Maybe We Were the Smart Ones

Someone recently asked our team, “So, will New York ever be ‘New York’ again?”

His question was meant to evoke the New York of literature, of Broadway, of music, and art, a place full of history and culture. After months and months of shut-down, will it all rise again?

The answer is no. No, it will not all rise again. Some businesses are gone for good, some ideals shattered, and some conceptions will never find full life. And, as much as it will be debated, the old version of New York just isn’t needed anymore.

People have found that you don’t have to live in New York to work in New York. You don’t actually have to live in any major city for many desk jobs these days. Which means all that culture can spread throughout the country in a way never imagined, ending pockets of creativity and opening up the nation to build on its strengths in new ways.

New York was, for many, a goal. It was proof that you could make it anywhere, a way to demonstrate success, and the kind of place that was rarely “home”—but was where you wanted to be anyway.

Until, it wasn’t. Once the pandemic shuttered everything great about New York, including its restaurant life, what was left? Its heart is really in the struggle, the fruition, the creation and the fulfillment—the back and forth of life that generates hope, excitement, and the belief that anything can happen. That’s New York—and it doesn’t require the geographic location to make it happen anymore. That’s the reality of technology support, new attitudes about remote work, and a desire to create home nearer to the people you love.

One of the last times I was in New York, over years of frequent travels there, a rat ran across my foot as I walked down the street. My coworker and I watched it in semi-horror as it ran down the nearby steps to some underground location, and I had to ask if it wasn’t really a squirrel. It was that big.

Sure, the skyscrapers still hold their penthouse apartments, even if the inhabitants have escaped to the Hamptons. Sure, the diversity is still obvious in its neighborhoods and the few grocery stores that can, at least, deliver. Sure, it is still the New York that gets a lot of news attention and that is still trying hard to cling to its image as the east coast center of the North American universe.

And yet, people have started talking about moving, if not “home,” then to someplace where they can have a yard. Someplace where demonstrations are not an everyday occasion. Someplace where the cost of living aligns more closely with the cost of living in a pandemic. Add in considerations about schooling, and flyover country starts to seem a lot less lame than New Yorkers have tried to make it. Even in, heaven forbid, the suburbs.

The truth is, when business can happen anywhere, what’s the point in living someplace that is—at least to the jaded among us—overpriced, overhyped, and overly indulgent?

Rich Barton, co-founder and CEO of Zillow, reportedly calls it the “Great Reshuffling.” It’s a time when people are rethinking their priorities, looking carefully at their budgets, and examining school districts for opening guidelines and safety, not just curriculum and awards. Something’s got to give.

There’s more discussion:

  • An article written by Melissa Klein at The New York Post starts off with, “The move is on — to leave New York City.”

  • Curbed reports on four women who left New York…and, while there is still a siren call, so to speak, they may never go back.

  • And ABC reports, “Since the banking and the technology companies have said to their people, work from home, there is no need for us to be there to service the mass population,” said Joyce Lilly, as she moved out of her apartment. The same story says, “it’s only a small amount of the 8.3 million population in New York City.”
  • There are even options for remote work that mean leaving the country.

And yet.

Years ago when I worked in the early days of tech, I stayed in the Midwest, for a variety of reasons. Even then, though, most of the people I worked with didn’t know I wasn’t a resident of Redwood Shores or of one of the trending areas of Brooklyn. Even pre-Zoom, it was easy enough to fly in and out for meetings, jump on conference calls, and exchange emails.

Now, it’s completely seamless. On any given day I’m working with people who are virtually tied to an office in Chicago, but live and work from home in Iowa, or Michigan, or a small suburb in Illinois. Same thing with people who are supposedly in San Francisco, LA, Dallas, and, yes, New York.

Could be we were the smart ones to tie our fortunes to middle America, while still taking advantage of the fortunes made in larger cities. Could be we were wise to check out the schools, and the amenities, and the cost of living. Could be we were even right with the idea that you didn’t have to limit yourself to a work “place.”

That doesn’t mean New York won’t be rich and luscious again—at least, if you are among those who can look beyond the rats, the litter-strewn streets, and the expense. It will be forever changed, but I’m the first to admit that when Broadway comes back I hope to be among the first to have a seat.

But in the meantime, until we shuffle again, our local drama is quite enough.