I have a photo on my phone, taken right before the pandemic, of my toddler son laying on the floor in the middle of an aisle at the grocery store, playing with a toy car. Passersby chuckled as they scooted around him with their shopping carts. It feels like it was taken a lifetime ago. I nervously laughed at the time about his silly obliviousness. But now, I shudder at the thought of even letting him wander around such a public place without a mask.
It seems impossible that the world was so wide open only a few months ago. I think about all of the tight spaces we squeezed into with total strangers, chatting and breathing all over one other. I almost cringe thinking about it. But I certainly miss the closeness! I long for the innocence and lack of anxiety about germs.
I keep reminding myself that this is all temporary.
I have a cousin, Cici Pandol, who is studying for her MBA at the University of Michigan. Before the pandemic, she secured a summer internship with the Clorox company. What an odd turn of events, to be working for a company known for its disinfectants in the middle of a world health crisis, the worst virus outbreak in a century.
When Covid hit, her internship turned into a remote one, which made for a different experience. The way she describes it, Clorox made every effort to provide a meaningful few weeks, pairing interns with mentors, providing interactions with C-suite executives, organizing virtual programs like baking classes and wine tasting. They even brought in the recording artists Chromeo who put out a Covid-inspired album with the song "Clorox Wipe" on it, performing the song live for the team. One benefit she noticed was that she had a lot of uninterrupted time to think and plan for projects; in an office setting there are more interruptions. She felt that her work was stronger, though at the expense of deeper relationships.
The demand for Clorox disinfecting products while she interned there increased 500%. Many of us are scrubbing and disinfecting every surface we can.
While it may feel suddenly unnatural to crowd together in city centers, Pandol explains that her plans to move to a big city post-graduation have remained unchanged. With so many in isolation, dense urban centers offer lots of friends close by. She loves exploring and living in walkable places and doesn’t predict a shift for her generation in the long run.
Similarly wistful about my own travels, I’ve been revisiting memories from all of the trips I’ve taken over the last few years. I loved wandering the cozy streets of Copenhagen, gorging on pasta and red wine at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome, clinking glasses in crowded cafes in Paris and zipping around Budapest in a steamy taxi.
The energy and excitement that pulled me into all of these places are not what they once were. Even so, as soon as this virus poses less of a threat, there will be pent-up demand to gather together in communal settings again.
Jerry Seinfeld, the famous comedian who lives with his family in Manhattan, recently wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times, “So you think New York is ‘dead’.” In it, he responds to a provocative LinkedIn post by James Altucher, a hedge-fund manager who owns an Upper West Side standup comedy club where Seinfeld occasionally appears, titled “New York is dead forever — here’s why.”
Seinfeld defended his city, explaining that “real, live inspiring human energy exists when we coagulate together.”
“You think Rome is going away too? London? Tokyo? The East Village?” Seinfeld retorts. “They’re not. They change. They mutate. They re-form. Because greatness is rare.”
This is how I feel about people who act like cities are canceled. I am confident that they will not dissolve anytime soon. Downtowns across the country look different than they did six months ago, but their spirit remains. Cities are bastions of civilization, collections of art and culture, hubs of trade and commerce, and they have been all of this for thousands of years. Who are we to think that the experience of this moment is destructive enough to reverse all that?
NPR’s WHYY station in Philadelphia recently reported: “The good news for people worried about the fate of cities after this pandemic is that despite a force of nature that wants to pull people at least six feet apart, urban centers remain stubbornly magnetic places.”
The basic urban form and the dense mixing and mingling of life and commerce has stayed the same, WHYY reported. This has remained true through previous episodes that pulled against this basic civic gravity: from war to prior epidemics, terrorism and intentional, societal dispersal.
“All through history, cities and the smaller urban places that share their DNA of physical connectedness, have created enough value to pull people back together over the long run,” said Greg Krykewycz, an associate director for multimodal planning at Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, for an interview on WHYY. This is why cities survive pandemics, he explained.
While it is plausible, if not expected, that downtowns big and small will be imprinted with the marks of this shared tragedy once it is over, the lessons of history and human nature instruct that the pull of urban centers will remain.