I feel as though I have been left to sort through the detritus and analyze the pronouncements of a host of prognosticators. On one side those who can see the way in which urban America, never short of bogeymen, has become the Big Apple Pie face of Covid-19 and who, therefore, are predicting the post-coronavirus demise of cities in North America. These predictions come from both those who saw the trend toward affluence in places like San Francisco, Boston, New York, and Washington DC as a pestilence in an of itself and are now convinced that these places with become the primary long term victims of this modern plague, and those who have seen urbanity in all its guises as fatally flawed and flowing inexorably forward into catastrophic failure.
I have read some interesting responses from urbanists like myself who counter these pronouncements of Henry V at Agincourt with numbers and statistical analysis; with facts and figures. The problem, as is often the case, is that the facts almost don’t enter into it. (Not to mention “the fact” that many of the anti-urbanist arguments are nearly irrefutable; regarding public transit and density, or private access to outdoor spaces among other thing). Unless there is a prolonged, well documented, and publicized evisceration of the American hinterlands and suburbia which takes place as cities go on to demonstrably overcome this pandemic and come back to life, the emotional take-away from this event will be, apart from individual tragedy, urban crisis.
There is at the end of all of this a giant “however”, and that is that despite the fact that Americans greatly prefer suburbia to cities, and have done so for as long as suburbia has existed, it is not a living arrangement that can be sustained and, simply put, things that can’t go on forever, don’t.
Talking dollars and cents, which is important right now: For my wife and me, our “nut” living here barely rises to $2,000 a month including taxes and insurance and utilities and groceries and all that. Yes, energy prices have tanked, but anyone who can’t see that this isn’t going to lead to energy becoming unaffordium in the future, whether by prices going up or incomes dropping, isn’t listening to the people with an intimate knowledge of the space.
Apart from us, and a handful of friends, almost no one who lives where I live “wants” to live here now in the sense that it represents any location on the continuum of preferred options that they would sketch out for themselves in some kind of ideal reality; and yet here they are. I am fully ready for the value of my home to drop 50% or more. Given that I must live somewhere the value of my home was never as significant to me as the cost and, as a function of that, my ability to use it to make money whether as commercial space or as an apartment building.
Of my suburban and exurban friends, family, and co-workers very few have contemplated how they might use their property to produce, create, or at least provide some income. The cost and market value of their properties has been many multiples of mine and those appraisals are significant to most of them both practically and psychologically. Some of them will be underwater with a 10% drop in home values, all might be with a 30% drop, and they are making multiple payments for cars and insurance adding up to a thousand dollars a month, with property taxes of a thousand dollars a month. Their lives, like our markets, were priced to perfection.
I wrote about one particular case.
I happened to see, not long ago, where Springfield was very high on a list of cities where people had owned their home for the longest average time. Being honest, that is because values here have been stagnant for decades, and that primarily because it is not a hot, in-demand, market; very few people particularly want to live here and many have stayed who might have preferred to leave, and would have, had their home only increased enough in value for a huge Florida-Arizona retirement payday. I don’t think many Springfield people ever felt assured that their home was a ticket to uber-wealth.
Is this an argument against post virus economic stability in high cost cities as well? Of course it is, and real estate, in Boston, and San Francisco, and Seattle, and Portland, and New York and many, many other places all around the United States was obviously once again in a bubble long before trouble started brewing in Wuhan. What I don’t know, and what I don’t think anyone can be certain of right now, is which places will be able to recover first from an initial price collapse and general deflation, and then from the stuttering, halting relocalization of industry, a 70’s style energy reality, and the ensuing inflation whether of “hyper”, “stag”, or some other variety.
People, a large number of people, were never going to return to the small, decrepitating traditional Rust Belt cities because it was their first choice. The initial response to this crisis may very well be for everyone who can to either depart or to stay away from cities of all shapes and sizes, but an urge for economic survival may drive people of modest means to cities regardless of preference. As I have said many, many times: this is a good place to be poor. In the past I have thought of that as a description of conditions for the individual, but for our society at large it is also true.
I’m impatient now for this stage of the crisis to end and for the next to begin. I would be lying if I said that I haven’t taken a certain amount of pleasure from watching the disaster unfold; no joy at the death and suffering of others, none at all, but from the fact that people who not only ignored all warnings to be prepared and to expect the unexpected, and to add to that were not only dismissive, but who openly mocked me for contemplating discontinuity, are opening their eyes to the obvious fragility of our society.
When MGM was planning construction on its billion dollar resort a block from my house I asked, as a member of the Historical Commission, if there would be put into place a construction bond to guarantee completion of the project if some sort of economic dislocation were to occur before the project was completed: I was literally laughed at. The idea that anything might occur in a three year window which might completely alter the viability of the plan was unthinkable!. Did I anticipate Covid-19? Not at all. I anticipated that events can take control and that it is an absolute certainty that at some point our tomorrow will not look like yesterday.