correction

An earlier version of this column misspelled the name of Nicole Gelinas. This version has been updated.

At 9:30 a.m. on a weekday, Brooklyn’s Park Slope looks almost pre-pandemic normal, except for the masks. Dogs are being walked and retail stores are open; the bagel shop is doing a reasonably brisk trade. But down in the subway, cars run near-empty. And riding that subway to the Midtown Manhattan office-and-theater district is almost like entering one of those “Twilight Zone” episodes where everyone has vanished, leaving the protagonist to wander confused through deserted streets.

This is the story in a lot of American cities right now: The suburbs and residential neighborhoods seem positively lively, while downtown has more pigeons than people. Since New York City is like other cities, only much more so, it’s a good proxy for a larger question:

How long until cities are back to where they were? And since a really healthy city cannot have a population ringed like a doughnut around a barren center, that translates to asking: How long until Midtown revives?

Unfortunately, full recovery will probably take years, not months — and, really, things may never be what they were.

Nicole Gelinas, an expert on state and local fiscal policy at the Manhattan Institute, points out that the Midtown economy has always rested on a three-legged stool of tourists, office workers and residents of the tri-state area, who come in to enjoy city amenities such as theater and restaurants. Cut down one leg, and everything starts to get wobbly.

In pre-covid days, for example, a restaurant might sell lunches to office workers on expense accounts, then sell pre-theater suppers to tourists, and finally switch to a mix of anniversary and birthday dinners and business travelers wooing clients. Each group of customers helps cover the restaurant’s fixed costs, making everyone else’s meal cheaper.

Those businesses also create spillover effects for each other — a night out is more fun when you grab a bite before going to the theater and a drink after. It might be hard for Broadway to suddenly stand up 30-odd shows at once when the pandemic ends, but it might be harder to do it piecemeal.

Even assuming that problem is solved, however, Midtown will still be noticeably emptier. In 2018, about 20 percent of New York visitors came from abroad. With most countries running well behind our vaccination rate, we should not expect many foreign tourists to return this year. The blow to revenue will probably be even larger than those numbers suggest, because international travelers tend to spend more than domestic ones.

Meanwhile, another leg of the three-leg stool is being hacked at: the office workers. And unlike the temporary depression of international tourism, the latter shift may well be permanent.

I asked multiple people working in Midtown offices whether their firms intend to bring everyone back. Most answers mirrored what we’ve seen in broader surveys: When the current lease is up, their firms plan to downsize, as more people work from home some or all of the time. That doesn’t mean everyone will work from home; things will vary firm by firm, and job-by-job, hybrid models with open “hot desks” are expected to be more common. Rather than all-virtual offices, it’s more likely that some people will come in a few days a week and grab an open desk. But that still means less need for office space and fewer people passing through each day, buying less from surrounding businesses.

One can tell a story where the resulting decline in commercial rents eventually attracts a broader range of businesses that don’t have Wall Street profit margins. Over time, this could make New York both a more interesting place to live and more economically resilient.

But a darker narrative is also possible: years of crisis for Midtown in which the city tries to make up for the lost revenue by raising taxes and cutting services for those who remain. That tale could well end with Midtown’s glamour and population declining in tandem, as happened in many American cities in the middle of the 20th century.

Each city’s story was unique, of course, and would be again in this next chapter. No other American city has New York’s theater scene or tourist trade, for example, and Silicon Valley’s lush Big Tech campuses don’t support dense local services the way New York office towers do.

But a lot of big U.S. cities are built around central business districts that simply may never be quite as central again. And almost every city has business districts that are economically vital — and now, economically threatened. Which tale will history end up telling about those areas? The rise and fall, or the heroic comeback?

That likely depends at least partly on how their governments meet this crisis. But it also depends quite a bit on luck, and as a lifelong city-dweller, I wish them all the best of it.

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