Neighborhoods Are Keeping City Life Alive

While Americans have been worn down by a constant focus on health, safety, and economic security, city dwellers have seen their neighborhoods come together in new ways. Seiji Carpenter, 40, lives in the bottom floors of a brownstone in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn with his partner and 10-month-old baby.

A pollster for progressive political candidates, he’s never considered himself part of the “New York-or-bust” camp.

“New York was always great in part because of music, theater, food, shows, and when that wasn’t accessible anymore, there was a little crisis of confidence,” he says. “Is it awesome without these things?”

But the process of going through both the lockdown and recent protests in support of Black Lives Matter made him feel more connected to his life in Brooklyn. During the nightly salute to first responders — for many weeks, the only time he’d leave his home — Carpenter enjoyed seeing an Argentinian man on the corner play drums on his doorstep. During a bike protest, he was awed at the crowds that gathered to cheer riders. And he says watching the white-clad Black Trans Lives Matter protest with a crowd of nearly 15,000 in front of the Brooklyn Museum was a “powerful moment.”

“It’s complicated, as race politics and gentrification are. But I feel there’s more of a sense of community across class and race lines in the city than there was before,” he says, “This has shifted my relationship to New York, Brooklyn, and to our neighborhood in particular.”

Across the nation, there has been a boom in neighborly care. The rise in mutual aid groups and community fridges underscore how neighbors band together to feed and provide for those in need. Limited social interactions are buoyed by park hangs, street drinking, and the various ways small businesses are reclaiming streets and sidewalks. In my neighborhood in Los Angeles, where flyers for community support groups are taped to lampposts, an office parking lot has become a de facto scooter track for socially distanced play.

“New York was always great in part because of music, theater, food, shows…Is it awesome without these things?”

But for many small businesses — especially niche operations that provide character to a city neighborhood — the economic fallout of the pandemic has been brutal. The Independent Restaurant Coalition estimates roughly 85% of the nation’s independently owned restaurants may close by the end of 2020, with Black-owned businesses being hit the hardest.

Randall Felts will tell you that community is one of the few things keeping his business afloat in Chicago. The 39-year-old opened up a cheese shop called Beautiful Rind in Logan Square, a center of the city’s culinary and cultural scene that has seen a boom in luxury apartment buildings. Felts’ store, which passed its final inspections the day before the city’s March 20 lockdown, is on the ground floor of one such building. The initial idea for the store was to be upscale yet accessible, with tastings and a classroom for live events. During the lockdown and gradual reopening, Felts has managed to pivot and stay afloat. He’s teaching online classes while retail sales are booming — cheese can be a comfort food during an uncertain time, he says.

Community sentiment and crowdfunding likely won’t save everyone’s favorite store or regular bar; there are still bigger questions about the future of urban real estate. Space quickly becomes a proxy for economic activity. Will we have a glut of unused restaurants and stores? Will companies survive and still want a downtown location? Will anyone work in an office again? Companies are shedding square footage, leading to fears of a glut — though CBRE, a national office broker, believes most companies will pursue phased reopenings, with prices in most markets recovering by 2022.

Michael Colacino, CEO of SquareFoot, a commercial real estate brokerage in New York City, says he’s seen a considerable drop in demand since the lockdown began on March 25. In Midtown Manhattan, an office stronghold, demand has been cut in half. But he’s also seeing more and more companies, especially in tech and private equity, begin evolving into a “hub and spoke” model, ditching a sizeable central office for a series of smaller locations, often set up on or near transit lines. This shift in urban geography, which favors neighborhoods like downtown Brooklyn, or areas in Queens near train lines, means more workers may be able to bike to work and live a more neighborhood-centric existence.

Frey says the shifts we’re seeing right now may accelerate one of the last decade’s lasting trends: The growth of more affordable mid-size U.S. cities like Austin, Nashville, Salt Lake City, and Madison, Wisconsin. Others see sky-high rents in coastal cities coming back to earth. San Francisco rents have been in free fall. In New York City, while home sales volume has dropped precipitously, rents have inched down 1.8% over the last three months.

⁠And what about the work-from-home revolution? Research from Upwork, a remote talent network, found that in April half of the U.S. workforce was remote⁠. But Kenan Fikri of the Economic Innovation Group says that while the radical experiment in working from home has proven workers can do it, no big corporation has successfully proven people can innovate, or build professional networks from home. (Although some tech firms, such as 37 Signals, would disagree.) Co-workers still need to congregate somewhere other than Zoom. People still need each other.

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