Sonari Glinton: You're listening to Now What's Next?, an original podcast from Morgan Stanley. I'm Sonari Glinton.
That's Helen Lummis. She's stacking wood outside her cabin in the Northern California community of Soda Springs, population 81. Helen bought this place back in the summer, back when the pandemic was very visibly affecting life in the city.
Helen Lummis: So I have moved into a cute and quaint little cabin with a lot of wood paneling, lots of tall pine trees, and a lake close by. I'm really close to a bunch of national forest land.
Glinton: It can get cold and dark up in the woods.
Lummis: So I had actually four cords of wood dropped off on Tuesday. That's a lot of wood, which is what everyone recommended out here to keep me warm through the winter.
Glinton: This is her life now. Helen is in her early thirties. She used to live in San Francisco, working in marketing for a credit card company.
Lummis: I loved the city, but with the pandemic, there's just nothing really open in the city still, so it kind of has lost its luster, in a way.
Glinton: Now, she's 200 miles due east of the Bay, living full-time in Soda Springs and stacking wood between Zoom calls. She still has her job, but not her old life.
Lummis: I thought maybe I'd be here three or four days a week, but now, it's changed to this being my full-time place, at least for the next six-plus months.
Glinton: Moving during normal times is hard, but this felt more like she was part of a larger exodus.
Lummis: But also as I was leaving the city, I was driving through the financial district, kind of the downtown, to come back here with my last load of stuff, and I just felt so sad for the city because it's just so empty. All the lights are off, there's no one walking, the streets are dead. It just kind of broke my heart.
Glinton: But Helen knows she's lucky. She has a job, and she had enough money to leave.
Lummis: Absolutely. I mean, I am so privileged to be able to make this move. Sometimes, I feel like there's definitely guilt there, but people that are able to do this right now, it's the privileged people, it's people who can work remotely, it's people who have the capital to be able to move.
Glinton: Helen is not the only one to hightail it out of San Francisco. Words like "ghost town" and "mass exodus" show up in news stories about the pandemic's impact on the city.
Lummis: I wonder if this pandemic is kind of, it's like the have's and the have-not's, and that gap is only intensifying more.
Glinton: Sometimes, you don't realize how quickly the world can change, until it gets totally turned upside down.
[Speaker 3: It's currently 32 degrees and-]
[Speaker 4: City living seems to be losing its appeal.]
[Speaker 5: And in New York, suburban home sales are booming aspeople pack up and-]
[Speaker 6: India is seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases as infections spread across cities.]
Glinton: The pandemic has already changed the world we live in, but what does life after a global pandemic look like?
I'm Sonari Glinton. I've worked for years as a business reporter in public radio, you know, NPR's business desk, Planet Money. I've witnessed and reported on a lot of upheaval firsthand. But, there is something about what's going on now, in this very moment, that feels different. Some of the changes are subtle, others dramatic, but no matter what, even after the dust settles, life is not going back to the way it was before.
This season on Now What's Next?, we're exploring how the world continues to evolve in the face of a global crisis, and the rare chance it's given us to rethink our assumptions. Now, this may be a once in a lifetime challenge, but it's also an opportunity to create real and lasting change. Over the next six episodes, we'll investigate what the new normal looks like. Is travel as we know it dead? What does the global pandemic mean for your local taco truck? Will we ever get back to the office again? But let's start with something that, for me, hits close to home: What's next for big cities?
Glinton: Helen Lummis left the city because she could. Others leave because they have to.
Lee Peart: So literally, it felt like a rug was just pulled from under my feet.
Glinton: Lee Peart had a good job: inside work, no heavy lifting, creative. He was the audience warm-up guy for a daily TV talk show in London, sort of like The View, but British.
Peart: And it was five days a week, but it was filmed in front of a live audience, so it was my job to keep them entertained throughout the show, and also let them know what's going on.
Glinton: The warm-up comedian usually needs an audience to warm up, but this past spring's COVID lockdown cost him that audience and his job. It wasn't long before Lee was asking himself, how long could he make it in London? Can I hold out with no job, as my savings get smaller and smaller by the day? In the end, his decision was made for him.
Peart: So two days after lockdown happened, we received an email from our landlord who basically told us very flippantly that, "I've sold the house, I need you out in four weeks." So at that point, I thought, "Right, it probably makes sense for me to go home for a bit."
Glinton: Financially, he didn't really have a choice. He had to leave the city.
Peart: And I moved back to a place where I grew up, called Cleethorpes, and it's a seaside town; it's up north; it's about kind of four hours away from where I lived.
Glinton: Tale as old as time, Lee moved back in with his parents. When you leave your seaside town and land a posh job in show business in the big, big city, and then, you have to turn around and move back in with your parents, it's, let's say, an adjustment.
Peart: So people will stop and talk to you in the street, even if you don't know them. "You're Carl and Leslie's son, aren't you?", because they know my mum and dad, and it's lovely, but at the same time, it's like, "Let me get on with my life," and then I think, well, I don't really have a life, so I might as well just stand and talk to you.
Glinton: Life in the country isn't without its charm, but...
Peart: And I just turned 30 as well, so it was one of those things where every kind of milestone seems to be happening in the year where it was going to be a real kind of good celebratory year, finances on track, going to travel, going to just have a great time, all kind of went downhill.
Glinton: And now, Lee isn't quite sure how much seaside charm he can live with.
Peart: There's definitely that thought that's often going through my head where I'm thinking, "Oh God, I don't think I can do this for as long as I might have to."
Glinton: This pandemic is breaking a boundary between city, suburban and country life. Long the beacon of opportunity, right now, our big cities are suffering. With more population density comes more risk of infection. The economic crisis is visible everywhere, as shops are boarded up and businesses are drying up. Crime is seeing an uptick. People like Helen, who have the money to leave, are leaving, and some people like Lee, who don't have the money, are escaping to safer and cheaper pastures, or cul-de-sacs.
Back in the summer, James Altucher, an entrepreneur and author, wrote a blog post that went viral. You may have seen it in your feed. It declared, "NYC is dead forever, and here's why." Around the same time, The Financial Times in London noted, "You cannot be in the urban swing of things, if there is no swing." Big cities are struggling during COVID, but is our current pandemic really to blame?
Kevin Baker: My name is Kevin Baker, and I'm speaking from New York City, where I've lived my entire adult life, and I have been participating in what's become the great, "Is New York dying," controversy of 2020.
Glinton: Kevin has lived in his same New York City apartment for more than 40 years, and we asked him to hold his iPhone out his window to capture the sounds of the city.
Now, what you're hearing is remarkable because of what's missing: the traffic and the bustle of crowds. Kevin wrote a book called The Fall of a Great American City, and this past summer, when we talked to him, he'd just written a story for The Atlantic about whether New York is dying.
Baker: I've lived in New York long enough that this is, at least, the second such controversy, maybe the third or fourth, about whether or not New York will survive, that I've taken part in.
Glinton: And he sees how the pandemic has shifted his city's boundaries.
Baker: The worst things are sort of the cultural things that have been shut down, the museums, the theater, just going to movies, and simply hanging out with people, going to bars, going to restaurants. But all of that human companionship has been curtailed for months now, and that really is a great loss.
Glinton: But Kevin will tell you straight up: He doesn't think the pandemic is killing New York City, he thinks great cities like New York face a far bigger challenge, one that's been around for quite a while.
Baker: The problem is resolving who the city is for. The amazing thing about the whole pandemic to me, is here it is: People can't run their businesses, people can't work at businesses, and yet, the landlords are still there with their hands out, demanding and expecting the same old rents they were getting before.
Glinton: None of this is new. The pandemic has brought more businesses to the brink, but Kevin has watched small businesses being forced out by rising rent for years.
Baker: And it's wiping out almost all the practical stores, terrific places where you could get everything from hardware, to a nice steak. There was a great butcher shop called Oppenheimer's run by a guy who had fled Hitler's Europe, Harry Oppenheimer, and he employed everybody from the neighborhood. It was terrific. They tripled the rent, it was gone. It had been here, like, 50 years. There was a wonderful little laundry center, 98th Street Laundry Center on Amsterdam, their rent had been up from $7,000 a month to $21,000. That's a lot of socks. That's been empty now, an empty storefront, for maybe six, seven years.
Glinton: If Angelenos are obsessed with traffic, then New Yorkers are obsessed with the price of real estate. And real-estate prices are not the only indicator of a healthy or unhealthy city, yet, Kevin worries that the city has lost an important part of its soul. He says the real threat facing New York is not COVID, but income inequality.
Baker: I'd hate to see us just become sort of the world's largest gated community, which is what we seem to be headed toward.
Glinton: Kevin Baker, the New Yorker, worries about his city becoming a land of opportunity for the very few. But what happens to the many, the rest of us? Now, what if you live in a city or a neighborhood that's not wealthy, not affluent? What happens if you live somewhere people want to leave? Not because it's expensive, but because there's no opportunities for them if they stay? What happens to the people who are left behind, and then what happens when you throw in a pandemic on top of that? That's what's happening in Chicago.
Glinton: I'm from the South Side of Chicago. To be specific, I grew up in South Shore. South Shore is also the home to Michelle Obama. She grew up at 74th and Cregier, I grew up at 70th and Crandon. Here's the thing: As proud as I'm sure Michelle Obama is about coming from South Shore, she doesn't live in South Shore anymore, and neither do I. It's not a blip though. In 1990, you could argue that Chicago was the capital of Black America. But long before COVID, the city had seen a mass exodus of Black residents, and it's not just Oprah, the Obamas, and Michael Jordan who've left Chicago. They were joined by 200,000 Black folks, mainly families who fled the city.
[Recorded voice: Doors closing.]
Tiffany Smith: Those are the ones that could leave. They wanted to leave, and they could leave. That just leaves the people who can't leave, and then the crazy people like me, right?
Glinton: That's Tiffany Smith. Now, I've known Tiffany for 35 years, went to the same high school together and full disclosure, we went to homecoming senior year. She drove.
Smith: I drove the Cadillac, the burgundy Fleetwood.
Glinton: Tiffany could live anywhere she wants. She's already lived in Paris, and the Philippines, but after years of traveling and living abroad, Tiffany says she realized that she had all she needed in Chicago's Chatham neighborhood, near South Shore. She works now for Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago. As they say on the South Side, she ain't going nowhere.
Smith: The people who can't leave, most times, don't have the wherewithal, don't have the resources to rebuild the neighborhood. So if you don't get the crazies like me to hang out and stay, it's for sure never going to recover.
Glinton: Now, she could leave if she wanted to, but...
Smith: For me, it's kind of personal, in that the home that I live in is my birth home, and I acquired that from my dad. It is part of the beauty that is Chicago. It is the network of people who are not going to leave anybody behind.
Glinton: That sense of a safe, secure home, it changed once the lockdown orders took hold, but it also activated Tiffany and everyone she knows.
Smith: Once we got that word, we kind of all started pulling out our blockclub phone-tree lists, just the basics, making sure people know how they're going to get their prescriptions and things of that nature, just looking out for each other, so that was really heartening. All of this compounded by: My neighborhood has shifted from one that was predominantly upper middle-class, it's now shifted dramatically. And so, we are overwhelmingly populated with service workers who are, of course, the first ones impacted when folks started downsizing and furloughing, because we have to shelter-in-place. So you compound the stress of, "Okay, we do not have any money coming in, unemployment hasn't kicked in," you could see the level of stress and frustration in people's faces.
Glinton: Well, when you say that, my gut level reaction is, "Why do I have to fight for a city?"
Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Glinton: I mean, I'm serious, full-time job it feels like, to live on the South Side of Chicago. And why does it have to be this hard?
Smith: Well, now look, I don't think there's a simple answer to that. I think at least from my perspective, a lot of it is rooted in our history, and in our legacy of segregation, and racism in the city, in that this part of town has always been undervalued.
Glinton: And when sheltering-in-place gave way to protests over the death of George Floyd, life in Tiffany's neighborhood got tougher.
Smith: One of the most heartbreaking things I've seen and experienced since we all kind of went inside in March, and then the unrest around Memorial Day, was seeing a bunch of folks that are about my dad's age or a little bit younger, coming out going, "Oh no, do we need to get the bats? Do you got a gun? We've got to protect the stores," and I was like, "You've got to be kidding me." They're like, "We know how to do this," and I'm like, "Yeah, but you're not supposed to have to do this anymore. You did this already. You shouldn't have to keep fighting this fight," and to see their determination that, "No, I'm not leaving."
Glinton: What drives this passion is the sacrifice. For many white Americans, the struggle is over once they own their home. For Black folks in neighborhoods like Chatham, there was a sacrifice to get the money to buy the home, there was the struggle to move into the neighborhood that resisted Black residents, to the point of burning crosses. Then, after all of that, Chatham and its surrounding neighborhoods had some of the highest rates of foreclosures and housing values haven't recovered yet. For Tiffany and hundreds of thousands of South Siders, the struggle is more than real.
Smith: Are we challenged? Oh gosh, yes. Do we have to have somereal, "Come to Jesus" moments across the city? Oh yes. Is it going to get a little worse? Yeah. Oh yeah.
Glinton: Is it going to get a little worse, you think?
Smith: Oh yeah, it is.
Smith: Because everyone has not felt it yet. One of our major business publications in Chicago posted a story about people leaving downtown, and shuttering, and the apartments are half empty, and the stores, people are talking about not renewing their leases and like, "Oh, we've got this mass exodus leaving downtown." And so of course, us on the South Side are going, "Welcome to the club."
Glinton: The story of the city is a story of movement. Cities are always in a constant state of flux. The movement, the push and pull, the ups and downs, that's what makes them so exciting and vibrant. I mean, who wants to live in a city that doesn't change ever? That is a city that sleeps. That is boring. That's certainly not New York, or London, or Chicago. It's supposed to be hard to make it in New York City, but for every Helen Lummis, or Lee Peart who leaves a big city, there's a modern day Frank Sinatra dreaming of taking their place.
One of those dreamers, Allison Harsh. Allison's a dancer, and she mixes classical ballet with hip hop. It's for a group called the Hiplet Ballerinas. And while some may be leaving Chicago, this dancer arrived in September. A friend of hers offered her a job in an art school, so she packed up and left Kansas City.
Harsh: Ever since I was really little, I always wanted to get out of the small town and really, pursue my dreams and my career. And so, even though I was so nervous and so uncertain, and I was just like, "Oh my gosh, I'm moving to this expensive city in a pandemic. What am I doing?", I was just so determined to dance, it just made me push through the discomfort. I just knew that it's the place where I needed to go. I think it was really just the best decision for me, because I've totally outgrown Kansas City. I've done everything I can do, and I can either stay here and keep doing it, or I can move on and challenge myself with something new and something unfamiliar. I really enjoy, just kind of like, jump into something brand new, where I have no idea what I'm doing, and just figure it out and grow.
Glinton: Helen Lummis and Lee Peart left the big city during the pandemic. Allison Harsh arrived. Tiffany Smith is incredibly clear she ain't going nowhere, and Kevin Baker stays in that same New York City apartment he's lived in for 40 years, but he's worried that soon, only the very wealthy will be able to afford to live in Manhattan.
But that certainly wasn't New York's problem in, say, the 1970s. Now, that era is remembered by many as the darkest, bleakest and most dangerous in New York's history. Unemployment was high, crime was rampant, and the middle-class fled to the suburbs, nearly a million people left. Abandoned buildings dotted the city, and it's still seen by many as rock bottom. The city nearly declared bankruptcy, but at the same time, it was an incredible era. It was the era of disco music, punk rock, Andy Warhol, Studio 54, the gay liberation movement. Seventies' New York ushered in an era of, yes, massive change: an influx of new immigrants; artist studios popped up in what used to be industrial districts; neighborhoods were literally transformed. New York would be invigorated, if eventually gentrified.
Now, Kevin Baker has seen New York go through a number of calamities, followed by all the debates about whether the city would survive, and so far, it has always bounced back.
Glinton: My dad would say that a crisis reveals who you are, right? And what has this crisis, this revealed about living in a great American city for you?
Baker: I think on a day-to-day level, it's a tremendous testament to people's willingness to soldier on. Obviously, it's also exposing huge rifts between the richest in the city and the people who have fled, and the rest of us, who would like to see New York run more for all of us.
Glinton: Tiffany Smith in Chicago feels the same. Chicago is yet another city that's great because of massive change. The first Chicago burned to the ground, and they rebuilt the "Second City," bigger and better. This is a city that reversed the river, brought the world the blues, skyscrapers, the Haymarket Riot, and six glorious NBA championship teams.
Smith: There was a saying, I believe, that used to be stamped on my dad's hard hats, back in the day when I was growing up and he was a public works employee, and it always said, "The city that works." And to this day, I still believe, and everyone laughs at me and they're like, "Really?" I'm like, it is the city that works. It can be. Right now, we're struggling a little bit, but it's the city that works for every way that that means, right? We have grit.
Glinton: Here's something that no one has ever said: "I'm going to leave this Podunk town, to make my fortune in another smaller Podunk town." The Great Plague killed a quarter of London, yet, people still came. Rome was sacked seven times, seven, yet, all roads still lead to Rome. Since Mesopotamia, humanity has been steadily marching towards urbanization.
Human beings do not like change, but change is inevitable. It just took a global pandemic for some of us to see it. Maybe big cities around the world have been out of balance for a while, and the pandemic just brought on a correction. It's easy to focus on who's leaving, but right now, there is a kid from Chillicothe, Ohio, or Brighton in England who can't wait to get to New York City or London. I say, keep saving and dreaming. The city needs you, kid.
I'm Sonari Glinton, and this is Now What's Next?, an original podcast from Morgan Stanley.