Thankfully, the drummer in the flat above us has moved out. I’m guessing he couldn’t afford central Paris once gigs melted away. Our corner café is boarded up and more will follow, given the city’s new 9pm curfew. There are queues at the food bank opposite my office.
When people speculate about how the pandemic will change big cities, they mostly talk about the Zooming classes fleeing the Big Smoke. Yet there are only modest signs of this happening so far. Rather, as the pandemic enters its mass-impoverishment phase, another development looks more likely: the new poor will leave big cities. This is the exodus that could reshape urban life in the coming years. “We have entered a new epoch. We are not fully capable of seeing that,” says Saskia Sassen of Columbia University, the urbanist who coined the term “global city”.
Long before the pandemic struck, many poorer urbanites were just hanging on, not living even a downscale version of the Dick Whittington dream of coming to the city and making their fortunes. In New York City in 2018, 29 per cent of all households had incomes of $30,000 or less. Most renters in that category spent the bulk of their income on housing, calculates New York University’s Furman Center. Similarly, millions of Londoners overpaid for cramped flats, long commutes and bad weather. London has Britain’s highest incomes but lowest life satisfaction, reports the Office for National Statistics.
The working classes weren’t the only ones suffering. So were “probably a majority of residents of most of our cities”, says Sassen. “Half the middle classes are richer than they ever thought they would be, and half are poorer.”
When urbanites first lost their jobs this spring, many sat it out hoping for a swift recovery. Now it’s clear that low-wage industries like tourism, restaurants, bars, shopping and the arts (a big employer of the bohemian proletariat) won’t revive anytime soon. If you lose your job in a small town you can probably afford to stay put, but not in premium cities. Falling demand in New York and San Francisco is already pushing down rents.
London’s population will surely decline from this year’s all-time peak of 9.3 million. Many immigrants will return to their native countries, predicts Ben Rogers, director of the Centre for London think-tank, who notes that half the city’s workers in the accommodation and food-services sector last year were non-Britons. If you’re unemployed, you want to be paying Romanian rather than London rents. Some younger people will rediscover their childhood bedrooms.
London’s worst-hit area might be Hounslow: nearly a third of the borough’s residents have jobs that depend directly or indirectly on now semi-abandoned Heathrow airport, warns Hounslow Council. Outer west London is generally vulnerable to economic damage from Covid-19, says the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies. Next, Brexit takes effect.
One possible scenario for big cities is shrinkage. In the 1970s, New York City lost 800,000 residents and much of its tax base. Expect ballooning social problems and possibly crime.
Compared with the damage from the new poor leaving, working from home should hurt cities less. The metropolis is losing some of its workplace function, but after the pandemic it will regain its networking and playground functions. That means that living in Manhattan, central London or Paris will remain attractive. In fact, these places just keep getting nicer as they push out cars. No wonder that house prices — at or near record levels in London and Paris — have held up better than rents. A homebuyer has a 20- or 30-year horizon, whereas a renter typically plans for two or three years at most. It’s hard to imagine London shrinking for decades, as it did from 1951 through 1991.
Most well-off urbanites will ride out the pandemic, paying rock-bottom interest rates to work from home (or “live at work”, as Miranda Sharp, a trustee at the Centre for Cities, says). A minority of the middle class may have to sell — airline pilots, marketing and advertising executives, conference organisers and the like — but there’s an almost endless supply of rich people around the world waiting to buy pads in top-tier cities.
As the poor leave, some young people (though maybe not enough) will replace them, because the metropolis remains the ideal place to start a career and play the mating game. Underused central business districts and shops will eventually be converted into homes, which will make housing cheaper and cities even more fun.
Big cities will rebound. Mining towns in northern England didn’t, but they had only one industry whereas a big city has many. A decade from now, low-paid service workers will fill poorer urban neighbourhoods once more. Then cities will again have to choose their response. Make these people’s lives bearable by instituting a local minimum wage, like the $15 an hour that New York City introduced for all employees on December 31, weeks before the pandemic struck? Automate poorly paid functions like cleaning, care and cappuccino-making? Build cheap housing for essential workers such as nurses and police officers? Or exploit yet another generation of the urban precariat?
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