Covid-19 May Make New York City “Cheaper, Messier, More Diverse”

(p. B1) Cities are remarkably resilient. They have risen from the ashes after being carpet-bombed and hit with nuclear weapons. “If you think about pandemics in the past,” noted the Princeton economist Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, “they didn’t destroy cities.”

. . .

So even as the Covid-19 death toll rises in the nation’s most dense urban cores, economists still mostly expect them to bounce back, once there is a vaccine, a treatment or a successful strategy to contain the virus’s spread. “I end up being optimistic,” said the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser. “Because the downside of a nonurban world is so terrible that we are going to spend whatever it takes to prevent that.”

. . .

(p. B5) Mr. Glaeser and colleagues from Harvard and the University of Illinois studied surveys tracking companies that allowed their employees to work from home at least part of the time since March. Over one-half of large businesses and over one-third of small ones didn’t detect any productivity loss. More than one in four reported a productivity increase.

Moreover, the researchers found that about four in 10 companies expect that 40 percent of their employees who switched to remote work during the pandemic will keep doing so after the crisis, at least in part. That’s 16 percent of the work force. Most of these workers are among the more highly educated and well paid.

. . .

“Everybody agrees on what are the key forces,” said Gilles Duranton, an economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “The question is which will play out, and where are the tipping points?” One of the big remaining questions is whether remote work will prove sustainable. The productivity increases captured in the surveys examined by Mr. Glaeser’s team might prove fleeting.

. . .

Consider life in a reconfigured New York City. Rents are lower, after the departure of many of its bankers and lawyers. There are fewer fancy restaurants, but probably still many cheaper ones. People with lower incomes, including the young, can again afford to live in town. City services may be reduced, but if a fifth or more of workers aren’t going to the office on any given day it will be easier to get around.

Mr. Duranton argues that the cities that will be devastated by Covid-19 are the ones that have been falling for a long time: the Rochesters and the Binghamtons, which lost their sustenance once the manufacturing industries that supported them through much of the 20th century folded or moved away.

But for a city like New York, he said, Covid-19 offers an opportunity for redemption. “New York was running into a dead end, turning into a paradise for the rich,” he said. “Culturally dead.” Moving back to a cheaper, messier, more diverse equilibrium may carry a silver lining.

For the full story, see:

Eduardo Porter. “If Workers Opt Out, Star Cities May Dim.” The New York Times (Tuesday, July 21, 2020): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version,s and has the title “Coronavirus Threatens the Luster of Superstar Cities.”)

The study co-authored by Glaeser and mentioned above is:

Bartik, Alexander W., Zoe Cullen, Edward L. Glaeser, Michael Luca, and Christopher Stanton. “What Jobs Are Being Done at Home During the Covid-19 Crisis? Evidence from Firm-Level Surveys.” Harvard Business School Division of Research Working Paper #20-138, (July 2020).

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