Big Cities Can Build Back Smaller — And Better



Photo by Bastian Schmidt / CC BY-ND 2.0

It was a bittersweet evening in Manhattan. Parisian-level charm had descended on what used to be traffic-snarled streets of the fancy Upper East Side. Planters holding dramatic greenery set off outdoor dining areas spilling into former parking spaces. Waiters happily greeted the sort of stylish patron no one had seen for a while.

Sadly, though, the surrounding streets ached at the sight of so many blank storefronts. Some had signs promising to be back. The heartbreakers posted notices saying "Goodbye, and thank you for our 30 years in business." Even the restaurants with full tables were hurting because they still aren't allowed to serve indoors.

Many of these establishments also thrived on tourists, of which New York had 65 million in 2018. With museums and theaters still closed, tourists are few.

Where does a city dependent on culture and old-fashioned commerce go from here? New York will come back. It rose from the ashes of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center — and there's no vaccine against terrorism.

But as this urban economy slowly awakens from its virus-induced coma, many are wondering whether a revived version can also be an easier place to live. By easier, they mean smaller and less congested, less expensive and less geared toward the comfort of the 0.0001 percent.

Most eyes are dry at the fact that zillion-dollar apartments in the ugly new supertalls are empty for lack of plutocrats to live in them ten percent of the time. These buildings typically replaced five-story walk-ups that were home to working people.

In New York, as in other hot cities, real estate barons had been given license to stomp on the locals' quality of life. Before the pandemic, for example, the commercial area around Grand Central Terminal had gotten so crowded that pedestrians were pushed off the sidewalks at rush hour. The mayor had the bright idea of removing all seats in a subway line serving Grand Central so they could stuff more people in the cars. The city in its wisdom then rezoned the neighborhood to allow bigger office towers housing 28,000 more workers.

If waves of office workers can now work from home, who is going to fill these new cubicles? Let the developers figure that out.

And who is going to live in the apartments of those who leave town? New Yorkers who will benefit from falling rents and lower asking prices.

Rents are reportedly coming down in nearly all the super-expensive cities, including San Francisco, Boston and San Jose. In New York, the sharpest drops have been at the luxury end of the market, the result being better deals for what's left of the middle class.

A millennial friend, a son of the Bronx, expressed quiet satisfaction that many of the hipsters who had piled into his Brooklyn neighborhood for "the scene" had left town for good. In John's view, they weren't tough enough to do an apartment lockdown with no escape to bars and clubs. They weren't real New Yorkers feeling bound to community but seekers of entertainment.

Now, one can understand young families yearning for cheaper housing with a private backyard. This big country has become even bigger for those who can work from anywhere. And life can be sweet in our smaller towns and cities.

Shrinking superstar cities could pose a problem for the federal tax coffers. Ten American cities account for a third of the nation's economic output. The New York metropolitan area alone generates more economic activity than does Australia.

Back on the street level, landlords can fill their empty storefronts the old supply-and-demand way: by lowering the rent. In doing so, they can also welcome back the smaller retailers who were previously priced out.

In sum, the pandemic can help big cities return to their more livable former selves. If becoming smaller also makes them more affordable and less stressful, where is the problem?

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at

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