Why did some Americans Seem to Hope COVID would Kill Cities?Historians in the News
tags: public health, urban history, COVID-19, Anti-Urbanism
From the moment U.S. coronavirus cases emerged in the Seattle area and then devastated New York City last spring, sweeping predictions about the future of city life followed. Density was done for. An exodus to the suburbs and small towns would ensue. Transit would become obsolete. The appeal of a yard and a home office would trump demand for bustling urban spaces. And Zoom would replace the in-person connections that give big cities their economic might.
The pandemic promised nothing short of the End of Cities, a prophecy foretold by pundits, tweets and headlines, at times with unveiled schadenfreude.
If the past year has laid bare many underlying forces in society, this was another one: a deep-rooted discomfort — suspicion, even — about urban life in America. But now city sidewalks are returning to life, pandemic migration patterns have become clearer, and researchers have dispelled early fears that density is a primary driver of Covid-19. So it is perhaps a good time to ask: What is so alluring about the perpetually imminent End of Cities?
Why won’t that idea itself die?
In America, it has been like a virus strain mutating to the moment: Surely disease will kill cities, or congestion will, or corruption, or suburbanization, or fiscal crises, or technology, or crime, or terrorism, or this pandemic (unlike all the pandemics that came before it).
Inevitably, the city survives. And yet so does the belief it will fall next time. The Upshot asked more than a dozen people who think a lot about cities — historians, economists, sociologists and urban policy experts — about the strange staying power of this narrative.
“Anti-urbanism is an American religion, practiced widely and frequently in ordinary times, and passionately when cities are actually in trouble,” wrote Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at N.Y.U.
That ideological strand is particularly American and goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson. Cities have been associated with corruption and inseparable from stereotypes about immigrants and African Americans. They’ve been viewed as unhealthy places to live, particularly for families, said Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor of urban policy and planning, also at N.Y.U.
Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington, suggested that gloom about cities over the past year was also an extension of the prepandemic critique that cities like Seattle and New York had become too crowded, too expensive and too unequal — “that they became increasingly unsustainable places for many people to live.” The pandemic both laid bare those trends and accelerated many of them, she said.
“The reasonable sense that something has gone terribly wrong in great American cities intersects with the catastrophic effects of Covid,” said A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, a historian at Penn State. And that made it seem, if not appealing, perhaps reasonable to some to see the emptying of city streets during the pandemic “as some kind of retribution.”
Of course, that view — treating the city as an abstract thing that can be corrupted and then punished for its sins — ignores that the pandemic retribution fell on cities’ most vulnerable residents, he added.
comments powered by Disqus
- Indentured Students: Elizabeth Tandy Shermer on Student Debt (Monday, October 4)
- The Last Good Neighbor: Mexico in the Global Sixties (Washington History Seminar, Mon. 9/27)
- Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience (Thursday, 9/23)
- Traveling Black: Mia Bay Joins the Washington History Seminar, September 20
- Why are Historians Facing Online Abuse Over Whether Atlantis Existed?