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How New York can survive The city's decay is not inevitable

“The most fatally fascinating place in America” (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“The most fatally fascinating place in America” (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)


December 14, 2022   5 mins

In 1912, James Weldon Johnson wrote that New York City is “the most fatally fascinating place in America”. The city, he explained, “sits like a great witch at the gate of the country, showing her alluring white face and hiding her crooked hands and feet under the folds of her wide garments — constantly enticing thousands from far within, and tempting those who come from across the seas to go no farther.” But that was over a century ago. Today, New York appears to be less a “great witch” than an embattled crone, with many residents fleeing to lesser cities and towns.

When the great platform of urban supremacism, The New York Times, starts publishing articles about the “urban doom loop” facing American cities, it is clear the game is up. Yes, there has been much hand-wringing by the experts and brave words about the inevitable resurgence of cities, but the trends against dense urbanity are too powerful for even the most deluded to deny.

Only by embracing change can the city hope to recover something of its past glory. In the coming decades, New York, the country’s largest city since 1790, appears destined to decline, turning into what Terry Nichols Clark has described as the “city as entertainment machine”.  This new role follows H.G. Wells’s vision of cities as largely childless “places of concourse and rendezvous”, ideal for the wealthy, necessary for their servants and a beacon to the young and the culturally aware.

The tired refrain that cities always recover ignores the spectre of long-term, permanent decline. History is replete with cities fading into obscurity and even non-existence, from ancient Carthage to Ctesiphon, capital of ancient Persia, Vijayanagar in India or Great Zimbabwe in Africa. Across the West, major industrial cities have been shrinking, from Liverpool and Manchester to Osaka and Adelaide, with little prospect of rapid recovery. For over a century, growth has shifted to the suburbs and exurbs — not only in the United States, but in the old cities of Europe too, including London and Paris.

These trends accelerated during the pandemic. Even as the virus has receded, the return to the office has been slower than some predicted. And of all the nation’s major cities, New York has suffered the slowest post-pandemic job recovery, with midtown offices still half-empty.

Yet this drift was taking shape even before the pandemic. Across the US, office occupancy has been declining since 2000, while construction of new space has fallen consistently for 25 years. In 2019, before the pandemic, construction was one-third the rate of 1985 and half that of 2000. Now faced with a recession or at least a slowdown, office absorption is likely to remain at historically low rates, with the potential loss of value in central-business-district offices reaching $500 billion in New York alone.

But even as New York’s office economy struggles, there are distinct signs of life, driven not by necessity but by people and industry. New York, for all its plight, remains dominant in those fields — media, culture, and tourism — where urban areas remain competitive with the hinterland. It also includes medical facilities, which need highly skilled workers and where agglomeration effects allow the city to export medical services. Less positive is its decision to bet its future on casino gambling and pot stores, not exactly a substitute for higher end activities. Yet overall, in this new urban order, New York is easily the best placed of America’s cities to thrive. It still attracts the global rich, boasts some of the world’s best museums and restaurants, as well as large arts communities.

This magnetism sets New York against its prime competitors — Los Angeles and Chicago — in the struggle for increasingly scarce urban investment opportunities and for potential residents. Chicago has been particularly diminished by corruption, poor governance, higher homicide rates than New York and consistent business emigration to other less taxed and often warmer states. High crime, notes sociologist Glenn Loury, a Chicago native, has created “a great unraveling” that means Chicago could become “a decaying husk of a formerly great city”.

Perhaps a bigger surprise has been the decline of Los Angeles, now the country’s second-biggest city and metropolitan area. LA, with its car-oriented, multipolar economy, once boasted a large concentration of engineers, a thriving immigrant economy and the nation’s dominant entertainment centre and port. But a succession of deluded mayors, all seeking to create a “green” transit and downtown-oriented city, has left LA gridlocked and impossibly expensive. Elsewhere, its port has surrendered its lead as the country’s top trade hub, while its real-estate market ranks among the worst in the country.

Is New York’s fate to limp into the future simply by virtue of being better than its rivals, even as its economic essence drifts to the south?  Much depends on politics. The roots of its urban failure lie largely in the failed policies — sceptical of law enforcement, dogmatically green and seeking ever more density — adopted by “new Left urbanists” such as former Mayor Bill DeBlasio. But in contrast to Chicago and Los Angeles, New Yorkers have shown at least some recognition of the critical demand for personal security,  electing a former cop, Eric Adams, as Mayor.

Adams, who ran on an anti-crime platform, is boosting the police, and recently announced his determination to make its streets safe. But Adams may not be a second Giuliani, who, before his recent transformation into a Trumpian fabulist, sparked the city’s revival by dramatically reducing crime. Unlike his Republican predecessor, Adams faces a much more progressive council, as well as determined opposition from the New York Civil Liberties Unions. But at least he’s shown signs of understanding the concerns of the city’s beleaguered working and middle classes — even if the criminals still seem to have the upper hand, forcing local business to either close early or move out.

Finally, if Adams’s plans work, the “entertainment machine” model has its limitations, and could worsen the already severe inequality  that has bedeviled cities even in the best of times. To begin to provide opportunities to the bulk of his constituents, Adams will have to rethink New York’s over-centralised economy. He needs to rethink the city not as a massive Manhattan hub, surrounded by rings of economically dependent neighbourhoods and suburbs, but as a multi-polar collection of villages that can house the creative workforce at the centre of a re-invented economy.

After all, the talent attracted to the city — both creative and immigrant — remains its greatest asset. These are the people, many working remotely, who cluster in urban neighbourhoods such as Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and Brooklyn Heights, as well as Tribeca, Soho, and Greenwich Village in Lower Manhattan. Similarly its minority neighbourhoods — Flushing, Jackson Heights, Sunset Park — remain cultural gems and potential source of entrepreneurial vigour.

Yet it remains to be seen whether New York as a whole can recover; the city and state are in awful fiscal shape and unlikely to have the resources to address serious problems. Mayor Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul might talk of their “moonshot goal” to create 500,000 homes, but it’s unclear where the money will come from, while one wonders where the customer base will be in a shrinking city. Meanwhile, an alternative vision of a dispersed future will be resisted by powerful real-estate interests, planners and urban boosters who see the current downturn as a temporary phenomenon. Its urban planners see every neighbourhood — including middle-class areas — as suitable for relentless densification and gentrification.

But rather than force expensive (or subsidised) dense housing, the city should think about building more areas such as Sunnyside in Queens. These moderately low-density neighbourhoods may yet attract, and more importantly retain, the creative workers and immigrant entrepreneurs critical to the its future. Queens is already the most diverse of all the city’s boroughs and arguably the most in the country.

The key task in the coming years will be to convince enough New Yorkers — not just the rich and richly endowed — that the city can be congenial to families and ambitions outside Wall Street. Combined with its unique legacy, even in a de-urbanising world, no other place in America is likely to compete as successfully. But to reach its potential, New York will need a major shift in urban consciousness, and an understanding that its greatness lies not in economic form or soaring architectural renderings, but in the richness of its heritage, its neighbourhoods, and its people. For all its problems, and bitter experience with the pandemic, New York has the capacity to lure enough people and businesses to retain its vitality — and remain “the most fatally fascinating place in America”.


Joel Kotkin is the Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and author, most recently, of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (Encounter)

joelkotkin

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Ben Jones
Ben Jones
1 year ago

I first visited NYC in 1992 and last visited in 2018, with several visits in-between. In ’92 I found NY relatively safe. In 2018 the place was an overpriced, crime-ridden toilet. It really is true, left-wing mayors are poisonous for big cities. Living in London, we’re suffering much the same problem now. Khan, like De Blasio, really thinks he can create a green urban paradise from a city designed for horses and carts.

Stanford Zeringue
SZ
Stanford Zeringue
1 year ago
Reply to  Ben Jones

Crime fell in New York City by 80% from 1990 to 2021. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/nypd/downloads/pdf/crime_statistics/cs-en-us-city.pdf
Those are the facts, not the skewed perceptions of a tourist.

Last edited 1 year ago by Stanford Zeringue
Stanford Zeringue
SZ
Stanford Zeringue
1 year ago
Reply to  Ben Jones

Imagine thinking NYC was safe in the ’90s but not today! Seriously, man.

Last edited 1 year ago by Stanford Zeringue
Stanford Zeringue
Stanford Zeringue
1 year ago
Reply to  Ben Jones

Crime fell in New York City by 80% from 1990 to 2021. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/nypd/downloads/pdf/crime_statistics/cs-en-us-city.pdf
Those are the facts, not the skewed perceptions of a tourist.

Last edited 1 year ago by Stanford Zeringue
Stanford Zeringue
Stanford Zeringue
1 year ago
Reply to  Ben Jones

Imagine thinking NYC was safe in the ’90s but not today! Seriously, man.

Last edited 1 year ago by Stanford Zeringue
Ben Jones
Ben Jones
1 year ago

I first visited NYC in 1992 and last visited in 2018, with several visits in-between. In ’92 I found NY relatively safe. In 2018 the place was an overpriced, crime-ridden toilet. It really is true, left-wing mayors are poisonous for big cities. Living in London, we’re suffering much the same problem now. Khan, like De Blasio, really thinks he can create a green urban paradise from a city designed for horses and carts.

Jonathan West
Jonathan West
1 year ago

Racist Black supremacist political hustlers have dragged NYC to its knees

Richard Craven
RC
Richard Craven
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonathan West

Yes, but stop capitalising “black”.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonathan West

Yes, but stop capitalising “black”.

Jonathan West
JW
Jonathan West
1 year ago

Racist Black supremacist political hustlers have dragged NYC to its knees

Gil Harris
GH
Gil Harris
1 year ago

Until those who run the city admit and face that there is an elephant in the room; violent crime perpetrated almost entirely by blacks, the city will not recover.

Last edited 1 year ago by Gil Harris
Gil Harris
Gil Harris
1 year ago

Until those who run the city admit and face that there is an elephant in the room; violent crime perpetrated almost entirely by blacks, the city will not recover.

Last edited 1 year ago by Gil Harris
Terry M
Terry M
1 year ago

Houston is poised to overtake all of these. But how would you know.

Terry M
TM
Terry M
1 year ago

Houston is poised to overtake all of these. But how would you know.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
1 year ago

Very interesting article on an overlooked topic. Yes, we’ve seen a lot of cities withering through history (and new ones being built, sometimes mere kilometers away).
I think it is true that NY is “less bad” than Chicago or LA. But as a city can’t only live and renew itself with only immigrants (from the hinterland or from abroad) the core question a long-term plannign mayor should ask for his city is : “how can I make life affordable and enjoyable for a working family”. Housing, jobs, crime and school quality are the key parameters for that.

Last edited 1 year ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago

40-45% of NYC’s population are relatively new immigrants with needs that put a financial burden on the city. NY taxpayers finance 450,000 low-income housing units. Yes, the federal government in recent years, has forked over $4 billion for repairs & renovations of these units but the financial burden remains. The top 2% taxpayers pay an inordinate portion of this bill which is why taxes are the highest in the nation. Covid caused over 60k people to permanently leave taking an estimated $60 billion in taxes with them. Yet, the city remains a one party – progressive democrat- town that continually screams for more ‘tax’ blood from people who remain. I lived in the city for 35 years – in the early 80’s, areas of the upper west side Manhattan were still recovering from the destructive 70’s. When we moved in then drugs, drug apartment buildings, rehab houses still abounded. The city picked up dramatically in the 80’s and 90’s – days when there were still prominent Republicans about like the Buckleys. Then crazy and unproductive DeBlasio got elected and it’s been downhill ever since. As long as NYC remains a one-party town, there will be no pushback, no progress. Communism-lite just doesn’t work. There has to be political balance to see tension and progress.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
1 year ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

IMHO low income housing is the most wastefull, toxic use of public money ever imagined. Subsidizing the talibans might actually be better. At best, LHI provides urbans from the laptop class with cheap nannies, which may not the be a cause worth subsidizing with public money
Those policies are extremely expensive, create insane political patronage (the welfare recipients vote for their welfare transferors), reduce job mobility (noone will move out of heavily subsidized house) and don’t add any singe available home : they just evict the working middle class (in Britain the word Middle class is misleading, hence I type working middle class as to represents normal working taxpayers with a decent job). And no, without a prosperous yeomen class you get at the very best a thirld world society.
As for democrat mono-party rule, the reality is that once the welfare class gets to dominate the vote you can’t have a republic anymore.

Last edited 1 year ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

We lived in Gramercy Park and Murray Hill in the 80s. My husband worked in the city all through the 90s and 2Ks. Even when it was a garbage-strike and squeegee man mess, I still loved it. But, like all cities run into the ground by Democrats, it’s irredeemably lost. That the entire city is caged in scaffolding is clearly a visual metaphor illustrating its fallen state. Kotkin’s own fabulism – that the city can change with a “shift in urban consciousness” – is an example of not blaming the actual culprits of what is a gigantic, world-class crime scene: Democrat politicians and those who vote for them.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
1 year ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

IMHO low income housing is the most wastefull, toxic use of public money ever imagined. Subsidizing the talibans might actually be better. At best, LHI provides urbans from the laptop class with cheap nannies, which may not the be a cause worth subsidizing with public money
Those policies are extremely expensive, create insane political patronage (the welfare recipients vote for their welfare transferors), reduce job mobility (noone will move out of heavily subsidized house) and don’t add any singe available home : they just evict the working middle class (in Britain the word Middle class is misleading, hence I type working middle class as to represents normal working taxpayers with a decent job). And no, without a prosperous yeomen class you get at the very best a thirld world society.
As for democrat mono-party rule, the reality is that once the welfare class gets to dominate the vote you can’t have a republic anymore.

Last edited 1 year ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
Allison Barrows
AB
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

We lived in Gramercy Park and Murray Hill in the 80s. My husband worked in the city all through the 90s and 2Ks. Even when it was a garbage-strike and squeegee man mess, I still loved it. But, like all cities run into the ground by Democrats, it’s irredeemably lost. That the entire city is caged in scaffolding is clearly a visual metaphor illustrating its fallen state. Kotkin’s own fabulism – that the city can change with a “shift in urban consciousness” – is an example of not blaming the actual culprits of what is a gigantic, world-class crime scene: Democrat politicians and those who vote for them.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago

40-45% of NYC’s population are relatively new immigrants with needs that put a financial burden on the city. NY taxpayers finance 450,000 low-income housing units. Yes, the federal government in recent years, has forked over $4 billion for repairs & renovations of these units but the financial burden remains. The top 2% taxpayers pay an inordinate portion of this bill which is why taxes are the highest in the nation. Covid caused over 60k people to permanently leave taking an estimated $60 billion in taxes with them. Yet, the city remains a one party – progressive democrat- town that continually screams for more ‘tax’ blood from people who remain. I lived in the city for 35 years – in the early 80’s, areas of the upper west side Manhattan were still recovering from the destructive 70’s. When we moved in then drugs, drug apartment buildings, rehab houses still abounded. The city picked up dramatically in the 80’s and 90’s – days when there were still prominent Republicans about like the Buckleys. Then crazy and unproductive DeBlasio got elected and it’s been downhill ever since. As long as NYC remains a one-party town, there will be no pushback, no progress. Communism-lite just doesn’t work. There has to be political balance to see tension and progress.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
1 year ago

Very interesting article on an overlooked topic. Yes, we’ve seen a lot of cities withering through history (and new ones being built, sometimes mere kilometers away).
I think it is true that NY is “less bad” than Chicago or LA. But as a city can’t only live and renew itself with only immigrants (from the hinterland or from abroad) the core question a long-term plannign mayor should ask for his city is : “how can I make life affordable and enjoyable for a working family”. Housing, jobs, crime and school quality are the key parameters for that.

Last edited 1 year ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
Sophy T
Sophy T
1 year ago

As crime rises and criminals aren’t punished, those who can will flee to safer, more congenial pastures.

Sophy T
Sophy T
1 year ago

As crime rises and criminals aren’t punished, those who can will flee to safer, more congenial pastures.

Rafael Aguilo
RA
Rafael Aguilo
1 year ago

I’m retired from the NYCTA after 24 1/2 yrs of service since 2014. One of the perks is a pass to ride the subway/bus system free. I haven’t bothered to renew mine since 2016. I wouldn’t go to NYC if they paid me. It has become a complete craphole after politicians passed the Criminal Reform bill. ALL administrations since DeBlasio have done a fine job of making it that way. Each and everyone of the people who elected them are FULLY responsible for it.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 year ago
Reply to  Rafael Aguilo

When men are insulated from the consequences of their decisions, they will walk into fire and call it cool. People who vote Democrat do so more to promote their bona fides of a social group then to enact specific policy. The policy that results then surprises them, but they do not connect it to the people they selected. They think of the results like the weather: no one is responsible for it.

Samuel Ross
SR
Samuel Ross
1 year ago
Reply to  Rafael Aguilo

When men are insulated from the consequences of their decisions, they will walk into fire and call it cool. People who vote Democrat do so more to promote their bona fides of a social group then to enact specific policy. The policy that results then surprises them, but they do not connect it to the people they selected. They think of the results like the weather: no one is responsible for it.

Rafael Aguilo
Rafael Aguilo
1 year ago

I’m retired from the NYCTA after 24 1/2 yrs of service since 2014. One of the perks is a pass to ride the subway/bus system free. I haven’t bothered to renew mine since 2016. I wouldn’t go to NYC if they paid me. It has become a complete craphole after politicians passed the Criminal Reform bill. ALL administrations since DeBlasio have done a fine job of making it that way. Each and everyone of the people who elected them are FULLY responsible for it.

Allison Barrows
AB
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

If you’re counting on the barely verbal Eric Adams to save New York City, you might as well book your farewell visit now, mate.

Allison Barrows
AB
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

If you’re counting on the barely verbal Eric Adams to save New York City, you might as well book your farewell visit now, mate.

ralph bell
RB
ralph bell
1 year ago

His comment on Manchester was not correct, it’s thriving and has a bigger central population than ever.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  ralph bell

Correct. I visit Manchester frequently, and it’s absolutely thriving, new bars/restaurants/clubs opening every week and the skyline littered with cranes. Liverpool (where my daughter lives) isn’t far behind.
The business side may be different, i.e. post-industrial, but the author needs to do more than take lazy aim at cities well-placed to lead as regional hubs for future prosperity.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Ben Jones
BJ
Ben Jones
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Yes, I visited Liverpool a couple of years ago and was really pleased to see how well the regeneration is going. Ditto Manchester. Andy Burnham is the ‘right sort’ of Left Wing in my opinion, he certainly chose the right Chief Constable.

Ben Jones
Ben Jones
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Yes, I visited Liverpool a couple of years ago and was really pleased to see how well the regeneration is going. Ditto Manchester. Andy Burnham is the ‘right sort’ of Left Wing in my opinion, he certainly chose the right Chief Constable.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  ralph bell

Correct. I visit Manchester frequently, and it’s absolutely thriving, new bars/restaurants/clubs opening every week and the skyline littered with cranes. Liverpool (where my daughter lives) isn’t far behind.
The business side may be different, i.e. post-industrial, but the author needs to do more than take lazy aim at cities well-placed to lead as regional hubs for future prosperity.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
ralph bell
ralph bell
1 year ago

His comment on Manchester was not correct, it’s thriving and has a bigger central population than ever.

Samuel Ross
SR
Samuel Ross
1 year ago

When men are insulated from the consequences of their decisions, they will walk into fire and call it cool. People who vote Democrat do so more to promote their bona fides of a social group then to enact specific policy. The policy that results then surprises them, but they do not connect it to the people they selected. They think of the results like the weather: no one is responsible for it.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 year ago

When men are insulated from the consequences of their decisions, they will walk into fire and call it cool. People who vote Democrat do so more to promote their bona fides of a social group then to enact specific policy. The policy that results then surprises them, but they do not connect it to the people they selected. They think of the results like the weather: no one is responsible for it.

Graeme McNeil
CS
Graeme McNeil
1 year ago

So the hicks won’t go to Planet Hollywood at Times Square?
I think New York will do just fine without you…

Graeme McNeil
CS
Graeme McNeil
1 year ago

So the hicks won’t go to Planet Hollywood at Times Square?
I think New York will do just fine without you…