There’s a lot of talk on the interwebs these days about the mass exodus from big cities. The riots. The looting. The arson. The migration of frightened people seeking safety in the hinterland… Roll the video loops of terrified white ladies clutching their pearls. The financial district is dead. The towers are empty. You can count the humans downtown on your fingers on any weekday. But the reality is more nuanced than suburbanites or country folks grasp. We aren’t seeing the end of cities and the triumph of the outskirts. Instead we’re experiencing a complex patchwork of winners and losers everywhere.
It’s Labor Day weekend and the parks are full. A walk around my neighborhood this afternoon revealed scenes of pleasant family picnics, not the Zombie Apocalypse. California is in the grip of yet another heat wave and San Franciscans who are used to cool fog are coping with 91F / 33C degree weather in the shade of mature trees and garden umbrellas. We’re fortunate to not be getting the 115F / 46C elsewhere in the state this week.
The sidewalks are full of people enjoying being out in the world. We’ve all had plenty of time at home thank you very much. We need a break from domesticity. Most people wear masks. Those who object to the public mingling self select out of the hubbub. The restaurants that managed to hang on through these last six months of mandatory shutdowns have adapted and outdoor dining is in full swing. Parking spots have been converted into outdoor dining rooms. Municipal regulations and liquor licenses were magically altered in record time in the face of plummeting tax revenue and soaring unemployment. Things that were “impossible” last year somehow happened in a matter of weeks.
I have no illusions about the ongoing dynamics here. Come January when it’s cold and rainy (if we’re fortunate enough to get rain this winter) these sidewalk cafes and al fresco bars are going to have a much harder time clinging to life. Even on a good day in high summer no restaurant can remain profitable with significantly fewer seats than their original capacity. But it’s worth noting that not every part of every city is a hell-scape of death and destruction. There are still people who remain and actually want to be here, warts and all. And the places that are doing the best are the places that were built for ordinary people a century ago, not corporate branded mega projects or tourist accommodations.
I occasionally have reason to drive out to the suburbs. While I’m cruising down the eight lane arterials I check out the situation on the periphery. If downtown San Francisco is a ghost town then what do we call all the dead malls and comatose retail and restaurant pods? The news is full of reports of bankruptcies, mass layoffs, and nationwide “rightsizing” of such establishments. Malls and franchise retail were failing long before Covid emerged, but the pandemic provided swift humane euthanasia. The sad hand written signs inviting people to enjoy $5 pizza at Chuck E. Cheese is a fitting requiem.
Attempts to adapt to new circumstances in suburbia are not working as well as had been hoped. Ordering ahead of time and collecting merchandise at the curb is perhaps the worse possible combination of bad internet shopping and clumsy queueing in a giant parking lot. All it does is remind you of how bleak these concrete bunkers and their associated asphalt aprons really are when you aren’t inside of them. And does anyone believe the suburban stadium style movie theaters are ever coming back now that film studios like Disney have gone direct to streaming?
Macy’s. Dead. Sears. Dead. JC Penny. Dead. I love the contrast between the noble brass plaque commemorating over a century of business and the flimsy hastily applied plastic banner unconvincingly declaring that the store is still technically open. What will happen to these malls when the inevitable full shut down arrives? Retail is a premier source of tax revenue for many suburban municipalities. Property tax from homes never comes close to covering all the local government services and critical infrastructure. As physical retail dies the ‘burbs are going to have a rude fiscal awakening and they’re no better prepared for it than big cities.
How exactly do you retrofit a restaurant pod out on the penumbra into a sidewalk cafe? There’s no end to the open outdoor space for seating so there must be an advantage over a crowded city street, right? Perhaps these places will thrive. But the qualities that make charming desirable places work are absent here. They’re too exposed and the space is too poorly defined. I may be projecting my urban bias here. These design considerations may not matter to the self selecting populations that prefer suburbia. Time will tell. But I’m guessing the kinds of people who like to keep their distance from strangers and spread out in a vast parking lot near empty buildings are probably content to cook dinner at home or have Chinese food delivered. Can restaurants survive on delivery alone? We’ll know soon enough.
The big box stores are booming. Home Depot, Target, Costco, Lowe’s, Walmart… Their sales are way up as a result of all the chaos in the world. But the smaller suburban shops that are hot glued to them in the same complexes are mostly empty. What does all this really mean? The economy has radically bifurcated. We’re not seeing the end of cities or the glorious ascension of lower density habitats. Instead, we’re witnessing a great diagonal slice across society. For every giant winner there are a whole lot more losers. This is the K shaped recovery. And as all the little failures tip each other over like dominoes the consequences are going to ramify and compound each other in unpleasant ways. Don’t expect your corner of the world to escape unscathed.