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New York City’s Resilience and Post-COVID Recovery

By Dr. Steven Cohen, Senior Vice Dean, School of Professional Studies; Professor in the Practice of Public Affairs, School of International and Public Affairs

Today, it is once again 9-11 here in New York City, Washington D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where thousands of innocents died and many Americans demonstrated great bravery twenty-two very short years ago on September 11th, 2001. For New Yorkers, it is a day we cannot and should not ever forget.

New York City’s decline was predicted in the 1970s, 1990s after 9-11, and yet again in the post-pandemic era we now live in. Reports of our demise are always greatly exaggerated. The city has its problems today, but its energy, work ethic, brainpower, and sheer determination always ensure its revival. When the garment factories closed, artists, galleries, restaurants, stores, and designers literally took their places in what are now called Tribeca and Soho. Today’s half-empty midtown offices are tomorrow’s who knows what—but definitely something.

In the aftermath of COVID, the city’s midtown population mix has changed, as have commuting and work patterns. With our national political dialogue frozen, issues like immigration cannot be addressed. While some parts of the nation shun new arrivals, other parts—like New York City—struggle but still welcome the foreign-born. New Yorkers like me remember our grandparents’ stories of Ellis Island and the challenges they faced when they came to America to make a better life. We see ourselves in these new arrivals. New York City is again facing a period of challenge. This is not a new story, but rather the return to an old, unwelcomed part of the city’s cycles of boom and bust. One cannot avoid seeing the empty storefronts, homeless people sleeping in doorways, and dangerous-looking arguments in subway cars. We New Yorkers don’t drive past our problems; we live with them. If 100,000 immigrants need a place to start their American dream, we may not like it, but many of us feel it’s our duty as New Yorkers to lend a hand.

For sixty of the seventy years I’ve been around, I’ve lived in New York City. I’ve also lived in Indiana, Buffalo, West Virginia, and Washington D.C. I loved those places and learned from their people, but I always knew that New York City was my only home. I love New York, and I love its people. Forty percent of New York’s residents were born in other countries (not counting those here illegally). Two million of our residents speak Spanish in their homes and about a half million speak Chinese. We have a million undergraduate and graduate students, beautiful parks, amazing culture and nightlife, and the awesome buzz of energy from over eight million people who feed off each other’s freedom and sense of purpose. We’ve seen empty factories, offices, and storefronts before, and eventually, they’ll be repurposed. The rents will go down, and new economic functions will become possible in newly available space. Wait and see. New York City’s neighborhoods constantly circulate and change.

I always say that New York City is a strikingly seasonal place. As a creature of New York’s public school system and an academic through most of my career, my year starts the Tuesday after Labor Day and continues until either Memorial Day or July 4th. Before air conditioning and even to this day, many people head to the nearby beach or the mountains for all or parts of the summer. As a kid, when school ended on June 30, we packed a U-Haul trailer and headed up to a bungalow colony in Kerhonkson, New York. Later, my parents owned a small place in Putnam County near Lake Secor, New York. As an adult, my summer weekends since 1988 have been spent on the West End of Long Beach, New York. But once Labor Day hits, we close our summer home and, along with many others, return to “the city.” New York City’s population swells and grows with residents and tourists, and the place gets more and more intense until Thanksgiving, when we pause for turkey, family, and the parade. We then slow down work for the holidays and new year until the big ball drops on Times Square. People try to escape the cold if they can with the December holidays and school breaks in February; and while the pace picks up in the spring, before long, summer resumes and things ease off a bit as the cycle continues. New York’s peak intensity is hit between Labor Day and Turkey Day.

Growing up in New York, the mass transit system was our magic gateway to the entire city. My friends and I had the freedom, from what today might seem like a very young age, to use mass transit to discover the city. I rode a bus the length of Flatbush Avenue to explore the stacks of the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch at Grand Army Plaza. We took the subway to the Village, Central Park, and Yankee Stadium. My friends and I rode our bikes to Riis Park and Brighton Beach. We played baseball in Marine Park, stick ball on our own street, and explored the places and people of this ever-changing city.

New Yorkers adjust to the times and resources available to them. Before the internet, political activists set up card tables on Brooklyn’s Kings Highway to sell political campaign and cause-related buttons and bumper stickers and to distribute leaflets pushing political views and propaganda. Today, all that organizing is done on social media. If we’d had the internet in the 1960s and 70s, my friends and I wouldn’t have had to lug boxes of pamphlets on the subway from printers in Manhattan to our card tables in Brooklyn. One constant is that the best musicians in the world always perform here. As a teenager, I saw the Band play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Stones play at Madison Square Garden with Ike and Tina Turner as the warm-up act. Tourists had not yet arrived in big numbers, so you could spend an afternoon lost in museums, botanical gardens, zoos, and other sites and see exhibits in depth. When I was 15 years old, I took a college course at the New School in civil disobedience. I read Gandhi, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King and learned strategies of political organizing that I put to work as a high school antiwar activist. The museums may be more crowded today, but they are larger and more professionally managed than ever. And high school kids are still taking courses at New York City’s many universities.

The point here is that the city that never sleeps also never stops. It’s a high-energy, dynamic, change machine. This was true half a century ago, and it is true today. People come here because they know that this is the largest job market in the world’s largest economy. New York City’s iconic images are seen in movies and on social media, and the city is always globally visible. Many people struggle in New York, but when you have this many people crowded together, humans tend to help each other when they see need. I think, at a personal level, this is true of most Americans and of people all over the world. We saw that here during COVID, after 9-11, and after Hurricane Sandy.

On this September 11th, I think back to the brilliant blue sky on that late summer morning in 2001 and the unthinkable horror of that day. The silence on Broadway. The smoke cloud drifting north, and the jet fighters circling the city. But I also remember the brave first responders heading to the Trade Center, their ultimate sacrifices, and people helping people as they ran to safety through the gray and white dust of destruction. And I think of a city in stunned, shocked silence, managing to find community and finally rebuild and recover. Over two decades later, we should remember what we came back from and be fully confident that if we could create a post-9-11 New York City, we can certainly create a post-COVID city as well.

This article was originally published in State of the Planet.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute, or Columbia University.

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The Columbia University M.S. in Sustainability Management provides students cutting-edge policy and management tools they can use to help public and private organizations and governments address environmental impacts and risks, pollution control, and remediation to achieve sustainability. The program is customized for working professionals and is offered as both a full- and part-time course of study.