New York Daily News: MANHATTAN, NY – In local political circles, it’s now fashionable to scoff at doomsday predictions and say that just as New York City came back in the 70s, came back in the 90s, and came back after 9/11, it will now too. It’s fashionable to say that even if some traditional office-based industries cut back significantly, the cheaper rents will lead to an artistic and technological renaissance that will spark new industries, trends and energy that will make the city better than ever.
Unfortunately, that’s probably more wishful thinking than anything else.
What we’re facing now is different: the beginning of a far more transformational shift in how we work, in many ways echoing the flight of manufacturing from the United States in the mid-late 20th century. Until now, there was a basic assumption that most white-collar employees would work in an office. Only something like a six-month quarantine could have challenged a norm so ingrained in our society.
But just like the combination of expanded capabilities and lower prices sent manufacturing abroad, the combination of decent enough technology to enable people to work remotely and the realization that most businesses are not seeing their productivity plummet is causing a fundamental change in how business owners think.
Yes, a lot of young people want to be here, to enjoy the bars and restaurants and culture, assuming they don’t shrivel up when citizens and many businesses uproot. But we’re now in a buyers’ market, meaning they’re going to have to go where the jobs are.
Yes, maybe far cheaper rent is what we need for New York City to create its first homegrown version of Google or Microsoft and maybe that might fundamentally transform the local economy.
And yes, there’s a good chance that cheaper rents and harder times will produce a burst of artistic production that will be fun to watch for a period, just like the mid-late 70s produced some of the best movies ever made about New York and some of the best bands to ever come out of New York.
But those are hopes and wishes, not concrete plans, and they don’t add up to a well-rounded city standing on a strong foundation. That’s what New York City needs to remain to be the greatest city in the world, and that’s what’s in grave danger right now.
There’s only so much erosion a tax base can take before it starts to crumble from the inside. Great American cities like Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland were all decimated by the flight of manufacturing. Despite some well-intentioned marketing campaigns to the contrary, none of them really ever recovered.
New York has always been resilient because we’ve always been the physical home of industries like finance and media, law and advertising and health care. And not just one industry like some insurance towns, but many industries.
But that’s only because the idea that you don’t have to be anywhere else never occurred to anyone before.
We’re not going to lose every job overnight. Some industries still perform better in person. A lot of people prefer working directly with other people than being isolated and alone. And some big companies like Facebook and Amazon have doubled down on New York with major leases.
But if the norms truly have changed, the economy will change with it. And if New York City suffers through a 1970s-like deterioration in quality of life, then many businesses will feel the pull of going remote even more strongly, accelerating the entire process.
Short term, the answer is to do everything possible to keep the city as appealing as possible. That means investing in quality of life measures like trash pickup and graffiti removal. It means figuring out how to curb abuses by law enforcement against blacks and Latinos while still bringing down the rate of shootings.
It means making the city an attractive place to do business. If you want to save jobs and help working people, raising taxes and adding regulations will only have the opposite effect.
Longer-term, it means trying to use newly vacant office space to spur new industries. It means reducing the cost of operating municipal and state government so that spending meets what the new tax base can actually afford.
It means having a mayor willing to personally call every major employer to ask what she or he can do to make them happy here, rather than having a mayor who is constantly trying to drive jobs away. And it means knowing that none of this may be enough and having five more approaches ready to go.
This is not 1978. It’s not 1993 or 2001. The challenges we’re facing today are much, much deeper. The entire intellectual construct around work is changing, and none of those changes are good for cities like New York. To think about this as anything other than transformational change — to see this as any different than a mirror of the destruction of the manufacturing economy — is to misunderstand the situation at hand. And the less we understand what’s happening, the less likely we are to successfully do anything about it.
This is an emergency.
The Hudson Yards building complex is seen early in the morning from downtown Manhattan. (Luiz C. Ribeiro/for New York Daily News)