Another claim that COVID-19 will push people to the suburbs

I have seen a version of this argument several times already and here is the most recent one: according to the New York Times, more New Yorkers are moving to the suburbs.

Cooped up and concerned about the post-Covid future, renters and owners are making moves to leave the city, not for short-term stays in weekend houses, as was common when the pandemic first arrived, but more permanently in the suburbs.

While some of the fresh transplants are accelerating plans that had been simmering on the back burner, others are doing what once seemed unthinkable, opting for a split-level on a cul-de-sac after decades of apartment living. Others seem to have acquired a taste for country life after sheltering with parents in places with big lawns or in log cabins.

But there’s also a sense that in today’s era of social distancing, one-person-at-a-time elevator rides to get home and looping routes to avoid passers-by on city streets has fundamentally changed New York City…

For starters, people seem to be packing their bags. Between March 15 and April 28, moves from New York to Connecticut increased 74 percent over the period a year ago, according to FlatRate Moving. Moves to New Jersey saw a 38 percent jump, while Long Island was up 48 percent.

Also, suburban towns not really known for their rental stock have had huge spikes in activity, which is being driven in part by escaping New Yorkers, according to brokers in those areas.

There is both a short-term and long-term view of this possible trend:

1. COVID-19 might lead to a sudden change in New York City and possibly other locations that are very dense (which does not necessarily apply to Los Angeles). For example, one report suggests denser cities and places with lower levels of educational attainment will struggle to recover.

2. The population of the big three cities – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – had already plateaued or started decreasing. COVID-19 may just be accelerating what was already happening.

Only time will tell which is more correct. In moments like these, it is easy to suggest cities will decline or people will have long-term fears – and I have seen these pieces as well – but Americans have preferred suburbs for decades. In the meantime, it is probably safe to say that life in cities has changed. What is often attractive in cities is the street life, the culture, the opportunities all within a short distance. COVID-19 is a unique problem in that it limits social interaction, the lifeblood of numerous city neighborhoods and gathering places. In contrast, the suburbs prize private spaces like homes and privilege driving. When people need to isolate, they are already used to it to some degree in suburbs.

A third option might end up being closer to reality: New York City, with all of its COVID-19 cases and its unique features, might suffer more from the pandemic than anywhere else in the United States. At the same time, this leading city will still have a lot going for it after COVID-19 fades and it will continue to be attractive to many.

NYC plans to provide social distancing space for pedestrians by closing more streets to cars

Sidewalks may not provide enough room to keep distance from others so New York City is planning to close more roads to vehicles:

New York City will close 40 miles (64 kilometers) of streets to cars, mostly near parks, to expand the amount of space that pedestrians have to keep social distance, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

The ultimate goal will be to have 100 miles of “open streets” during the coronavirus outbreak, de Blasio said Monday at a press briefing.

The mayor has been pressed by the City Council and bike advocates to open more streets to pedestrians and bikers, and to give more recreation possibilities to New Yorkers. De Blasio had resisted these proposals, saying they would create challenges for law enforcement. The mayor also said he was concerned that drivers might not obey the street closing, placing pedestrians and bikers in danger.

As a temporary measure, this seems like it makes some sense given the need for space to get outside within denser communities. It does raise other issues, such as delivering packages in certain areas or, as the article notes, law enforcement concerns.

Perhaps more interesting is the long-term consequences of such a move. In the last one hundred years or so, American cities and communities have often prioritized moving vehicles through cities. Manhattan already had a problem with crowded sidewalks before COVID-19. Pedestrian and bicyclist safety is already an issue. More cities were already considering closing streets to cars. Road closures might be motivated in the short-term by COVID-19 but this could also be part of a growing movement to provide for human-powered means of transportation.

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?

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).

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?

Suburban dream: have a McMansion 12 miles from Times Square

A profile of Hasbrouch Heights, New Jersey in the New York Times highlights the variety of housing styles available in close proximity to Manhattan:

A mile-and-a-half square atop a hill, Hasbrouck Heights is hardly the boondocks. Times Square is 12 miles east, and the Manhattan skyline is visible from some streets. On the northern end, Interstate 80 swipes past and Route 46 cuts through. Route 17, with office buildings, hotels and chain restaurants, runs down the town’s eastern edge, and Teterboro Airport is just on the other side.

Driving through Hasbrouck Heights on Route 17 offers little inkling of the residential community up the hill or beyond the cliff to the west. Bordered primarily by Hackensack and the boroughs of Lodi, Wood-Ridge and Teterboro, Hasbrouck Heights has an eclectic housing stock of Capes, Victorians, ranches, split-levels, boxy contemporaries, Tudors, McMansions and colonials of all stripes, many on 50-foot-wide lots. The architectural variety, spanning the late 1800s to the current decade, is evident on nearly every block.

“With the new construction, builders have done a good job adding style and character,” said Susan LeConte, the president and chief executive of LeConte Realty, in Hasbrouck Heights. “The homes are not cookie-cutter.”

Four quick thoughts:

  1. This kind of real estate profile, a staple in many newspapers, tend to be very positive about each community or neighborhood highlighted. This profile is no exception: it has the feeling of a small town (bikes can stay unlocked!), there is a little noise from a nearby airport but not too much, and residents can commute to New York City. If this is not an advertisement for the American Dream – single-family home in a quiet suburb not too far from the big city – then I do not know what is. (Thinking more about these profiles: it would be funny to follow them with the opposite perspective of each community.)
  2. The paragraph on different housing architecture is interesting in two ways. How would a suburban community end up with an “eclectic housing stock”? Perhaps development took place in fits and starts. Perhaps the community has a mix of housing needs (with McMansions sitting on the more expensive end). Perhaps the community is more open to different kinds of development.
  3. The second interesting part of the housing paragraph is that the mix of architectural styles only hints at two more modern styles: “boxy contemporaries” and McMansions. Neither descriptions are endearing. Boxy and sleek homes are not preferred by many. McMansions are often viewed as taking up too much space and having poor design. Does this hint that home styles have hit a dead end in recent decades? Would more buyers prefer an older, more established style that they can then update to fit their own needs?
  4. For all the density and glamour of Manhattan, there are plenty of McMansions in the New York City region (including famously in New Jersey and elsewhere).

Did Central Perk make Friends or did Friends make Central Perk?

Amidst the 25th anniversary of the start of Friends, numerous commentators pointed out the iconic Central Perk coffee shop and hinted at how it helped make the show. Architectural Digest called it an “iconic TV interior.”

But, this raises a chicken and egg problem for television shows: do the settings help make shows popular or critically acclaimed or do people celebrate the settings because other parts of the show are good?

In the case of Friends, much is made of its setting in New York. With six young adults living in apartments, Friends helped make urban living look fun. Would the show have worked if it had been set in San Francisco or Chicago or less dense locations? More specifically, does the coffee shop truly make it feel like New York or more homey?

Or, on the other hand, did the show really not need to involve New York because what really mattered were the interesting relationships between the six young adults plus the situations they got themselves into. If the characters and writing are good enough, could the show succeed even with a lousy or less interesting setting?

For the record, I saw the Central Perk set with my own eyes on a tour of a Hollywood backlot some years ago.

CentralPerk2

Seeing iconic settings like this is an interesting experience: they are both recognizable and not. Because you can see all that is right around the set but hidden on TV (such as the lights, the fake facades) the scenes seem very sterile. On the other hand, it looks like a very familiar place.