Sunday, August 30, 2020

City or Not Here I Come

I recently read an editorial in the New York Times that referred to the ghost town that Manhattan has become because of the pandemic. Then Thursday morning I read about downtown Los Angeles that has suffered the same fate. I had driven to Albuquerque Wednesday for a doctor’s appointment and, since I was early, I walked and photographed along Central Avenue, the main drag in the Duke City’s nominal city center. Albuquerque has a pathetic downtown. It is tepid in boom times and during the pandemic it is barren and hollow. In the half hour that I walked I saw 11 people, eight men and three women. Of the first five men that I saw only one was wearing a mask. Of the women, two wore masks and the homeless women with the borrowed shopping cart did not wear one. 

Never having had a robust city center means that Albuquerque hasn’t lost much. The real cities, New York and Los Angeles have withered during the lockdown brought about by COVID-19. Albuquerque has nothing to bounce back to. 

In the Tuesday, August 5, New York Times, Juliana Kim’s article Is New York “Over” addresses the specter of New York’s demise. She refers to a report last month by the business group, the Partnership for New York City. The group’s report estimates that as many as one-third of the city’s small businesses may never reopen. Another recent study by the city said that about 1,200 restaurants had permanently closed since March. It will be much worse than that.

On August 13 social media influencer James Altucher wrote, “NYC IS DEAD FOREVER. HERE’S WHY” In his diatribe he said, “I love NYC. When I first moved to NYC 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. 

Now it's completely dead.”

Then Monday in a Times op-ed, the comedian Jerry Seinfeld responded, “Real, live, inspiring human energy exists when we coagulate together in crazy places like New York City,” he wrote. “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.”

And Michael Wilson, a New York Times reporter who has documented the mood of the city during the virus crisis wrote, “I see so many New Yorkers doubling down and riding this out. New York is over when New Yorkers collectively agree it’s over, which is why it will never happen.”

But the realities suggest that the ominous forecasting has a strong foundation. The Sunday NYT article New Yorkers Are Fleeing to the Suburbs: “The Demand Is Insane” by Matthew Haag added to my angst. The subhead was “The pandemic is spurring home sales as prosperous city residents seek more space. One listing had 97 showings and received 24 offers.”

It’s much more than space, Matthew. It’s cost. It’s schools. It’s backyards and easier living.

And the offers are often way above asking. The East Orange, NJ home with three bedrooms referenced above went under contract for 21% over the asking price of $285,000. Try to find that kind of property in Brooklyn for three times that price.

The real estate market in New York City suburbs has exploded. Sales in the suburban counties are up 44% over 2019. Westchester County which abuts the Bronx is up 112 percent and Fairfield County where we lived in the mid-70s is up 73 percent.

Meanwhile Manhattan sales fell 56 percent.

The genie is out of the bottle. Workers and companies alike have found that working from home is a viable and less expensive option for housing or office space at New York prices. Already companies are signaling that employees will continue to work remotely after the pandemic has passed. With fewer workers in the city there will be reduced demand for residential and commercial real estate, office space will remain empty and there will fewer humans on restaurant seats and barstools. That, in and of itself, is depressing to a life-long restaurant guy who operated establishments in Manhattan and Queens through much of the 1970s and 1980s. Already 1,200 NYC restaurants have closed for good. That’s the tip of the iceberg.

And that’s just New York. The same sad song is being played in Los Angeles with a downtown that has been reborn over the last ten years. After decades as workday destination and a slow drive to and from Sherman Oaks people started to live downtown. Once dark and derelict after cocktail hour, new construction of upscale condos and apartments lured 90,000 new residents to a revitalized 24/7 boom town. While that’s the population of a few square blocks in Manhattan the influx gave birth to a thriving Arts District, the Fashion District, and the Theatre District. The Historic District drew residents to its Beaux Arts heritage. From China Town to USC and from the 110 Freeway to the Los Angeles River, Downtown LA rode a hip, happening wave.

Then came the pandemic and, like New York, people contracted COVID-19, offices emptied, restaurants and bars closed, and Downtown LA finds itself in a tailspin which it may not survive.

Architect Michael Maltzan writes, “Much of the development in downtown has been happening at a furious and relentless pace with very little time to reflect on some of what has been made. Maybe it takes a moment like this to hit the pause button so that we can adjust our thinking in a more precise way.”

Historian D. J.  Waldie offers that Downtown Los Angeles had developed “a sense of place.” And that “At this point in the pandemic and the economic shock that the pandemic brought it is hard to see how that efflorescence, entrepreneurial creativity and growth will survive.” It is hard to see. And I submit that Downtown LA was only starting to achieve a sense of place. It doesn’t have a fully formed identity. It hasn’t yet, in my opinion, become truly livable. It’s hard edged, superficial, and feels temporary. Only time creates a real city. That kind of identity is many decades in the making.

What was built in the last ten years has been turned upside down in six months. The pinnacle of Downtown’s remarkable upmarket resurgence has been toppled by an insidious disease, economic collapse, and uncertainty. The only thing thriving its empty Downtown is the growing homeless population. And yet when we visit our son in suburban Los Angeles the place I want to be is Downtown. 

1 comment:

Blacks Crossing said...

Why or how I missed this post is beyond me. But your words pull at heart strings about New York and Los Angeles, and I suspect San Francisco as well. Having grown up in the Duke City, my sister and I took the bus to movies at the Sunshine and Kimo theatres, but yes, Albuquerque is struggling to find an identity. It seems that the University and Nob Hill areas are much more vital than downtown. The pandemic has created altered states for most, if not all of us. It may not end, there may be a vaccine or perhaps not, but life at some point will return as it always does to the great cities. It is certain that the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires that tore through San Francisco (80% of the city was destroyed) had people thinking that life would never be the same. It wasn't, but what burst forth from the ashes is nothing short of amazing. Things may be different, but life will continue and grow again. In the mean time, my sympathies for the "something happened on the way to the internet". Ain't technology grand? With luck, you already have it squared away. Thanks for the brilliant shots and prose.