“It’s a ghost town,” former President Donald Trump said of New York City last fall during a debate with Joe Biden. “It’s dying. Everyone’s leaving New York.”
He was not the only one who saw all the closed storefronts and empty offices and wrote it off.
“It’s completely dead,” self-help author and provocateur James Altucher said in his blog essay “New York Is Dead Forever … Here’s Why” that was endlessly dissected, and mocked, last summer.
“Businesses are remote and they aren’t returning to the office,” he wrote. “And it’s a death spiral.”
The notion that New York and other big cities were becoming obsolete was trending everywhere. The argument was that there is little need to put up with crazy rents, overpriced restaurants and packed subways in the era of digital nomads.
But is that just hyperbole? Sure, the city is saddled with some 100 million square feet of vacant office space, has lost more than 500,000 jobs, had an exodus of the affluent to the suburbs and said farewell to many beloved shops, bars and restaurants.
But that empty space is not necessarily a harbinger of the city’s demise. It could also be a blank slate for a more equitable and culturally diverse city. Consider five scenarios for how New York may evolve.
A Dystopic ‘Ghost Town’
Think of 1970s New York: buildings gutted by arson, subway cars plastered in graffiti, parks overrun with drug dealers, a city teetering on bankruptcy.
Are those dystopic images also a glimpse of New York’s future?
Some seem to think so, particularly in conservative circles. “Bell Tolls for NYC,” trumpeted a recent cover of The New York Post in response to a tax increase from Albany lawmakers on corporate and income tax that would raise $4.3 billion a year, which was branded as “soak the rich” by detractors and supporters alike. The Wall Street Journal called it “madness.”
The fear is that the city’s golden geese will flap off to Miami or Greenwich, Connecticut, taking their big, fat taxable incomes with them. Indeed, several major companies, including Goldman Sachs and JetBlue, are reportedly eyeing new offices in Florida, which has lower taxes.
Billionaire investors including Carl Icahn and Paul E. Singer, founder of Elliott Management, the $41 billion hedge fund, have already decamped to that state, part of a “trickle” that may become “a flood over time,” as Ken Langone, a founder of the Home Depot, recently told Fox News.
It could get worse if remote work becomes the norm. The Partnership for New York City, a business advocacy organization, estimates that more than half of Manhattan’s 1 million office workers will continue to work remotely at least part of the time after Labor Day.
“It’s not a bluff anymore,” said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a free-market think tank. “If things become too miserable, companies do not have to be in New York City anymore.”
While some New Yorkers won’t mourn the loss of hedge funders feasting on larded squab at the Grill, tax filers who earn more than $1 million a year account for 40% of the city’s personal income tax revenue, according to Andrew Rein, president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan watchdog group. “We need wealthy New Yorkers here because they pay for a significant amount of city services,” Rein said.
To make up for the loss, the city may end up raising taxes again. “This can start the spiral of death,” said Nicholas A. Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University who studies urban finance. “Taxes go up, rich people leave. Taxes go up more, more rich people leave.”
This hollowed-out city of the future sounds a lot like the 1960s and 1970s, when Fortune 500 companies such as Pepsi-Cola, Nabisco and General Electric fled the city, and hundreds of thousands of residents followed suit.
As City Hall staved off bankruptcy, garbage piled so high that it blocked supermarket windows; “superrats” impervious to poison flourished; and crime got so bad that during the 1977 blackout, even the looters were getting mugged.
New York City became Hollywood’s vision of an urban hellhole in films like “Death Wish,” “Taxi Driver” and “The Warriors.”
We are nowhere near that. But even with the overall crime rate hovering at historic lows, New York had a 97% increase in shootings, a 44% rise in murders and a 42% rise in burglaries during the pandemic, according to police statistics.
“When a city runs out of money, the public schools suffer, public transit suffers, libraries close down, and parks become places you want to avoid,” said Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University who studies inequality. “The wealthy take care of themselves. The working class and the poor pay the steepest price.”
Copenhagen on the Hudson
Fifth Avenue penthouses sat empty while funeral parlors in Queens were full. Blue-chip galleries opened in the Hamptons while corner bodegas closed. Restaurant workers were laid off while fund managers collected NFTs.
“Coronavirus didn’t hit a blank slate,” Klinenberg said. “It hit a city that was dealing with the aftereffects of stop-and-frisk, mass incarceration and inequality we haven’t seen since the Gilded Age.
“The pandemic,” he added, “is a wake-up call.”
And the city’s progressives see a once-in-a-lifetime to opportunity push their agenda.
Already, they have managed to knock off moderate incumbent Democrats from the New York Assembly and Congress, score legislative victories like legalized marijuana and sink megadevelopments like Amazon’s campus in Queens.
The city’s far-left is just getting started.
“COVID had a deeply clarifying effect on New Yorkers,” said Sochi Nnaemeka, director of the New York Working Families Party. “The health care system was failing us, nearly 2 million New Yorkers lost their jobs in the early months of the pandemic, and we saw food lines wrapping around city blocks.”
Her party’s vision? Universal child care; canceling unpaid rent and foreclosures; and building safe, affordable housing for all, among other ambitions.
“The city can serve as a progressive beacon,” Nnaemeka said. “We’re already considered a capital in so many senses of the word — financial, artistic. Now it can be the capital of equity and inclusion.”
The local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America is pushing a “people’s bailout” for New York that includes making private hospitals public, state ownership of large businesses facing closure or mass layoffs, and instituting a moratorium on arrests to decrease the spread of COVID in prison until the pandemic subsides.
In this utopian vision, parks in the poorest neighborhoods would rival the richest ones, unemployed New Yorkers could make a living wage rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, and underprivileged parents would enjoy universal health care and child care.
For now, progressives can take heart in plans already in motion, like the city’s Climate Mobilization Act, a local version of the Green New Deal that aims to slash carbon emissions, or the Cuomo administration’s proposal to build up to 1,400 new units of affordable housing in Midtown West (think of it as the anti-Hudson Yards).
A nonprofit called Breaking Ground wants to convert vacant buildings into housing for the poor and middle class. “It might take a decade,” said Brenda Rosen, the group’s president. “But if just 10% of vacant office space was converted to affordable housing, we could add thousands of additional units and, along the way, create new vibrant neighborhoods in unlikely places.”
No surprise who will foot the bill: the rich. And if spiraling taxes inspire them to take their Gulfstream south, so be it.
“A New York City without its affluent population, in effect, would not spell disaster,” read a recent editorial in The Columbia Daily Spectator, the university’s student-run newspaper, but rather, “a drop in consumerism from people who only came to New York to take from it rather than give to it.”
As the city reopens, many party veterans are predicting a return to the carnal days of Studio 54 and Plato’s Retreat.
“People will practically be mating in the streets,” said Michael Musto, the longtime nightlife columnist for The Village Voice, now back in quarterly form. “Fueling all that, cunning entrepreneurs will swoop into all the empty storefronts to reinvent them as dance clubs and other pleasure palaces.
“People might even look up from their phones,” he added.
New York’s swingers clubs are already gearing up. Snctm, a members-only club, returns this month with erotic masquerades that recall the haute orgy scenes in “Eyes Wide Shut.” Killing Kittens, a London-based members-only club that throws lavish fem-dom erotic parties, returns this spring; and the club’s founder, Emma Sayle, thinks that pent-up passions, along with more acceptance for nonmonogamy and polyamory, will lay the groundwork for next-level indulgence. “As far as we’re concerned,” she said, “it’s go big or go home.”
Attitudes toward prostitution seem to be loosening, too, as Mayor Bill de Blasio and other officials are seeking to decriminalize sex work — which they argue unfairly targets transgender people and people of color — and focus instead on human trafficking and other forms of abuse.
Adding to the Las Vegas spirit, the city may also get its first casino, a long-discussed proposal in Albany that has become a topic in the mayoral race.
New York City already waived restrictions on to-go cocktails during the pandemic, a change that mayoral candidate Andrew Yang wants to make permanent as part of his push to make New York fun again.
Party seekers can also spark up a joint, since Albany legalized marijuana last month, allowing New Yorkers to possess up to 3 ounces.
Add it all up, and it is a far cry from the Giuliani administration’s quality-of-life crackdowns of the 1990s, which invoked Prohibition-era cabaret laws to outlaw dancing and close nightclubs.
The city struck down those laws in 2017 and appointed a nightlife czar, Ariel Palitz, to support a $35 billion industry, which lost nearly half its 300,000 workers during the pandemic.
“Historically, this industry has been seen as a liability,” Palitz said. “Now it is seen not just as an asset, but an essential industry.”
And then there is all that vacant space. Imagine the opportunities.
“Landlords are going to be calling me up saying, ‘Hey, Noah, how about I lease you a few floors, and you do a beautiful rooftop lounge in the sky?’” said Noah Tepperberg, a founder of Tao Hospitality Group, the nightclub and restaurant juggernaut that runs Tao, Marquee and other spots.
He has no doubt that people will be ready to pony up for good times, even after the economic trauma of the past year. “You have all these new Bitcoin millionaires, people spending stimulus checks,” Tepperberg said. Besides, he added, “people haven’t had to pay for new clothes or haircuts for a year.”
While Manhattan offices emptied out during the pandemic, four Big Tech companies — Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google — swooped in and expanded their footprint. Silicon Alley is now more a Valley of the East.
And things soon may get much more tech-y.
“The COVID-19 pandemic really pulled us into the digital future,” said John Paul Farmer, chief technology officer for the de Blasio administration.
The city is planning to expand affordable high-speed internet and 5G technology and increase its solar capacity. Transportation is undergoing a tech makeover, with shared electric mopeds and scooters, Tesla-only ride-hailing apps, electric school buses and more electric-vehicle charging stations.
The city and state, along with real estate developers, are also making a push to turn New York into a biotech hub. A company called c16 Biosciences, which is working to create lab-created palm oil and has backing from Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund, is taking 20,000 square feet at the Hudson Research Center on West 54th Street.
The so-called Brooklyn tech triangle, encompassing Dumbo, downtown and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, is a hotbed of startups in emerging fields such as blockchain and artificial intelligence.
And whoever takes over Gracie Mansion in November will have to make sure the Wi-Fi is working.
While Yang, a dot-com-era tech entrepreneur, is often viewed as the tech candidate, with plans to provide Wi-Fi in public housing and homeless shelters and convert brownfields to solar farms, rival candidates have visions of a wired, green city, too.
Eric Adams wants to lure startups and incubator investment with tax breaks and cheap space. Scott Stringer has visions of Rikers Island as a green energy hub.
And as New Yorkers return to their former stomping grounds, they will be greeted by a gleaming, 21st-century metropolis, thanks to infrastructure upgrades the pandemic did little to slow.
The airy Terminal B opened at La Guardia Airport last summer, filled with art, indoor parks and shiny new gates. Glassy new terminals are planned for Kennedy Airport. And the light-filled Moynihan Train Hall opened in January across the street from the dingy Penn Station, a modern new front door for the city. Even the gritty Port Authority Bus Terminal may get a dramatic makeover.
Along the Hudson River, a fresh crop of soaring glass spires have sprouted at Hudson Yards; the futuristic Little Island designed by Heatherwick Studio is nearing completion in the meatpacking district; a former bus parking lot at Pier 57 is being converted into a mixed-use campus with shops, performance spaces and Google offices; and the Javits Center is expanding by more than 1 million square feet.
What ghost town? Robot town is more like it.
New York, New York
Here is a wild scenario for post-pandemic New York: Maybe it is pretty much the same.
The pandemic is far from over, but residential real estate is starting to bounce back. Business districts outside Manhattan, like Fordham Road in the Bronx and Main Street in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, are stirring to life, even as midtown remains quiet.
The city’s bars, restaurants and sports stadiums are already filling, even months before de Blasio’s July 1 target date for a full reopening of the city.
As for that mass exodus to the suburbs? Maybe it was overblown. Some 3.57 million people moved out of New York City last year during the pandemic, but 3.5 million also moved in during the same period, according to Unacast, a research firm that analyzes cellphone data.
This is hardly the first time that crisis led to overheated predictions. Remember how New Yorkers declared an “end of irony” after the Sept. 11 attacks?
The “Death Wish” ’70s were followed by the go-go ’80s. The crime wave and economic woes of the David Dinkins years inspired countless New York-is-over pronouncements, as seen in a 1990 Time magazine cover story that declared, “The Rotting of the Big Apple.” Instead of an urban wasteland, however, New York got the frenzied boom of the dot-com ’90s.
As for remote work, doomsayers have been arguing that technological advances would empty big cities since the dial-up days.
So maybe it is time for New Yorkers to take heart and let all those who fled to Florida worry about rising sea levels.