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COVID Didn't Kill Cities. Why Was That Prophecy So Alluring?

·7 min read

From the moment U.S. coronavirus cases emerged in the Seattle area and then devastated New York City last spring, sweeping predictions about the future of city life followed. Density was done for. An exodus to the suburbs and small towns would ensue. Transit would become obsolete. The appeal of a yard and a home office would trump demand for bustling urban spaces. And Zoom would replace the in-person connections that give big cities their economic might.

The pandemic promised nothing short of the End of Cities, a prophecy foretold by pundits, tweets and headlines, at times with unveiled schadenfreude.

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If the past year has laid bare many underlying forces in society, this was another one: a deep-rooted discomfort — suspicion, even — about urban life in America. But now city sidewalks are returning to life, pandemic migration patterns have become clearer, and researchers have dispelled early fears that density is a primary driver of COVID-19. So it is perhaps a good time to ask: What is so alluring about the perpetually imminent End of Cities?

Why won’t that idea itself die?

In America, it has been like a virus strain mutating to the moment: Surely disease will kill cities, or congestion will, or corruption, or suburbanization, or fiscal crises, or technology, or crime, or terrorism, or this pandemic (unlike all the pandemics that came before it).

Inevitably, the city survives. And yet so does the belief it will fall next time. The Upshot asked more than a dozen people who think a lot about cities — historians, economists, sociologists and urban policy experts — about the strange staying power of this narrative.

“Anti-urbanism is an American religion, practiced widely and frequently in ordinary times, and passionately when cities are actually in trouble,” wrote Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University.

That ideological strand is particularly American and goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson. Cities have been associated with corruption and inseparable from stereotypes about immigrants and African Americans. They’ve been viewed as unhealthy places to live, particularly for families, said Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor of urban policy and planning, also at NYU.

 

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