So what is it that lures us here and keeps us beholden? Recently, the opportunity arguments have been harder to sustain. In March of last year, the unemployment rate in the city stood at 8.6 percent; 12 months later it jumped to 9.8 percent. Nationally, the unemployment rate has declined during the past year, to 8.1 percent in April.
But the past few years, defined by economic challenges, have seemed only to burnish the city’s appeal. An analysis of American Community Survey data by Susan Weber-Stoger of the Queens College Department of Sociology reveals that more people moved to New York City (over 223,000 of them a year on average) after the financial crisis in 2008 and through 2010 than did from 2005 to 2007, an increase of 10 percent.
Simultaneously, the number of people who have left the city since the recession decreased by 25 percent. Of those who have come, most have been from 25 to 34 years old, more than two-thirds of them with college or graduate degrees. More than a third of those who’ve arrived have come from abroad.
When I discussed some of these numbers with Miriam Greenberg, a sociologist who has written extensively about the branding of New York, she cited the highly strategized efforts the current mayoral administration has made to sell the city to the world. This may explain, in some sense, why people have come, but it doesn’t tell us why they remain, with their Zipcar memberships and disillusions.
If I had to venture a guess why this is the case, I might make this argument: New York City (and other big cities) are viewed as places where opportunities are. Even if the unemployment rate is higher (and I doubt many people checked before going there), the assumption is that there are more jobs to be had and there is a broader range of jobs available (particularly compared to smaller cities or more rural areas). Therefore, the potential for a good job is higher. This is process that is not unique to the United States; the incredible rates of urbanization around the world are also partly due to perceptions that cities may be the only places where jobs are available.
We could also flip this question around: should cities try to attract more people if there are not enough jobs for everyone? Greenberg suggests that the city has effectively marketed itself but in the long run, is this a sustainable strategy if there are not jobs (and other needs such as housing) for everyone who comes?