May 26, 2020

NIALL FERGUSON: Dim lights, big city.

My mother and I rarely disagree. Last Christmas, however, we got into an argument about where she should live.

Me: Living in this little Oxfordshire village is not giving you enough stimulation. You should move to London. Think of how much easier it would be to go to the theater and to art galleries.

Her: No, no. I am very happy here. In London, I would need to have a smaller place, whereas here I have my garden.

Me: But soon the garden will be too much work for you. Some of my elderly friends in the United States opted to retire to New York precisely because they didn’t need so much space. And it’s in the nature of a big city that you get to see more people.

Her: I don’t want to see more people.

She won the argument, needless to say — and thank God she did. I wake up at night in a cold sweat, imagining where we would be now if (for the first time in her life) she had given in to me and moved to London shortly after that conversation. For nothing could have illustrated with more shocking clarity the perils of big city life — especially for someone in her 80s — than the coronavirus pandemic.

As Michael Lind writes in “Back to the Future:”

In the last generation, cities like New York, San Francisco and London were revitalized by the influx of the rich and glamorous and the price-driven expulsion of their working-class and poor residents. But the romance of early 21st-century megalopolitan life is gone for all but the hardiest bohemians. Yesterday’s buzzing hipster neighborhood is today’s simmering Petri dish.

If you are rich and you assume that future pandemics or variants of COVID-19 could sweep the world at any time, that house in the Hamptons may look better as a permanent residence than the overpriced sliver apartment in ultra-dense New York City, which to date has accounted for about a third of all US coronavirus deaths. You don’t share an air-conditioning system and elevator with neighbors, and there is room in the garage for an extra freezer stocked with emergency supplies and a small arsenal for dealing with plague-mutated zombies.

At least in New York, there will always be some members of the urban wealthy elite who will refuse to move no matter what. The coronavirus could accelerate the hollowing-out trend that has been happening for decades in blue cities and states: a wealthy elite, a poor underclass, and a middle class that flees. Better get going on those Welcome Wagon kits, conservative and libertarian billionaires.

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