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?

Living in a community named after someone should prompt some curiosity about that founder

Upon seeing news earlier this year about the death of Carol Stream, the daughter of a Wheaton-born developer who founded a suburb in the 1950s named after his daughter, I remembered that I live in a town named after someone (the Wheaton brothers, Jesse and Warren). I have also studied another town named after a person, Naperville, studied another community that started with a person’s name (Turner Junction which became West Chicago), and have some knowledge of an adjacent suburb named after another person, Warrenville.

If people live in a community named after a person, how much should community members know about that person? More broadly, I would guess many Americans have limited knowledge of the early days of their community. The founding could be decades, possibly centuries, earlier. Americans tend to look to the future, not the past. American communities do not always have local museums, plaques, or other markers that talk about the early days. Yet, a community with a specific name attached to it offers an opportunity to connect to a particular person who likely had some time in the area before and after the community got its start. (An aside: communities named after distant people who may have never visited, may not provide as compelling a story.)

On the flip side, other communities might appear to have mundane names. In the Chicago area, it seems like a variety of suburban communities that put together two words from a list: Oak, Forest, Village, Park, River, Hills, etc. These might also some research: what has behind the name choice?

At the beginning of a community, the founders choose a name. Even though that name may seem less relevant decades later, community members can do a little digging and connect the name to particular people, if applicable, or concepts. All of this could help create a great sense of shared history and community.

(See earlier related posts: Learning About a Suburb.)

The millions in tax incentives Naperville has offered to keep businesses

According to the Daily Herald, Costco has requested $5.5 million in tax rebates from Naperville in order to open a second store on the site of a former Kmart. This might fi with the incentives Naperville has offered to businesses since 2008:

Marriott

Total incentive offered: $10 million

Total incentive paid: $2,865,000 in hotel/motel tax and sales tax rebates

Expiration: When total is met or 20 years after agreement started in 2012

Hotel Arista/CityGate Centre

Total incentive offered: $7.5 million

Total incentive paid: $2,545,000 in hotel/motel tax and sales tax rebates

Expiration: When total is met or 20 years after agreement started in 2008

Hotel Indigo/Water Street District

Total incentive offered: $7.5 million

Total incentive paid: $965,000 in hotel/motel tax and sales tax rebates

Expiration: When total is met or 20 years after agreement started in 2018

Embassy Suites

Total incentive offered: $7.4 million

Total incentive paid: $1,457,000 in hotel/motel tax and sales tax rebates

Expiration: When total is met or 20 years after agreement started in 2015

Main Street Promenade

Total incentive offered: $1.4 million

Total incentive paid: $306,000 in sales tax rebates

Expiration: When total is met or 25 years after agreement started in 2013

There are a couple of ways to look at this. Perhaps this is just the cost of doing business these days. Big businesses can ask for tax breaks or incentives, plenty of places are willing to offer them, and everyone can still think that they win. For some companies and some communities, this money might just be a small drop in the budget.

On the other hand, it is striking that Naperville has to play this game. This is not a desperate suburb looking for jobs or a turnaround. This a large, wealthy suburb with a lot of accolades. And yet, to get a Costco which would provide tax monies plus fill an annoying vacancy on a stretch the city would like to improve, the city is being asked to provide millions of dollars in breaks to make it worthwhile for Costco. And if Naperville does not pony up, do they just locate in a nearby suburb?

Looking at the list of businesses for which Naperville has provided incentives, four of them involve hotels and a few involved newer developments. Competition is tight in a number of sectors, particularly among retailers and filling suburban vacancies. Again, maybe this is what it takes to keep businesses happy, jobs in town, and some tax money flowing.

Naperville will decide on this soon.

UPDATE 2/19/20: Naperville approved the deal and one leader spoke of the move as providing a catalyst to revive the Ogden Avenue corridor.

Developing suburban tourist destinations along major highways

The suburb of Naperville is looking to develop entertainment and tourist destinations on undeveloped land in the northwest corner of the community:

In the works at the two properties both using the CityGate name are an apartment building with a rooftop event center on the east side of Route 59, along with an arena for hockey games, concerts and conventions; and on the west side, a brewery or winery with a restaurant and hotel, as well as residences and offices — all designed with public art as a focal point.

What CityGate as a whole aims to do, developers and city leaders say, is become a true entertainment destination, giving visitors and residents reasons to come, places to stay — even places to live…

Still, there is optimism for CityGate plans, which eventually could include a band shell, a pedestrian bridge over Route 59 and a connection to the Illinois Prairie Path.

“From what we’ve been able to gather, Naperville is gaining a number of people visiting because of tourist attractions outside of Naperville,” Halikias said. “We’re looking at it and saying, ‘You know what? We should have the tourist attractions in Naperville.'”

And all right off the interchange of Route 59 and I-88. Three thoughts in response:

1. Even though many Americans likely do not think “suburb” when they hear about tourism, more suburbs are pitching themselves as cultural or entertainment centers. Tourism can help bring in money from visitors, which helps grow the local tax base without further burdening local residents or property owners. Additionally, the right kind of tourism can be viewed as family-friendly, a vibe many suburbs would like to cultivate.

2. One of the draws of Naperville is its vibrant downtown. Would an entertainment center on the edge of the city compete with the downtown and its restaurants, stores, and other amenities? This connects to a broader question: how many entertainment centers can thrive in the suburbs of the same region, let alone within the same community?

3. The development is said to include apartments, nearly 300 of them. While this helps provide a base for the new amenities nearby, it does not completely alleviate a problem of this development: how accessible is it to nearby residences or communities and how car dependent will the new place be? Even with access to the Prairie Path, the majority of visitors will need to come by car. Two sides of the property will be bordered by very busy roads. The majority of people will drive, park, and leave. This is a very different kind of center than Naperville’s downtown – which can be said to help contribute to Naperville’s small town charm – because of transportation. Perhaps the development will have a full range of options that can keep people there for hours. But, creating a coherent space with its own feelings and around-the-clock vibe could be hard to develop.