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Opinion | There’s an Exodus From the ‘Star Cities,’ and I Have Good News and Bad News

In recent decades, he continued,

the city has flourished, so that now central New York and San Francisco are the most expensive places in the U.S. to live. I worry that this has ended for two reasons. First, the pandemic has made us much more aware of the need to reduce density — particularly indoor density. That means avoiding the subway, elevators, shared offices, and communal living. Second, working from home is here to stay, and with it, the need to live close to the office will diminish. I doubt that many firms will allow people to work from home for five days a week, but two or three days a week will be common. And many of us will wonder: if we need to be in the office for only half the week, why not live further out, where housing is cheaper?

In an April 2021 paper, “Why Working From Home Will Stick,” Bloom and two colleagues, Jose Maria Barrero, a professor at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, and Steven J. Davis, a professor at the University of Chicago, argue that the Covid pandemic has revolutionized work, with remote employees quadrupling from roughly 5 percent to roughly 20 percent of the work force. The consequences will be felt everywhere, especially in big cities, they write: “The shift to WFH will also have highly uneven geographic effects, diminishing the fortunes of cities like San Francisco with high rates of inward commuting.” The shift to working from home “will lower expenditures on meals, entertainment, personal services, and shopping in major cities by 5 to 10 percent of prepandemic overall spending.”

In a detailed set of analyses for New York City and San Francisco, with San Francisco data appearing in parentheses, Bloom and his colleagues report from a series of monthly surveys they conducted that the result is a 13 percent drop in consumer spending in New York and 4.6 percent drop in San Francisco.

The net benefits of the shift will, in turn, “flow mainly to the highly educated and well paid,” according to the four authors, and “will yield larger benefits (as a percent of earnings) for men, the college-educated, those with children and persons with greater earnings.” The earnings relationship, they note, “is very steep.”

Patrick Sharkey, a professor of sociology at Princeton, pointed to an additional threat to urban life: the surge in violent crime:

The very idea of cities as places where collective life is prioritized, where people come together in shared spaces like parks, playgrounds, sidewalks, front stoops, subways, cafes, stadiums and theaters, begins to break down when public spaces carry the threat of violence.

There is, Sharkey continued,

strong evidence that rising violence contributed to out-migration from central cities in the era of extreme urban violence from the late 1960s through the 1980s; and, alternatively, that the decline in violence from the early 1990s to the mid-2010s brought people back into central cities.

If violence keeps rising (in New York, for example, shootings rose 95 percent over 2020) and if government fails to intervene, Sharkey warned, “those who have the resources to leave central cities will do so.”

What can we anticipate?

The lack of consensus on this question is reflected in individual essays that Florida and Kotkin wrote.

Florida, ever the optimist, wrote in June 2020:

Not only are cities on the upswing, we are in the early stages of a new wave of urban policy innovation, which is occurring from the bottom up in cities, our true laboratories of democracy. Even before the current crises, cities were beginning to address the mounting challenges of racial and class division, inequality, police reform and worsening housing burdens.

Kotkin, ever the pessimist, wrote in March 2021:

Today’s urban promise is, however, vastly different — not only in New York, but San Francisco and Los Angeles, London and Paris. No longer cities of aspiration, they are increasingly defined by an almost feudal hierarchy: the rich live well, protected by private security and served by local coffee shops and trendy clubs. Meanwhile, the working class struggles to pay rent, possesses no demonstrable path to a better life and, as a result, often migrates elsewhere. Crime rates are spiking and homelessness, once an exception, is increasingly widespread. Those very streets once said to be “paved with gold” are now filled with discarded needles, excrement and graffiti.

Take your pick.

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