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What Will Normal Look Like for New York City Post-Pandemic?

The country’s most populated city is changing fast, but how can it prevent a mass exodus?

Photo by Tom Coe via Unsplash

This time last year, New York City looked the way it does in the movies: bustling streets, crowded subway cars, romantic museums and vibrant nightlife. Now, the city that never sleeps is quieter, bike lanes are more crowded and cultural institutions are slowly awakening from a virus-induced slumber. Dupé O. Ajayi, intersectional marketing strategist at The ShedEric Clement, managing director of the Strategic Investments Group at the New York City Economic Development CorporationWill Butler-Adams, CEO of Brompton Bicycle Ltd., and Kathleen Entwistle, private wealth advisor at Morgan Stanley Private Wealth Management recently joined Worth to discuss how one of the most visited and inclusive cities in the U.S. is changing now.

With New York City as a hotbed for the virus at the start of the pandemic, many businesses and operations were quickly thrown into working at a chaotic level to sort things out. Clement experienced this firsthand.

“From March, I would say, until about the end of May, my days, as with most people I see, were 7:30, 8:00 a.m. to 1:00, 2:00 a.m. consistently, because…and you don’t really think about these things, but working at the Economic Development Corporation, basically, everything was getting thrown at us,” Clement said. “So, it’s no secret, like we had said, New York City was the epicenter, so then it was like, ‘OK, well, what are we doing about PPE and what about other medical supplies? The federal government isn’t helping us, so are we going to do this ourselves? Do we have the money to do this ourselves? Where’s the money going to come from?’”

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But as the city has flattened the curve, things are changing once again to meet the moment.

“I would say since then, now that we’ve flattened the curve and it starts to come down, we are focused on this longer-term recovery,” Clement said. “So, what investments do we as a city need to make in small businesses, with businesses in general, to make sure that everybody doesn’t get shut down…I mean this is definitely the moment, anyway until we have a vaccine. Life is just going to look a little bit different. So, we’re trying to do what we can, working with the SBA, working here within the city across agencies to see where it is that we can make it best, propping up community development, [working with] financial institutions on making investments in low- and moderate-income areas. Everybody needs help.”

Institutions around New York have also had to pivot how they do business during this time. The Shed was getting ready to open a production in March called Help, which would discuss racial issues and injustices, when they found out they had to close.

“Unlike many arts institutions, we didn’t have a collection to lean upon and to look to when it came to us going into quarantine,” Ajayi said. “And so, we had to create, and about a month later, we launched Up Close, which is our digital offering. [We] had a tremendous response to Up Close, and one of the most special things about it has been that…it is very current. It’s timely. It’s speaking to where we are as New Yorkers in this very moment and time. At the same time, it created an opportunity for artists, everything, all of the works are focused on New York artists, which is what makes it super special.”

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Help was set to debut prior to the murder of George Floyd. The play was relevant back in March, but now it fits the moment we’re in now precisely.

“It’s interesting because the very topic of Help, the tagline was, or is, ‘What are white men thinking?’ And this was before all of this happened and the murder of George Floyd, and it was dealing with issues around how a black woman moves in the world, being surrounded, sometimes in very white spaces and having to deal with that, and it is kind of the irony of that, as we were preparing and we were a month in and then George Floyd was murdered,” Ajayi said. “We have always been thinking about how we talk about these issues that matter to us as human beings, that are timely, as I mentioned, and of now. But even more so now we realize the importance in our work and how we can be responsive to what’s happening right now.”

New York City has been rapidly evolving over the last few months, and part of this evolution involves public transit. Riding the subway was once a no-brainer for New Yorkers, but now many are moving toward cycling as a way of avoiding crowds on what historically were incredibly packed subways and buses. Brompton has experienced a huge surge in demand for bicycles because of this.

“It has been quite a challenge, we’ve sort of gone from famine to feast, and now we’re in a situation where the demand globally, and it is a global demand, is tremendous because the feelings everyone’s feeling in New York, in terms of fear about public transport, is the same in Jakarta, it’s the same in London, it’s the same in Tokyo,” Butler-Adams said. “But the global manufacturing capability can’t just suddenly jump, so we’re in a situation where, for at least the next 12 months, there just isn’t going to be enough capacity to supply this demand. We want to change how people live in cities. That’s an easy thing to say, it’s quite a difficult thing to do and particularly, if you look at New York, you have Manhattan Island. It’s a beautiful island. It’s like it’s a perfect sort of environment for people to live in and yet, the air quality is terrible and yet there are challenges with mental and physical health.”

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And while the city is changing to meet the moment, there is also a fear that there will be an exodus of people leaving the city. The Economic Development Corporation’s All in NYC campaign is aiming to keep that from happening.

“Everybody knows New York, like most major cities, had a tough go of it,” Clement said. “That said, my opinion—I know I’m biased obviously—New York is the place to be, and the All in NYC campaign is a partnership with NYC & Co., which is the city’s tourism agency to basically talk about that—why is New York City the place to work, to live, to invest? There are a number of reasons for that…I know things are a little tough right now, but it’s not going to be like this forever.”

So, as our moderator, Worth CEO Juliet Scott-Croxford, asked: How do we show the world that New York is still a great place to live and do business in?

“From my standpoint, the marketing is great, but we have to actually convince people,” Entwistle said. “There’s the process, and there’s benefits to doing it, but we’ve got to make that happen because what I’m seeing just socially is people who have lived in New York for a long time are literally giving up their apartments in the city, and they’re moving to the suburbs right now. There’s a mass exodus that can be damaging unless we can turn that around, and when people leave the city, and when companies don’t have their employees coming into buildings, then the revenues start to go down…It’s a big challenge but there’s ways to work through it over time and, again, if you have that ability to draw from other resources, even the government, even the State of New York, for the time being, if there’s a place to access that liquidity to get through this rough patch, everybody will be fine in six or 12 or 24 months, I would imagine. That would be my bet.”

“I think we need to make our cities wonderful places to live,” Butler-Adams added. “They need to be amazing; they need to be free. They need to be gorgeous. You need to open the door and the children charge out. You need to make the people live in it. At the moment, the people are getting out of the city because they’ve been stuck in a tiny flat for three months, and this isn’t the end of the coronavirus…We need to rethink how we live our cities and make them wonderful places to live, vibrant, interesting, artistic and draw people in, draw the young in, draw the talent in and make people feel welcome. Stuffing a city full of metal boxes, stress, anger, air pollution, that’s not the way to have a city. They’re where most of us live. Cities need to be the most beautiful places to live, full of culture and diversity and richness, and that’s what we need to think.”

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