It helps to remember why so many Americans (and people worldwide) live in cities. For centuries people have flocked to New York, to Paris, to Rome, to Berlin, to Shanghai, to Los Angeles. They have come seeking jobs, seeking companionship, seeking freedom, seeking love. In these pandemic days it does well to remember what it is that makes urban dwellers committed, even as so much press today is being devoted to urban flight. It’s not just the theater, or the restaurants, or the visits to Yankee Stadium. Our attraction to cities depends on some more fundamental characteristics:
- Cities foment change. New ideas are born within the crucible of the melting pot. With so many people living cheek by jowl with one another, different ideas inevitably bubble up, come into contact with one another, and synthesize, creating new societal directions.
- Cities are liberal. “Liberal” means open to new ideas; its root comes from the word “liberty.” Liberalism embraces the notion of people thinking differently and co-existing comfortably. It is this trait that has, over the years, drawn so many different types of people from so many different backgrounds to a place like New York. There is a like-minded group for you in the city if you are black or white, gay or straight, a professional athlete or a professional musician or a professional model, from Wuhan or Wyoming. This diversity also foments the discussion, the argument, which leads to the change described above.
- Cities are both anonymous and embracing. Just as people have flocked to cities throughout history to find like-minded people, others choose them because they offer a kind of invisibility. Amidst so many, it’s not hard to choose to be invisible. The lonely city painted by Edward Hopper and the crowded city painted by George Bellows are both the same city.
- Job opportunities in cities exceed those elsewhere. Why do people from all over the world move from their original birthplaces to cities? Of course, much of it has to do with employment; jobs tend to cluster in cities. Even with the advent of Zoom, most people still want to return to the office (according to a recent Gensler survey, only 12% of those asked indicated that they wanted to continue working full time from home.) And the majority of those offices are still clustered in urban areas. When the dust settles, people will still be moving to urban centers for work.
- Cities attract communities of affinity. For decades, if not centuries, those who felt outcast in their home environments have gravitated to cities. Here, there are others like you, regardless of what you love. Whatever your social, artistic, sexual, or spare-time proclivities are, others in your city share them in a way that can’t be guaranteed in your home town. Plus, by and large, no one’s watching.
Urban populations ebb and flow. Today, many have decided to postpone returning to their urban lives as long as they have reasonable alternatives. Others are deciding to quit urban life altogether. As that happens, people are always moving in. They come for jobs, they come for community, they come because New York will always remain a melting pot of opportunity. Especially as more reasonable immigration laws re-open our borders to seekers from the world over, and our cities continue to embrace seekers from all over the country, American urban areas will continue to showcase the values which made us the country we are. The world over, cities will struggle, but they will rise.