It tells you something that mankind kept flocking to filthy streets and crowded, unventilated homes for all those centuries before antibiotics and sewers. How enormous the benefits of living close by other people must be, and how hard to pass up, especially when those other people are engaged in the same trade that you are.
“When an industry has thus chosen a locality for itself,” wrote the great 19th-century economist Alfred Marshall, “it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from near neighborhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously.”
So be skeptical when people look out over the disasters of this spring and suggest that the 1970s are back and Cities Are Over. Rustication is harder than it looks.
I’ve always written about both business and public policy, but after I moved from New York to Washington, I noticed that the longer I stayed here, the fuzzier I grew about what exactly was happening on Wall Street — and the more impatient I became with the political naivete of New Yorkers. Until the information filtering through my social networks changed, I hadn’t even been aware of just how much I was absorbing over cocktail napkins and cappuccinos. Those interactions are why I still live in Washington, even though we could have bought twice the house at half the cost in some smaller place.
It’s also useful to have personal friends in your industry if you need to change jobs, a phenomenon that is part of what economists call “matching.” Labor matching pins firms in place as firmly as people, which is why big tech is still in Silicon Valley and finance in New York, despite the lure of cheaper real estate elsewhere. The flow of ideas and labor between industries arguably adds even more value, as unexpected connections make entirely new things possible. This is why incomes, and productivity, are so much higher in cities than they are in rural areas, and why this differential has grown as the global megacities have expanded.
Sure, the novel coronavirus has temporarily canceled the many benefits and amenities of urban agglomeration. It’s also cut the immigration flows that kept services cheap and plentiful for an ever-growing urban professional class. Those taps will be hard to reopen as long as the virus remains endemic in the developing world — as it likely will, long after America has quelled the epidemic.
Meanwhile the irritations of city living will remain: Hell is other people, wrote Sartre, and especially on the crosstown bus. They’re hellacious indeed with a deadly virus running around. Such inconveniences drove the middle class out in mid-century, hastened by rising crime and, yes, the riots. Why shouldn’t we expect to see a second exodus now, when software is making it easier than ever to work where you please?
In the short run, perhaps we will; San Francisco rents dropped nearly 10 percent in May, after tech giants announced that they’d be making their work-from-home arrangements permanent. But of course, falling prices make cities more attractive despite declining amenities; that’s why people stayed in Detroit even when the jobs left.
Nor are the problems of the cities quite as dire as they were in the 1960s. Zoom simply isn’t as revolutionary as the automobile. The car was better than the buggy on almost every dimension. But Zoom strips out vital social cues and skips the casual conversations at the office coffee pot that can spark new ideas or solutions to old problems. It might ultimately augment smaller offices; it is unlikely to substitute for them entirely.
Nonetheless, some will no doubt pick up and leave for the immediate future. But eventually the viral threat will most likely fade, either because we all got a vaccine or because we all got covid-19. Would-be rusticators will remember that you still cannot easily drink a cocktail, find a mate, groom a sales prospect or eat a meal over Zoom. And then cities will grow again, as they have over the millennia, despite even more daunting threats than covid-19 or abusive cops: because what’s there isn’t anywhere else except, maybe, in another city.