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Kelly Evans: The rise and fall of great cities

CNBC's Kelly Evans
CNBC

A few years back, a strange thing started to happen. I started to feel a little uneasy riding the subway.  

Maybe I'm just getting old, I thought. Maybe I notice things more now that wouldn't have fazed me in my twenties. I remembered vividly a conversation I had with my dad one evening shortly after I moved to Manhattan in 2007, straight out of college.  

"I went for a run in the park today," I had mentioned over the phone, trying to play it cool but feeling extremely proud since we all knew I needed to lose a few pounds. I anticipated his warm, enthusiastic response. Instead, there was an awkward pause. "I hope you weren't out there after dark," he stiffly replied. I was annoyed. Here I am sharing this huge personal milestone and you're worried about me getting mugged?? I shook my head, disappointed that he still thought it was the New York City he knew from the 1970s, and muttered something noncommittal in response.  

I took it for granted back then that progress and improvement were inherent to Manhattan's development since those "bad old days," and assumed backsliding was not really an option. We millennials, after all, came of age as it seemed the whole world was progressing along the golden arc of democratization and prosperity. But I, for one, know better now. Already the Manhattan I moved to in 2007 seems out of a halcyon age of yore. It's an unsettling feeling.  

We left the city nearly three years ago not just because the subway was making the hairs on the back of my neck stand. We wanted--okay, my husband wanted--to be able to lift weights without going to a gym, to run on a track that didn't require a permit and registration process. We visited my younger sister in Denver who could park her car in her own driveway--for free!--and play tennis anytime she wanted down the street--for free!--and realized, we needed to get out.  

I'm relieved we left when we did, but our fortunes--indeed the fortunes of most people in this "tri-state" area--are still tied, however indirectly, to the city. We might all enjoy the sudden frenzy for neighborhood real estate as the Great Migration out of urban spaces picks up steam, but deep down, there's a foreboding feeling. It's one thing for young families to leave Manhattan because the pandemic sparked a desire for yards and pools. It's another if the city is losing its luster altogether.  

Don Peebles is in the latter camp. I asked the real estate developer on our show the other day if The Wall Street Journal was right that Covid-19 has been worse for the city than either 9/11 or the financial crisis. "I think it's worse than both of those, and you can throw in the financial crisis of the 1970s as well," he said. But the reason, he added, is that Covid comes on top of the city already losing competitiveness to lower-cost and more business-friendly places like Nashville, Tenn., and South Florida.  

And, it was already having law-and-order problems under Mayor Bill de Blasio. City Journal, after all, devoted its summer issue to "The New Disorder" in major American cities including New York--last year! "Nobody can walk around New York City or live in New York City and say the quality of life is not diminished significantly," Peebles said. "Crime is up. I think it's going to take New York about a decade or more to dig out of this, maybe longer." Ouch.  

If there is a silver lining, it's that cities where the population is flocking are booming, or at least will be post-pandemic. Many of these are smaller cities, previously overlooked; they're towns, villages, bedroom communities scattered across the country. The best thing us newcomers can do is throw ourselves into building, or rebuilding, vibrant neighborhoods and associations.  

The worst thing would be bringing our failed policies with us.  

See you at 1 p.m.,  

Kelly 

P.S. Mike Santoli kicks off his live monthly Pro talk at noon today with Walter Price of Allianz, one of the best tech fund managers of the past couple decades. Why on earth would you miss it?? More here.  

Twitter: @KellyCNBC

Instagram: @realkellyevans