potentially dramatic knock-on effects. Every economy is an intricate and delicate web of exchange. If major purchasers of goods and services withdraw, consequences would roll downhill into the rest of urban economies. The tens of thousands of smaller companies that support big firms and their employees would suffer as their own business dried up.

These commercial losses would also slam into city budgets. New York City property taxes ($24 billion in 2019) rely heavily on commercial receipts to the tune of around $10 billion per year. That’s a thick slice of the city’s $85 billion budget. Loss of leases eventually translates into lower property values and falling revenues to the city. A smaller New York (or San Francisco or Chicago) business district paying less in taxes would put stress on city services from education to health to police and emergency services. The end result could be a reduction in both employment and residents’ quality of life.

And at the bottom of the heap are the salaried and hourly workers whose labor is indispensable to complex urban systems. It is impossible to say for certain what would happen to people living on the geographic and economic perimeters of America’s urban centers if major downtown business districts truly do disperse in the wake of COVID-19-induced trends. Optimistically, if the pandemic slows the influx of immigrants and other low-wage, low-skill workers, it is conceivable such workers, like the serfs and peasants of Medieval Europe, could leverage a shrinking labor pool into higher wages. On the other hand, a continued influx of these workers, combined with economic retrenchment of the city, would likely further reduce their bargaining powers.

In the meantime, the city schools and services these individuals and families depend on would become less reliable due to budget cuts that would become necessary to prevent a collapse in municipal finance. Tax increases on business and the upper class to help make good the revenue losses would tend only to accelerate departures. Life in urban America for the working poor and near-poor could get harder; it’s difficult to see how the consequences of COVID-19 would ultimately make it easier.

What might help in shoring up the cities for everyone is vigorous and visionary leadership by urban elites. Restructuring of urban life through reform of zoning laws would lower the cost of housing. A lighter regulatory load would help small businesses to grow and thereby help to make up some of the losses in central business districts. Radical reform and diversification of educational systems to improve the life chances of low-income children and families would also help.

But these are the very people who seem most prone to abandoning ship during the crisis. What is the likelihood of an eruption of the kind of civic-spiritedness required to lead this change from those who bailed out so quickly? A revolution-from-the-top focused on restoring the post-COVID vitality of our major cities seems exceedingly unlikely—however much it might be needed.