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The Coronavirus Is Tearing Apart the American City

After the pandemic, the rich will barricade themselves further. National chains will supplant local businesses. And the gig economy will explode.

ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

In early March, as Covid-19 became a national concern, the wealthy began fleeing the cities. They lit out for their luxury cottages in the Scottish Highlands and to survivalist camps in rural South Dakota, where private companies are hawking luxe bunkers for the low, low price of $100,000. They fanned out to their vacation homes in the Catskills and the Hamptons, where they emptied the shelves of the small grocery stores and put locals at risk of contracting the disease. Municipal airports were swarmed with private planes; jet charters received a large uptick in inquiries. The rich fled because they could, while most Americans—those who lack second homes or private jets—stayed behind, in cities that suddenly looked like ghost towns, because they had no choice, and nowhere else to go.

The rich have always had what you might call a moat mentality, a need to barricade themselves away from the masses. In the eighteenth century, they escaped to their estates in the French and English countrysides to hunt and cavort. In the twentieth, they bought homes in the first gated suburban communities, hollowing out cities that were once colorful bastions of melding ethnicities and classes. When city governments began passing inclusionary zoning codes to rectify the problem, developers created “poor doors”—concealed entryways by which underprivileged tenants could enter and exit without disturbing their wealthy neighbors. Even contemporary projects like Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, which developers had pitched as “urban placemaking”—the craft of curating useful, equitable public space—turned out to be anything but; the luxury condos ended up costing millions, and at one point, there was even a plan to build a wall fencing the complex off from parts of the city. (What’s worse, developers got more than $1 billion the state had earmarked for poor areas.)

With such developments and an army of delivery, shopping, and rideshare apps, it has never been easier for the rich to avoid the poor. They have transformed our cities, and now they have fled them. But what happens when they come back?

Soon, corner stores and other local institutions will make way for outposts of global chains. The streets will be emptier than they were before—except, of course, for the bicycles and delivery trucks that fuel the gig economy. Even our homes will change. More than ever, the wealthy want to avoid being in contact with strangers, now seen as vectors of a decimating plague. Apartment buildings, already sequestered off by locked call boxes rather than open lobbies, will soon feature even more private entrances to add yet another barrier to entry. Cameras, private security forces, and other surveillance state infrastructure will flourish. This is what many wealthy people have wanted all along; the difference now is that they can disguise class conflict in the language of cleanliness and safety. 

Is solidarity possible in such an atomized environment? As public space becomes increasingly privatized through plans like Hudson Yards, there will be fewer places to protest, and as apps replace workplaces, there will be fewer opportunities for workers to organize. But despite social distancing, people are already fighting back against further erosion of civil society. Instacart workers are organizing against the abuse of their labor rights. Tenants in cities around the country, unable to pay their rent, are organizing rent strikes; they’re also putting the pressure on city officials to close rent courts and suspend evictions until the end of the crisis. By putting their foot down, the members of the urban precariat are showing that they, too, have a right to the city and its spaces. Imagine the possibilities if these efforts were made permanent. Imagine cities where the urban way of life is propped up not by opportunistic companies and individuals, but by us, its citizens. The rich may think they own the city, but when they leave, they expose the reality of the situation: They merely rent it—from all of us.