Covid Didn’t Kill Cities. Why Was That Prophecy So Alluring?

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More explicitly, the “end of cities” has often really meant the end of cities for a certain class of white professionals, not for residents of color who never left during the pandemic, or for low-wage workers who kept riding transit and going to work.

“To be socially distanced was a new phenomenon for white residents and urbanists,” responded Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Black Americans know too well how to survive social distancing.”

In segregated neighborhoods, they’ve been isolated from amenities like grocery stores and playgrounds, and they’ve historically watched other residents move away from their streets and their children’s schools. White flight was the original social distancing, Mr. Perry said.

Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington, suggested that gloom about cities over the past year was also an extension of the prepandemic critique that cities like Seattle and New York had become too crowded, too expensive and too unequal — “that they became increasingly unsustainable places for many people to live.” The pandemic both laid bare those trends and accelerated many of them, she said.

“The reasonable sense that something has gone terribly wrong in great American cities intersects with the catastrophic effects of Covid,” said A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, a historian at Penn State. And that made it seem, if not appealing, perhaps reasonable to some to see the emptying of city streets during the pandemic “as some kind of retribution.”

Of course, that view — treating the city as an abstract thing that can be corrupted and then punished for its sins — ignores that the pandemic retribution fell on cities’ most vulnerable residents, he added.

It is true that some cities lost residents during the pandemic, but reactions to that fact have often confused separate trends and interconnected places. Residents moved away at higher rates from New York City, but it appears that many relocated to smaller towns on the region’s periphery. That is not so much a story of population or power redistributing away from New York as a superstar region, but one of a metro area that is growing even larger to encompass more outlying towns.

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