Reminder: The Rich Have Always Fled Cities in Epidemics

Heading for the hills is as old as the hills.

Greenwich Village 1953
In 1822 the rich in New York fled to the neighboring town: Greenwich Village.

Ernst Haas / Getty Images / Greenwich Village in 1953

Because of the pandemic, many are worried these days about the future of our cities, about how so many of the rich and even the not so rich have left town and are looking for places to live in the suburbs and small towns. Others worry that they are not coming back, that the office as we knew it is dead, and that all the rich are perfectly happy working from their fancy home offices in Connecticut or even Miami. In a recent post, Are the Suburbs Booming?, I quoted Christopher Mims, who thinks we are at a technological turning point where people won't be coming back to the office, and will be leaving others behind:

"The pan­demic has moved up the adop­tion of cer­tain tech­nolo­gies by years, es­pe­cially those sup­port­ing au­tomation and re­mote work. In the short term, this means pro­found dis­rup­tion—job loss and the need to move to new roles—for many Amer­i­cans who have the least where­withal to cope."

Mims's comment reminded me of a post from earlier this year about how the rich have always skipped town when there were epidemics and pandemics. Allison Meier wrote in Jstor Daily earlier this year: In Epidemics, the Wealthy Have Always Fled with the subhead “The poor, having no choice, remained.” She writes:

"The elite have a long history of leaving town during times of illness. In 1832, as cholera swept through New York City, an observer witnessed how “New Yorkers scampered away in steamboats, stages, carts, and wheel barrows.” Farmhouses and country homes were quickly filled all around the city. Those who could afford it were racing against the accelerating threat of disease. But as historian of medicine Charles E. Rosenberg wrote, in analyzing the era in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 'The poor, having no choice, remained.'"

When I wrote about how the pandemic has given a turbo boost to changes in the way we work (see: The 15-Minute City and the Return of the Satellite Office) I took a lot of criticism for being a cheerleader for the end of downtown, which I am not. I just don't think someone should have to drag themselves downtown in rush hour to do a job that they can do perfectly well at or near their home. The cities will evolve and change and adapt, perhaps with more people living there instead of commuting there. Allison Meier described how pandemics changed cities before:

"This regular migration of the wealthy out of the city to suburban and rural escapes even changed the way cities developed. New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, for instance, had its boom as a country haven for the upper class fleeing the outbreaks in Lower Manhattan. Historian William Gribbin, in describing an 1822 yellow fever epidemic in New York History, writes that from 'the Battery to Fulton Street was a ghost town, although newspapers encouraged country folk to feel safe in traveling to Greenwich Village, where business could still be conducted.'"

When the rich moved north, the institutions supporting the rich moved with them. "Relocated financial institutions clustered on Bank Street, which still bears that name today." The city and its citizens adapted.

Steve Levine recently wrote a scary article titled Remote Work Is Killing the Hidden Trillion-Dollar Office Economy in which he describes how the loss of office workers will kill the shoe shops and the takeout joints and the entire support infrastructure, kept employed by all those office workers.

"...the pandemic has made a permanent shift to remote work for a large part of the office workforce a near certainty. And with that, tens of thousands of workers in the office support economy — those who 'feed, transport, clothe, entertain, and shelter people when they are not in their own homes' — will lose their jobs."

Or perhaps, like in Greenwich Village of 1822 or every suburb of 1960, they will follow the money and feed and entertain them where the people are now living and working, and they won't have to travel so far to do it. That's why I thought this pandemic could revitalize our Main Streets and small towns, noting:

"Office workers often go shopping at lunch, go to the gym before work, hit the cleaners or go out with a co-worker for lunch. People have to get out of the office just to get out of the office, and will likely feel the same about their home office. This could lead to a dramatic increase in customers for local businesses and services in the local neighborhoods."

Our cities are not going to be killed by this pandemic; they are still magnets for the young, the different, the creative. As Arwa Mahadawi notes in the Guardian:

"People don’t come to cities for jobs alone; people come to places such as New York and London to be around other people. They come for the addictive energy that you get only in places where millions of dreams are crammed together. And many of us – misfits and minorities – stay in cities because they are the only places we feel we can be ourselves. I always think it is funny when people talk about cities being dangerous: as a queer, mixed-race woman, New York is probably where I feel safest."

And if the rich out there in Connecticut don't get bored and want to return to the city, their kids certainly will. Mahadawi concludes:

"I am confident that cities won’t merely recover, but will be revitalised – become better and, hopefully, more affordable than ever. I don’t know what is going to happen next, but I can tell you that rumours of the city’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Cities are coming back from this. And guess what? The rich will come back, too. After they wait for everyone else to rebuild things."

Cities are not for everyone and never were for everyone. They evolve and adapt, and can be a lot more than just a place to put office drones.