Have cities become more livable since Covid? Not for everyone.

New York, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down

Winter in New York City. Footage by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Is New York as livable as it was before the pandemic?

In the most literal sense, no. The city’s mortality rate remained 10% higher in 2022 than in 2019. The continuing toll of Covid-19 is the main cause, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, but accidents — including drug overdoses — and homicides are up, too.

The Covid toll in 2020 was, of course, much, much worse. About 28,000 more New Yorkers died that year than the year before, with 90% of these excess deaths concentrated in just eight awful weeks in the spring. The annual mortality increase was, adjusted for population, the biggest since 1881, a year of diphtheria and smallpox outbreaks — and thus slightly worse than the influenza pandemic year of 1918.[1]

In percentage terms, possibly a better gauge of the shock the city experienced, the 53.6% mortality-rate increase in 2020 was topped only by the cholera epidemic of 1832 and equaled by the cholera rebound of 1834 (1849, the deadliest year on record in New York, saw yet another cholera wave). It was also about triple 2020’s national mortality-rate increase of 18%.

I recount all this dying in part because mortality rates are actually a pretty good proxy for other, less-easily-tracked aspects of good living. They indicate that New York suffered terribly from Covid-19 in 2020, worse than any other large city in the US and worse than any of the world’s other superstar cities, and that it is still struggling. Which sounds about right.

New York is not “dead forever,” as one investor and internet personality infamously proclaimed in August 2020. It doesn’t seem to be reliving its 1960s and 1970s decline — if it were, housing wouldn’t be so expensive. Tax revenue has held up better than expected, and the city’s office districts have come back to life more quickly than those of most other large North American cities.

Yet New York isn’t really OK, either.

For one thing, as home to the world’s largest concentration of office space, it is especially vulnerable to the remote and hybrid work unleashed by the pandemic. The ranking above, compiled by researchers at the University of Toronto and the University of California at Berkeley, shows mobile-device activity in the city’s main office districts (mostly Midtown, but also the Financial District and a little bit of Brooklyn) to be 26% lower than before the pandemic.

That’s less of a decline than in supposed pandemic-era winners like Miami and Austin, but given how much livelier Midtown Manhattan was to begin with, it implies a ton of lost economic activity. A recent Bloomberg News analysis estimated that office workers are spending $12.4 billion less a year in Manhattan because of hybrid work. This represents money saved by those office workers, not to mention time saved because of less-frequent commutes. For them (that is, us), the shift to hybrid offers many benefits.

But most New Yorkers aren’t white-collar workers. For the city to thrive, it needs to provide opportunities both for those who can take their laptops and run and those who can’t. Lately, it has been failing the latter.

A closed souvenir store and Dunkin’ coffee shop in Times Square on Sept. 4, 2021.
Times Square in September 2021.
Photographer: Amir Hamja/Bloomberg

One simple measure of this failure is employment. In the US as a whole, the jobs lost early in the pandemic have all been replaced and then some, with nonfarm payroll employment as of January up 1.8% from February 2020 and overall employment (including self-employment) up 0.9%. In New York City, however, both payroll employment (which includes those who commute into the city) and the number of city residents employed are still well short of where they were in February 2020, with the latter down 9.1% and not giving much indication that it will ever recover.

Unemployment rates tell a similar story. Before the pandemic, every New York borough but the poorest, the Bronx, had lower unemployment than the US. As of last December, all had higher unemployment, with the Bronx at more than twice the national rate.

This mass disappearance of jobs has been an underappreciated driver of New York’s population loss, estimated by the Census Bureau at 336,677 from April 2020 to July 2021 — a 3.8% decline that trailed only San Francisco’s 6.7% among large American cities. Numbers for 2022 will be out later this month, but state population figures already released point to continued, if slower, declines. So do city public school enrollments, which as of October were down 11.2% from October 2019, with the Bronx seeing the sharpest decline at 17.8%.

Yet housing in the city hasn’t gotten any cheaper, with its highest-in-the-nation rents setting new records last summer and more or less flatlining since. Rents and purchase prices haven’t gone up as much in New York over the course of the pandemic as elsewhere in the country, but the fact that they’re still so high is evidence both of the city’s continued attractions for the affluent and its dysfunctional housing policies.

One side effect has been a surge in homelessness, with more than 70,000 people in shelters managed by the city’s Department of Homeless Services in February — the most on record (which in this case goes back to 2011). The annual January count of people sleeping in public spaces, results of which haven’t been released yet, also seems likely to show an increase over last year’s 3,439.

An unhoused person crosses a busy midtown street on Dec. 8, 2022, in New York City.
An unhoused person crosses a Midtown street.
Photographer: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis News

There have been other, harder-to-quantify changes that give the city a more troubled feel. Drivers and bikers who learned to take traffic rules less seriously when the streets were empty have continued to do so. There’s more trash on the streets, and more rats, too. Marijuana legalization, while it has its good sides, has left the city a lot stinkier.

Concerns about these changes have been distilled into a focus on crime that has been taken to lurid and exaggerated lengths in the national media. But crime is definitely worse in New York than before the pandemic. Of the seven major felony offenses tracked by city police, all but one, rape, were more prevalent in 2022 than in 2019.

On the positive side, the rash of shootings and homicides that kicked off the city’s pandemic crime wave in summer 2020 are both clearly on the downswing now. Homicides fell 12.4% in 2022 and another 19.2% in the first nine weeks of 2023. Shooting incidents are down 20.9% so far this year, transit crime down 21.5%. All in all, things do seem to be getting better, and compared with other large US cities (and a lot of smaller ones), New York has remained a low-crime zone.

It has also remained, compared with the rest of the country, a low-death zone. Even after that huge, Covid-caused increase in 2020, New York mortality was still slightly below the national rate. In 2022, it was 27% lower.

This disparity is not because New Yorkers are markedly younger or richer — the city’s age distribution and median income are similar to the nation’s. Rather, it is evidence that since the mid-1990s, the quality of life in New York City has in some crucial ways come to surpass that of most other places in the US. New Yorkers get more exercise, have better access to health care, and have less to fear from accidents and violence than other Americans. Not to mention there’s lots to do here.

In exchange, New Yorkers have to put up with expensive, often-cramped housing; high prices for other essentials; aging infrastructure; and high taxes. Even before the pandemic there were signs that this balance was tipping in the wrong direction for New York and other superstar cities around the world. Covid-19 and hybrid work have added a new layer of challenges.

How to address them? So far, New York has, perhaps understandably, mostly been playing defense. There’s been no wholesale transformation of the streets as in Paris (just a lot of restaurant sheds that are about to go seasonal), no big-time transit upgrade like London’s long-awaited Elizabeth Line (sorry, but the Long Island Railroad’s long-awaited East Side Access doesn’t count as big-time for most New Yorkers).

I’m not exactly sure what New York’s transformation should look like, but it has to involve more housing, more jobs, major public transportation improvements and less trash. Standing still isn’t going to work.

The Wall Street subway station in New York on Feb. 10.
Wall Street subway station.
Photographer: Ismail Ferdous/Bloomberg

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