Several Christmases ago I was invited to one of those Secret Santa holiday parties. I am always a hopeless failure at such under-$25 scavenger hunts, but the erstwhile colleague who drew my name was far more able. Thus, around the luncheon table at the moment of reveal, I received a gift from the Museum of Modern Art: a coffee cup and bag with the legendary I “Heart” New York insignia. I was enthralled and have used both endlessly.
We now fast forward to the moment at hand; from repeated dishwasher visits the cup has begun to lose its luster, or at least its heart. As I stared at it the other morning in mourning, I realized it now encapsulates an emerging reality. I “What?” New York. The ubiquitous, optimistic symbol Milton Glazer designed decades ago has eroded and we are left, sadly, without Milton to reimagine and rename our feelings for this great city — and indeed all urban centers.
My operating thesis for the last five months or so about New York has been that it cannot return until the tourists do, and the tourists cannot return unless there is something here, something magnetic, which will draw them back. Without museums, live theater, great restaurants, world-renowned schools, churches and universities, spectacular shopping and fine hotels, indeed without permission to re-enter the city under quarantine guidelines, how and why does anyone want to come here?
Imagine a new world cracking out of the shell of the old one. People deciding to live where they want in geographies that engage them; working from home, studying from home, shopping from home, socializing in public squares and parks, walking hither and yon, taking their entertainments from screens at home and in their pockets.
Those residents who can, have already left for second homes in less densely populated areas propped up with Wi-Fi enhancement. Others are shedding their urban dwellings to rediscover the joys of suburbia which they’d once derided and fled. Amazon, Netflix and Grubhub have enhanced their ability to respond to the siren call of family rooms, minivans and backyard swing sets. Indeed, if we are to work, study and order all from home, why bother with the tribulations of city dwelling?
A friend of mine continually wonders, ponders and ultimately attempts a half-hearted wish: “New York will come back, right?” But why? Just because it always has? Perhaps. But there is an alternative hypothesis: We are in the midst of a population transformation every bit as powerful as the Industrial Revolution, albeit headed in the opposite direction. The coming of the railroads and factory work triggered a mechanism to connect our country and then created the obsolesce small towns and villages ultimately eviscerating the rural population and social infrastructure, thrusting cities into slums, factory work and child labor. We are now in the throes of a return to that earlier social contact. The wealthy live apart in spacious strongholds, while local economies exist to serve, enable and amuse them.
Wearing the most rosy-eyed glasses available, this social shift could spark a return to local artisanry with authorized purveyors serving local suburban elites, Downton Abbey style. Personal chefs, house staff, chauffeurs, tutors and nannies in high demand. Cosseted get-togethers approved by personal concierge medical professionals administering epidemic-protecting tests will cocoon the elite. The pandemic marks a revisit to a turn-of-the-century idea of life — perhaps a trifle more democratically, or at least capitalistically enabled. A 21st century version of first generation, self-made wealth and privilege point the way. Safe rooms, bunkers and reinforced modern-day McMansion castles are dedicated to self-protection. These are elitist islands floating in otherwise modest suburban communities, isolated from, but dependent on local citizens.
What Is a City?
The essential question, then, is simply, “do cities ever make sense again?” These messy, vibrant, exciting unrestricted American urban centers crammed with people of all walks of life may be an endangered species. Certainly, the economics of city life do not make sense at the moment. The living isn’t easy with high rents and higher purchase prices for small spaces which once commanded a premium due to their access to schools, churches, museums, shopping and theaters. In today’s Zoom culture, is being there even relevant anymore? If Renee Fleming can perform from suburban Virginia on behalf of The Metropolitan Opera, must I live near Lincoln Center to enjoy her? And if I can delight in her voice from the comfort of my living room, must that living room be in New York City at all?
When I worked with Faith Popcorn at her futurist firm BrainReserve, we were forever advising clients to imagine the future and then reposition their brands to fit within that emerging reality. It was never easy to convince the Fortune 500 that tomorrow would be different from yesterday. That hasn’t changed. But the world of tomorrow is going to be radically different as it careens into our today. So, rather than stumbling blissfully on, slouching towards a modestly different tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow, today we look forward to a blind drunk tomorrow facing us starkly in the exact moment we are living in. The future is now.
Grieving our Past
We are stuck experiencing the five stages of grief of the death of our city rather than adapting quickly to a new reality.
- First, we deny it’s different, insisting initially that this moment is a hoax and that there will be a V-shaped curve. We plan for a “new normal” once the magical time comes when a vaccine arrives.
- We then move on to anger, furious at the suggestion life might be different, refusing to admit what we know in our fading, washed out hearts to be true.
- We bargain that some things may be preserved, as witness to Simon Properties Group (with Authentic Brands) buying Brooks Brothers.
- We become depressed, home alone with visions of endless Groundhog Day repetitions of today’s entrenched boredom looming ever onward.
- Finally, we will get to acceptance. Those among us who arrive there first will be able to claim and own the new ground.
A Utopian Alternative
Imagine a new world cracking out of the shell of the old one. People deciding to live where they want in geographies that engage them; working from home, studying from home, shopping from home, socializing in public squares and parks, walking hither and yon, taking their entertainments from screens at home and in their pockets. They learn how to converse and engage via screens as their own immune, heathy, resilient avatars venture beyond the confines of the burrowed entrenchment called home. In comparison with the past, it may seem a quite isolated lifestyle. As we evolve into a foggy future, the brave among us will see it clearly.
Consider the political implications of such a recast diaspora of our urban dweller. What happens if all states become purple? And all voters send their avatars to the polling booth. Consider the media consequences of a newly defined disbursed citizenry consuming information and seeking action. Roughly a decade ago, The New York Times attempted a shared community adventure: All readers were provided a serialized version of The Great Gatsby as our communal summer reading project. In retrospect, that seems a slightly sentimental exercise and today’s version is something more attuned to a collective consciousness based on high ratings for a Netflix or Amazon series. In a perfect world, past and present, the common cultural moment is a shared desire to bind us together, not cleave us apart.
Consider the stark repercussions for fashion and luxury. Fast forward today to blighted malls and irrelevant brandmarks. Must everything retail become a way station/cum fulfillment center for Amazon? Might our needs and wants be better fulfilled by locally sourced, environmentally sustainable goods made by neighborhood artisans? Is Etsy replacing Macy’s faster than we might otherwise imagine possible? Might local Thanksgiving parades and July 4 fireworks displays be sufficient for us in our socially distanced Main Streets and cars?
Consider also the needs for packaged goods, foods and cleaning supplies. Endless. Those national brands survive and thrive, especially if they embrace and understand home delivery. Might there now be a return to regional and local favorites for unprocessed, non-toxic and preservative-free goods?
A few months ago, it seems an eternity really, I attended a day-long event at the Park Avenue Armory. It was called “Culture in a Changing America. 100 Years. 100 Women.” On one of the panels, an indigenous native American was non-negotiable in her belief that the island of Manhattan was taken by force from the local tribes and that nothing less than a full return was required. She envisaged a natural and idyllic island, sparsely populated by its original inhabitants and a return to halcyon, pre-Colonial days. I left the session feeling both disheartened and dismayed. Why, I wondered, were we spending so much time and emotion on such a quixotic discussion?
Now I am less sure of the inevitability of Manhattan as we’ve come to know it. Perhaps the self-aggrandizement and self-congratulations of the rarified world of the real estate mogul elite is in need of disruption. And disruption is happening, as office occupancy rates plummet, residential rental fees plunge, and the tax base opts to shelter in other undisclosed locations as public services are cut and cut again. Are more skyscrapers filled with Russian oligarchs really required? Does Silicon Valley really need more outposts? Does Soho need another luxury brandmark?
I “What?” New York? Mourn it? Miss it? Can no longer afford it. Let’s try a refrain of “Remember Fondly.” Only change endures. A new something will rise from this former city at some point, but by then we will have acquired new habits, tastes and preferences. Resistance to change is futile, but we’ll need more than a new Milton Glaser-esque icon to help fill the looming void.