Do we know that 500,000 people have fled NYC since the start of COVID-19?

On the heels of much discussion of residents leaving New York City, San Francisco, and other major cities because of COVID-19, the Daily Mail suggests 500,000 people have left New York City:

vehicles on road between high rise buildings

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

Parts of Manhattan, famously the ‘city that never sleeps’, have begun to resemble a ghost town since 500,000 mostly wealthy and middle-class residents fled when Covid-19 struck in March.

The number is also part of the headline.

But, how do we know this number is accurate? If there was ever a figure that required some serious triangulation, this could be it. Most of the news stories I have seen on people fleeing cities rely on real estate agents and movers who have close contact with people going from one place to another. Those articles rarely mention figures, settling for vaguer pronouncements about trends or patterns. Better data could come from sources like utility companies (presumably there would be a drop in the consumption of electricity and water), the post office (how many people have changed addresses), and more systematic analyses of real estate records.

A further point about the supposed figure: even if it is accurate, it does not reveal much about long-term trends. Again, the stories on this phenomenon have hinted that some of those people who left will never return while some do want to get back. We will not know until some time has gone by after the COVID-19 pandemic slows down or disappears. Particularly for those with resources, will they sell their New York property or will they sit on it for a while to give themselves options or in order to make sure they get a decent return on it? This may be a shocking figure now but it could turn out in a year or two to mean very little if many of those same people return to the city.

In other words, I would wait to see if this number is trustworthy and if so, what exactly it means in the future. As sociologist Joel Best cautions around numbers that seem shocking, it helps to ask good questions about where the data comes from, how accurate it is, and what it means.

Losing population in other Illinois cities

Chicago gets a lot of attention for losing population but it is not the only Illinois city facing that issue:

RockfordCityWebsiteJune1120

Rockford, Illinois website – https://rockfordil.gov/

Decatur, in central Illinois about 40 miles east of Springfield, has lost 7.1% of its population since the 2010 census, according to the recently released 2019 population estimates. That drop is the third-largest percentage loss in the U.S. among cities with a population of 50,000 or more. Rockford comes in at No. 15 on that list. The northern Illinois city, the fifth-largest in the state with an estimated 145,609 residents, has lost 5% of its population during that nine-year period.

Rockford’s total population loss of 7,676 people over the last decade places it ninth nationwide among large cities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with Decatur (-5,385) at No. 15. Four of the five cities that have lost the most people since the last census are in the Midwest. Detroit has lost the most people, about 43,000, since 2010, followed by Baltimore, St. Louis, Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio…

“I think those cities are very susceptible to having populations hurt by the new service economy or the new postindustrial economy, and that’s because they have such a historical reliance, and a current reliance, on manufacturing and heavy-duty industry,” Wilson said. “And for those city economies that have not diversified, they really get hurt, they get pummeled. And what does that mean to get pummeled? People have a very difficult time living there and earning a living wage. They simply can’t make ends meet. And they become primed for thinking about leaving and trying to find something better.”…

“It’s going to create a further divide between the haves and the have-nots in places like Joliet, Aurora, Rockford,” Wilson said. “And people are going to want to leave.”

Three quick thoughts:

1. The population growth of the Sun Belt is a major force in American change in recent decades. Americans obsess over population growth and it is not in the Midwest so status and attention goes elsewhere.

2. This reminds me of Jennifer Egan’s book Look at Me where one of the main characters dreams of restoring Rockford to flourishing and growth. Yet, it is hard to imagine cities like Rockford or Decatur recapturing their past glory or entering a significant revival.

3. The narrative around population loss in Chicago often revolves around problems specific to Chicago. But, this article hints that it is a state-wide issue or a regional issue. If true, this would require a more coordinated effort across communities and groups that sometimes spend more time sniping at each other than working together (for example, feuds Illinois has with Indiana and Wisconsin rather than regional cooperation).

 

 

Addressing race at Wheaton College and in Wheaton, Illinois

In late 2015, Solidarity Cabinet at Wheaton College asked me to give an evening talk alongside one of my colleagues, David Malone, then Associate Professor of Library Science and head of Special Collections at Wheaton College (and now Dean of University & Seminary Library at Calvin College). We gave talks about the history of race at Wheaton College and in Wheaton, Illinois. Afterward, we discussed how even though these had been independent projects, the data and patterns we had uncovered across the two communities appeared to overlap.

In late 2019, the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society published our article titled “Race, Town, and Gown: A White Christian College and a White Suburb Address Race.”

RaceTownandGown2019FirstPage

The synopsis from the journal’s website:

Our final article traces the trajectory of racial attitudes and policies in an affluent Chicago suburb. In “Race, Town, and Gown: A White Christian College and a White Suburb Address Race,” Brian J. Miller and David B. Malone summarize the evolution of Wheaton College and the larger community of Wheaton, Illinois on matters of race. Before the Civil War both college and town were well-known for abolitionism and relatively enlightened racial views. By the late nineteenth century, however, that earlier openness to African American uplift was waning fast. At the college, the reform ferment of the antebellum era gave way to evangelical fundamentalism, steering the college in more conservative directions. Meanwhile, as the town of Wheaton suburbanized after World War II, the new affluence it residents enjoyed corresponded with a more conservative approach to racial integration at the heart of the postwar Civil Rights Movement. The history of racial tolerance that had defined both college and town at their founding, while remaining a point of pride to be remembered, seemed only that, a distant memory. Miller and Malone, however, point to this history to make an important point–that structural economic and social change, coupled with new ideas, profoundly influence institutional and cultural change over time. Wheaton College and the larger suburb of which it is a part can, and no doubt will, continue to evolve, perhaps in surprising directions.

In certain ways, these communities exemplify broader trends in American society: how white evangelicals and white and wealthy suburbs address race. What is more unique in these two particular cases is that at certain points in their history, they were welcoming toward Blacks and minorities, particularly compared to some of their counterparts. Then, a combination of internal decisions and larger societal pressures which then shaped subsequent actions and experiences led to them being less welcoming. The character of places and communities is malleable even as a certain inertia takes hold over time. As as we note (and the editor notes in the paragraph above), communities and institutions can change again.

 

Changed suburban spending because of COVID-19, Naperville edition

While most public attention with COVID-19 has focused on big cities and countries, numerous suburbs will deal with the effects of the pandemic as well. Here is how Naperville, a large and well-off suburb, is planning to tackle a budget gap:

The city of Naperville is shaving nearly $25 million off its 2020 budget in the wake of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic…

City Manager Doug Krieger said some of the projects were selected to be postponed because they’re considered “nice-to-haves” and aren’t expected to cost significantly more to be completed in future years. One major project, a $2.6 million plan to improve downtown streetscapes, was included on the list for deferment because “the downtown merchants did not want to proceed” with it in light of the pandemic, he said.

The moves will help the city offset anticipated declines in revenue sources — such as sales tax, food and beverage tax and motor fuel tax — as residents and businesses continue to follow the stay-at-home order…

Other work that will not take place this year includes $9 million in water meter-reading technology upgrades, a $7 million road widening project on North Aurora Road and $1.1 million of work toward a park at 430 S. Washington St. to be built in conjunction with North Central College, as well as smaller projects such as LED lighting conversion, tree planting, electric vehicle charging stations, flooring replacements and conference room IT and electric upgrades.

Suburbs and other municipalities can generate tax revenue through several sources (as noted above). Property taxes are affected by property values, which appear at this point appear to be holding firm during COVID-19. Sales taxes are generated by local businesses; this will certainly be down in communities (though the decline of retailers was already an issue). Food and beverage taxes will be down. And the number of people buying gasoline – feeding into the motor fuel tax – is down (and projections for the state’s funding through this suggest a big dip). In Illinois, we are near a third month of reduced business and social activity and this will make a big dent in municipal finances.

At the same time, based on the descriptions here, it sounds like an average resident of Naperville would not even notice that these improvements are not addressed this year. Of course, it could create a backlog for future years – pushing projects down the road means other planned projects might be delayed later – but the focus is on helping to address the current issues.

Naperville may be an unusual case compared to many other suburbs. It is a big community with a lot of successful businesses. The local government prides itself on being well-run and stable. It is not clear how long Naperville could continue to work through budget shortfalls but it is likely better prepared for this than many places.

This means that many municipalities could be facing tough questions in the months ahead about local projects and local funding. If the federal government and states are struggling with missed revenues, this will certainly affect municipalities who have to address local budget issues.

Subways and individual cars during COVID-19

A new study suggests New York City’s subway system helped spread COVID-19:

The paper, by MIT economics professor and physician Jeffrey Harris, points to a parallel between high ridership “and the rapid, exponential surge in infections” in the first two weeks of March — when the subways were still packed with up to 5 million riders per day — as well as between turnstile entries and virus hotspots.

“New York City’s multitentacled subway system was a major disseminator — if not the principal transmission vehicle — of coronavirus infection during the initial takeoff of the massive epidemic,” argues Harris, who works as a physician in Massachusetts.

While the study concedes that the data “cannot by itself answer question of causation,” Harris says the conditions of a typical subway car or bus match up with the current understanding of how the virus spreads…

“Social density … was a result of many factors — business, restaurants, bars, Madison Square Garden, sports arenas, concerts, and the things that make New York happen,” Foye said.

New York City is already unique with its level of mass transit use. The large subway system helps people move around in a crowded city where both parking and driving a car can prove difficult.

The contrast to New York City is sprawling suburbia (including within the New York City region – see Levittown). Americans love to drive and the suburbs are built around cars, driving, and covering relatively large distances on a daily basis within a private vehicle.

With Americans already predisposed toward driving if they can, will COVID-19 increase their reluctance to take mass transit? Is driving safer in these times? (Of course, one could look at the number of deaths related to cars – accidents, pedestrians – and argue otherwise.)

New York City is not the only city dependent on subways; numerous large cities around the world need subways to move large numbers of people. Perhaps there will be new health measures in subways and other forms of mass transit moving forward. But, without fundamentally altering such cities and the benefits that come with density, subways cannot be removed or limited on a long-term basis – can they?

Disparities in COVID-19 cases in DuPage County?

As news came out in recent days about disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths by race in Chicago (and now the AP shows blacks are disproportionately affected in numerous American locations), I wondered how this plays out in DuPage County. The second most populous county in Illinois (after Cook County) has a reputation for wealth, conservative politics, and numerous jobs.

First, looking at COVID-19 cases across DuPage County communities as reported by the DuPage County Health Department on April 8:

DuPageCountyCOVID19casesCommunitiesApr0820

The numbers differ across communities, with some DuPage County municipalities still having no confirmed cases while others have 40+ (and Naperville, the largest community by population in DuPage County, leads the way with 71 cases). But, it would be useful to have rates as the populations differ quite a bit in DuPage County. The Chicago Tribune has an interactive map that shows cases by zip code and also provides rates of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 (but appears to be missing data compared to the DuPage County map). Across the zip codes in DuPage County listed, the rates of cases range from the 50s to the 140s per 100,000. Working with both the absolute numbers and the rates, a few communities stand out: Addison, Lombard, Carol Stream, and West Chicago.

DuPageCountyCOVID19ratesApr0820

DuPage County has a different population composition than Chicago or Cook County. For DuPage County as a whole, 66.3% are white alone (not Hispanic or Latino), 14.5% are Latino, 12.6% Asian, and 5.3% Black.Of course, these demographics can differ pretty dramatically across different communities (Oak Brook looks different than West Chicago which looks different than Glendale Heights). While the reported data does not have a breakdown across racial/ethnic groups (and without this it is impossible to see who has contracted COVID-19 in these communities), some of the higher rates of cases are in communities that are more diverse (Lombard is an exception): Addison is 40.6% Latino (44.7% white not Latino), Carol Stream is 19.3% Asian and 14.9% Latino (and 57.2% white not Latino), and West Chicago is 52.9% Latino (36.5% white not Latino).

Second, addressing age, there are several stories about COVID-19 cases in DuPage County senior homes. The most notable case was a center in Willowbrook (where as of April 7 eight of the county’s 26 deaths had occurred), it also hit a community in Carol Stream, and eight more deaths in the county were attributed to long term care facilities. As of yesterday afternoon, 17 of the 28 COVID-19 deaths in the county occurred among long term care residents.

People 65 years old or older make up 15.5% of the population in DuPage County. Lombard is right at the county average while the other three communities with higher rates are lower than the county average.

Third, all four of the communities with higher rates of COVID-19 cases are below the county median household income. While Lombard is just below the county poverty rate, the other three communities are higher. For DuPage County, the poverty rate is 6.6% and the median household income is $88,711. (A side note on social class: wealthier communities may have fewer households receiving stimulus checks. For example, “About 30% of Naperville households earn too much to COVID-19 stimulus money, study finds.” I imagine there would be similar results in other DuPage County communities with higher incomes.)

More detailed data would obviously enhance our abilities to examine patterns in COVID-19 cases in suburban settings. And the patterns could look different even in the Chicago region: wealthier DuPage and Lake counties might have different patterns compared to other Chicagoland areas. But, I do hope that data does come eventually; while much attention is now focused on big cities, COVID-19 is widespread throughout numerous metropolitan regions, individual suburban governments have limited resources and abilities to tackle the issue, and the risk of contracting and being harmed by COVID-19 could vary quite a bit across suburban residents and businesses.

Argument: New York City getting little sympathy from the rest of the country

Dahlia Lithwick compares the responses to New York City after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the spread of COVID-19 in the city:

In the hours and days after planes hijacked by terrorists slammed into the twin towers, America recalled with a ferocious tenderness how desperately it loved New York. America loved the gritty, multicultural melting pot that was New York; it loved the way New Yorkers pulled together, demonstrating heroic selflessness and service. America loved its burly firefighters and cops and rescue workers. And America loved that New York bustled on, that New York pledged to rebuild. The city and the twin towers became the national locus of grieving, sometimes in ways that elbowed out the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the other scenes of 9/11 attacks…

Fast forward to the pandemic of 2020, which has, in its earliest days at least, walloped New York harder than anyplace else in the country. As of this writing, New York City has seen more than 1,500 people dead and more than 57,000 cases diagnosed. But this time, New York City has not received an outpouring of national love and support. Instead, it has been shunned and shamed…

It was always a fairy tale, but it was surely a nice one. Columbine’s tragedy was America’s tragedy. Las Vegas happened to all of us. Parkland, Florida, was everyone’s worst national nightmare. Regional differences were downplayed so we could grieve together. But Donald Trump came along to remind us that Puerto Rico is not really America, and Detroit is not really America, and California is definitively not America. It was an easy myth to puncture, and he has deftly and rapidly ensured that no city or state will ever be America’s battered sweetheart again. We are all on our own.

New York almost makes it too easy. The city has long been associated with unbounded greed and wealth, cultural elitism, and ethnic diversity. That encompasses Ted Cruz’s sneering dog whistle about “New York values” in 2016, and Trump’s newfound loathing of the city he called home for his entire life—a city he was maligning long before the coronavirus came along. Despite the country’s love affair with New York in the wake of 9/11 or even Hurricane Sandy in 2012, it’s also always been the case that the city coexists uncomfortably with the fantasy of rugged cowboys, wide-open spaces, and manly white men dominating nature, an American story Trump and his acolytes seem to love above all things.

I would add to this in a few ways:

  1. This hints at America’s complicated relationships with big cities from the beginning of the nation. Should the United States be a rural, agrarian society or a urban, cosmopolitan one? Our “compromise” is that slightly over half of the population lives in suburbs, places that can hint at both open spaces and nature alongside easy access to urban centers and amenities. Across a range of urban crises, mobilizing American sentiment for cities and the issues facing them can be a tough sell.
  2. As noted by Lithwick, New York City, out of all the cities, is a unique case. It is the leading city in the United States in terms of population and influence. It is regularly recognized as the leading global city of the world. It is an economic, entertainment, and cultural center. Yet, it is not the capital (which gives Washington, D.C. a particular status). It is not necessarily the place many Americans would aspire to live in. It is anchored in one part of the country and associated with particular values. Across the full city (and not just focusing on lower and midtown Manhattan which tend to get an outsized amount of attention), it may be a great microcosm of the United States but there are numerous alternative visions.
  3. Lithwick highlights differences in the two cases and there are plenty to tease out. One I would say more about involves the threat – terrorism versus a pandemic – affects a relatively small number of locations versus potentially affecting everyone, respectively. In 9/11, a majority of attention could go to New York and the scale of tragedy there. With COVID-19, all American cities (and surrounding regions) are at risk. Is it possibly to rally around one city, even the leading city, when everyone is nervous and defensive? Creating enduring solidarity in this case may look less like pulling for other places and bonding around the common issue all locations face (even as this differs in magnitude).

The geographical improbability of Ferris Bueller and a limited view of Chicago

Ferris Bueller and friends see a lot of the Chicago region in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but their journey is improbable:

Chicago is a big city. Like, really, really big. The makers obviously looked at what they wanted Ferris to do and decided to leave geographic and timeline reality in the dust as Ferris and friends drove away in a red Ferrari GT California Spyder.

Case in point: Ferris begins his day on the far upper side of Chicago, in one of those fancy North Shore neighborhoods past Northwestern University. He convinces friend Cameron—who lives in a different fancy neighborhood—to borrow his dad’s Ferrari, pull the subterfuge with his girlfriend at the school and then drive into the city. The clock is already ticking!

But then! A longish discussion with the parking garage attendants. Sightseeing at the then-Sears Tower. Lunch (impersonating Sausage King Abe Froman). More sightseeing at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. A Cubs game! (Games typically last 3 hours, by the way.) Then more sightseeing back downtown at the Art Institute, followed by an epic parade crash. By this time, it must be nearly midnight! But no, it’s back up to the northern suburbs (presumably during rush hour) followed by an emotional discussion about life and love with friends, a ridiculously long footrace home and… Ferris is back in his bed by the time the folks walk in. By our math, those shenanigans would’ve taken roughly, oh, two days! Or at least 26 hours.

This would not be the first time a movie took liberties with geography (see another Chicago example here). It is easy to think why a film would do this: they want to have characters move in places that are well known, they do not necessarily have to adhere to rules of space and time, and the point of this film is about teenagers having a crazy day in and around the big city.

At the same time, films (and TV shows that follow similar logics) present a distorted view of cities. I could see this working out in two ways in Ferris Bueller. First, they visit the most well-known sites of the city. These can be fun locations, full of people, recognizable around the world. Ferris and friends have fun there. But, this reinforces only certain parts of Chicago and the surrounding region, missing out on a lot of other interesting sites. Second, their visits are quick in and out trips. They drop in, see the most important parts, and leave. In other words, not only do they primarily visit tourist sites, they are the ultimate tourists: they consume and move on and then return to mundane daily life.

These issues are on top of the time and space concerns of the film. Perhaps most viewers do not care about any of these; Chicago looks like a fun place in a time when the city (and other big cities) faced major issues. But, if viewers see enough films and TV shows that do this, they take in a limited perspective of cities and urban life.

New York City, Los Angeles on different COVID-19 trajectories

To this point, COVID-19 has had different effects in the two most populous cities in the United States:

Public health officials are keeping a wary eye and warning that LA could end up being as hard hit as New York in coming weeks, in part because a planned increase in testing may uncover a dramatic surge in cases. Testing in Los Angeles County is expected to increase from 500 per day to 5,000 by the end of the week…

In both cities, schools have been canceled, many businesses shuttered and employees who can have been ordered to work from home. New York City, with roughly 8.5 million residents, had nearly 45,000 cases and at least 366 deaths as of Friday, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Los Angeles County, which contains its namesake city of 4 million people plus an additional 6 million residents, had nearly 1,500 cases and 26 deaths.

Health experts don’t know why there is such a big difference in the number of cases, but believe several things could be at play, such as urban density, differences in the use of mass transportation and slightly earlier moves by authorities to enact social distancing policies. A difference in the speed and amount of tests could also be factors, as officials warn that many people who get COVID-19 don’t necessarily have symptoms…

While a shortage of tests in California during the early weeks of the crisis is one reason for a much lower number of cases, it doesn’t alone explain the difference. New York has tested about three times as many patients, but it has 10 times as many cases as all of California.

There are a lot of possible moving parts (and combinations of these) that could explain the differences. I’m guessing there will be a lot of interesting research that comes out eventually that examines the interaction between place (and all the factors associated with that) and both the spread and consequences of COVID-19. The virus may spread to all areas eventually but the early stages suggest some differences across places.

Let’s say future research finds some differences between locations not just related to policies but to fundamental features of physical space such as density, mass transit use, and levels of social interaction. Will places be willing to change their behavior for the potential of a pandemic? In a world where locations brand themselves and look to attract residents and businesses (recent example), could traits that mean less exposure to infectious diseases represent a selling point?

One factor that I do not see mentioned in this article is the rate of travel in and out of each of these cities. Both are very important places located on coasts that experience a lot of travel in and out as well as much mobility across the region. But, does New York’s location in the the Northeast corridor matter and does New York City have significantly higher rates of global interaction and trade?

The development of a changing and global northern Virginia

Alongside the rise of Washington, D.C. as an American center, the suburbs of northern Virginia have expanded and evolved:

One such non-DC-centered book was published in 2013 by the scholar Andrew Friedman. “Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia” stands out as a serious application of academic history and landscape studies about the Dulles Corridor. It just may be the first 21st-century attempt to mold a critical perspective on Northern Virginia…

The book is built on Friedman’s understanding that “there is no American place that’s not also a global place.” He establishes a dichotomy between the “Overt Capital” of Washington, where the Capitol dome represents the public sphere, and the “Covert Capital” of the Dulles Corridor, where the CIA and Pentagon manage their operations in relative privacy. As Friedman examines how foreign policy and foreign interventions shaped the domestic landscape, he locates the cross-border flows of material and people that have made our region what it is today…

For Friedman, the history of the Dulles Corridor begins with the construction of the Pentagon in the 1940s, followed a decade later by the CIA headquarters. These buildings took advantage of car-oriented development to gain a new kind of hiddenness, obscured behind forests and parking lots. A drive through Langley can reveal nothing about what takes place behind the agency’s doors.

Friedman sees the seven years since his book was published as the beginning of a “third generation” in the development of the Dulles Corridor. It’s no longer characterized by leisurely semi-rural landscapes nor by McMansions, but by “lifestyle centers” and “placemaking,” as in the Mosaic District or The Boro. These centers, Friedman says, are in danger of becoming “fortified cells… reinventing the ‘urban’ into subdivisions, compartmentalized, buy-in-based.” Rather than creating an inclusive environment, he worries that lifestyle centers will only create a new form of “landscapes of denial.”

On one hand, this like the development of Sunbelt suburbs after World War Two. With defense spending, the spread of highways, and sprawling suburbs, this could describe any number of regions from D.C. to southern California. Over time, communities developed and became part of a global system: new immigration flows starting in the late 1960s brought new people, multiple generations of people lived in the new communities, and suburbs began to differentiate themselves. On the other hand, few places have the CIA and Pentagon – defense spending in suburbs could run the gamut from aircraft plants to military bases to government offices. And individual communities and regions have their own particular histories that affect local development character.

More broadly, looking at regional development – not just at cities – is a worthwhile endeavor. Major cities, like Washington, D.C., cannot be separated from their suburbs and vice versa. Considering the variation within a region versus connections between particular parts of the region and other parts of the United States is fun. Tyson’s Corner, cited above would be a good example: is it more like edge cities or northern Virginia. And what lessons could northern Virginia provide for the rest of the country about what to do or not to do?