New York’s patchwork recovery masks vast inequities laid bare by Covid

There are signs of renewal in a city that has weathered crisis after crisis, but what its future looks like remains an open question

For most of the past year, Manhattan’s signature yellow cabs have been a rarity on the avenues and cross-streets. Now, as the city picks up and office workers begin to return, they too are returning – but not yet on a pre-pandemic scale. At the same time, the city is gridlocked by traffic.

A patchwork of indicators suggest the recovery from a pandemic that hit hard and early, caused close to 30,000 deaths out of a 8.4-million population and placed the metropolis in an economic deep-freeze will be similarly uneven.

Surface indicators – yellow cabs, packed restaurants, partying NYU students in Washington Square Park, Bruce Springsteen on Broadway – are in their own way merely masks for social and economic disparities already present but laid bare by the onset of the pandemic and corresponding demands for racial and economic equality that followed.

The complexity of New York’s recovery will take years to unpick. Before the pandemic Americans spent 5% of their working time at home. By spring 2020 the figure was 60%. It’s a seismic shift that has hit office-laden Manhattan particularly hard. The Partnership for New York City predicts that only 62% of office workers will return, mostly three days a week, by September.

Banks, which have mostly ordered a full return to the office, are facing pushback from workers, who point to higher levels of happiness and productivity from working at home. ​But it is also a way to return production overheads to the labor force. The conflict will take time to resolve and could trigger a crisis in commercial property values if the workers win. According to the brokers Cushman and Wakefield, the past year has seen 18% more leased floor space lost than during the financial crisis of 2007-09.

Tourism, which contributes $60bn to the city’s economy annually, remains anemic, though some of the hardiest of travelers – Italians – seem to be making the trek. The hit to the city’s leisure and hospitality sector, which peaked at 300,000 jobs in December 2019, is severe. After dropping to 80,000 in the early months of the pandemic, the numbers have returned to close to 200,000.

Felipe Beltran, 25, gives a salsa lesson to Brianna Davis, 29, at Domino Park in New York City.
Felipe Beltran, 25, gives a salsa lesson to Brianna Davis, 29, at Domino Park in New York City. Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

A statewide report issued on Friday found that New York had lost 2m jobs during the pandemic and unemployment in May stood at 8.2%, far above the pre-pandemic level and well above the national average of 5.9%.

It also found that the leisure and hospitality sector had experienced the steepest decline in income last year, and would probably be the slowest to recover from the crisis. Earnings for jobs in hospitality are nearly 32% below what they were at the end of 2019.

But others have prospered. The report found personal income in New York had risen 12.8%, hitting $1.6tn in the first quarter of 2021, surpassing pre-pandemic levels and seeing a more than 50% increase from the final quarter of 2020. Income growth, largely due to government pandemic benefits, contributed $430bn, or 28%, of the total.

At the same time, the movement of people in the city has been profoundly altered. As public transport use dropped, road traffic surged. The New York City area now officially has the worst traffic in the country, according to survey for Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute.

The survey says a New York to Newark, New Jersey, driver spent an average 56 hours stuck in traffic last year – worse than the 30-year top-spot holder, Los Angeles. “So if you think things are worse on the road, you’re not imagining it. They are,” the transportation engineer Sam Schwartz told CBS2’s Dave Carlin.

“You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way,” as Bob Dylan wrote 20 years ago. Such indicators, by definition incomplete, suggests that New York is coming back strongly. The question, posed almost daily in the New York press, turns on whether you’d necessarily want it to.

The city recovered after 9/11, but that, the Manhattan borough historian, Robert Snyder, points out, was only after it was patriotically designated “America’s City” in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. The current, polarized political lens through which the city’s economic and social issues, including crime, are viewed, produce a striking, and perhaps typical, lack of coherence.

“New York City’s history is one of crises suffered and crises overcome,” Snyder told the Guardian. Snyder points out that during the waves of cholera epidemic in the early-to-mid-19th century, the city’s population grew fourfold through Irish and Italian immigration.

“The city kept on growing because of its basic strength as a gateway to the North American market and capital city of finances to the slave-labor south. The epidemics were terrible, and they could incite nativism and cause people to flee to the outskirts, but the city’s fundamental strength kept powering it on.”

The death of the city has been declared frequently, said Snyder. After the financial crisis of the 1970s, “we were certain the city was done for then. After 9/11 we were certain it was done for. Again, after the great recession of 2008-9. It’s not to say these crises don’t matter; they do. They alter the course of the city, accelerate changes already under way and cast a light on living conditions. But New York has a long history of overcoming its crises.”

What is undeniable about the pandemic, he says, is how it has exposed the “cruel inequalities of living conditions between white, more affluent residents and people of color, immigrant and lower-income residents. The unfairness of it is clear and people’s sense of that has been sharpened.

“As some people worried about gaining 15lb during Covid, others were worried about getting infected by their next customer, and those people were disproportionately immigrants and people of color living in crowded conditions in which the virus spread more readily.”

new york public school
‘Kids in public school were denied a year of education and nourishment that they usually get and the effect is horrendous,’ said Petra Moser of New York University. Photograph: Niyi Fote/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Petra Moser, an economist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, says long-term effects of the pandemic will take years to tease out. “The most salient effect is in schooling. The poor kids in public school were hit really hard. They were denied a year of education and nourishment that they usually get and the effect is horrendous.

“You’ve got kids staring at a screen for hours a day for a year. Not only did they lose their teachers for a year, but they may now be able to concentrate less because they haven’t been fed,” Moser adds.

Other aspects of the pandemic that could affect New York’s comeback include the role of women, who have dropped out of the workforce in disproportionately high numbers. “This pandemic has the danger of pushing women out, and we’re in danger of losing young women with kids who had to stay home. We’ll see greater inequality in that area and we’ll have to be careful to make sure to encourage them to stay in the workforce or come back.”

Concerns about the value of the commercial real estate, says Moser, pale in comparison with the costs incurred during the pandemic in terms of human capital.

“There could be an increase in inequalities unless there are specific policies to help public school kids catch up, and to help mothers who had to cut back on work. The vitality of the city depends on everybody having a fair shot, because the point of living in a place like this is that comes with opportunities.”


Edward Helmore in New York

The GuardianTramp

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