A few years ago when Dubai hit a rough patch, a lot of the foreign workers who didn’t have roots had the luxury of packing up and leaving. To people seeking a bigger pay check, Dubai was a means to an end, but for New York – the most aspirational city in the world – Manhattan was always the destination: the big leagues.
Let’s face it: people are drawn to history: the places that inspired the people who dared to dream, take risks, create, build. Part of that creation process includes death and destruction. Unlike ruins in places like Persepolis, what generally comes afterwards in such cities is rebirth and revitalization. New York didn’t die by any means: it came back after 9/11, it’s technically in some ways recovered (stabilized) from Covid.
The Manhattan Bubble Burst
As someone who’s sporadically come to NY over the past 25 years – as many as 25 times per year in some of those years – NYC had changed dramatically and was due for a reset and correction. As Covid will do to many industries and regions, the evolution that was to take place over the next decade in the Big Apple will happen in a year, three tops (technically the combined WeWork house of cards and Covid one-two punch accelerated things).
New York, New York didn’t become the city so nice they named it twice because of the lawyers, accountants, bankers who fill the high-priced office floors. It also didn’t become what the capital of the world because wealthy foreigners were forking over $100M+ for boxes in the sky. There isn’t much of a chicken vs egg debate here. New York is New York because of the “crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.” Over time, that just meant it took particular accountants, lawyers, bankers, investors to make it in the city. Those who aren’t fond of rules and challenge the status quo.
There’s Gentrification, then there’s…
Since the “Greed is Good” era of the 1980s, the artists were squeezed out as a gentrification trend took over Manhattan:
The Bowery said goodbye to CBGB and made room for a John Varvatos store. I stayed across the Bowery Hotel for a few months: I was expecting Skid Row but never felt safer.
Tribeca’s old industrial building paved the way for urban chic before strollers took over the hood.
The Meatpacking district provided much eye candy and swank nightclubs, with the High Line capturing its peak appeal before the nearby Hudson Yards overshadowed the sought after locale.
Over time, there was nothing hellish about Hell’s Kitchen. You get the idea. With that came an amazing experience for families and singles, but it pushed out many of the folks who gave New York its soul. That’s the tradeoff, the Faustian cycle of development and destruction.
In many ways, 2020 was the peak of irrational exuberance.
NYC is where The Past meets The Future
So sure, when successful people like James Altucher and Jerry Seinfeld disagree on whether NYC is dead or resurgent, they’re actually saying in unison that their best days are gone. New York City is a city that fundamentally at its core draws dreamers who believe their best days – and in turn New York City’s – are ahead of it. That’s what makes New York New York. As our appetite for risk changes over time, it’s not a surprise to hear that living in a post-Covid metropolis whose facing massive fiscal challenges does not sound as enticing to Altucher and Seinfeld as it would to a younger, brasher version of themselves. That’s normal.
After my first visit during college in the late 1990s, I started to make my pilgrimages to the Big Apple working in ad sales from 2000-05, getting to know the city better, and making more and more friends and acquaintances. When I started WatchMojo in 2006, I was coming down to meet investors and grow my network. In 2006, I was a young entrepreneur with a lot of ambition and drive, big dreams but little resources. On one trip, I met a gentleman and over coffee, he mentioned his friend’s company Wallstrip getting acquired by CBS, and suggesting I speak with TheStreet who was miffed about missing out on Wallstrip and looking to partner with an online video content company. As a finance grad who followed Jim Cramer, that was a treat. But the real payoff was seeing that willingness to meet total strangers, open up one another’s network to make introductions, paying it forward to make up for what made up for the city’s otherwise expensive nature – symbolizing the paradox that is New York City. Sure, it’s competitive, but it’s not cutthroat the way LA is (was – that evolution – and lack thereof in some ways – is an article for another day).
For that gentlemen and I, we were at different parts of our careers, him more advanced that mine… but we both dreamed to accomplish more, build our impact and legacy.
The Rebirth of New York City
It’s that drive and desire to hit the gum-stained pavement that makes NY unique. It’s the lessons and stories of those who dared to dream before us that sparks our energy to achieve more in the future. With that comes transformation and change. When I would read The Chief on William Randolph Hearst or The Publisher on Time Inc. founder Henry Luce, part of the appeal was reading not just about the men and organizations but the streets those men walked and the buildings they set up shop in. As I would return to the Time & Life building over the years, part of the lore of New York was seeing, for example, Time Inc. moving out and making room for Complex Media. That was part of the disruption and innovation that makes an industry appealing. It’s not fun if the same team or player wins all the time. Ironically, Covid is at once levelling the playing field and expanding the divide.
New York had lost all of that because of the difficulty in making by, becoming so prohibitively expensive for most. In many ways, that’s partly why my wife and I decided to return to Montreal in 2009, after we spent the lion’s portion of 2008-09 year living in the city. After seeing our first daughter taking her first footsteps in Central Park, we decided to return to La Belle Province to have a second child, preferring not to do so out of a shoebox. By then, WatchMojo was competing more than admirably against its New York and LA-based competitors, I hadn’t lost that chip off my shoulder, but as success is subjective, fluid and relative, the definition had changed: I didn’t need to live in NY, per se – recognizing my privilege as a business owner.
Now granted, Montreal / Laguardia is a mere 55-minutes after takeoff. Post-Covid, I realize I don’t need to travel for work as much post-pandemic, but New York was never about work alone, nor was it about leisure only either. It’s a jungle unlike any other city, particularly due to its history and people, which serve as a magnet for both tourists and creatives alike.
For the next generation of creatives and builders – this is the single greatest reset and opportunity in any industry, i.e. the established over-levered restaurant empires will crumble and replacing them will be the next generation of hungry chefs who will dazzle us with their craftsmanship; some office space will be converted into living quarters. No one wanted to live in Berlin in 1945. Times change.
Demand and Supply Remains Undefeated
That said, I get it. Covid has led to an overnight WFH revolution: with Zoom meetings and cloud-based information management, who needs to be in the same city, let alone office?
Well, the reality is that when it comes to relationships and communications, when you already know people, then moving to a WFH formation can work… easily, seamlessly. But how much harder is it to recruit, onboard and manage NEW employees? Much harder. The same applies to young people needing to gather, congregate, mingle. Those people don’t have the country homes to seek refuge in. For the majority of people with one dwelling to their name, NY suddenly comes back into play.
It’s a small world, and NYC made it smaller by bringing in people from around the world together, closer. While the cycle of life means that some people will seek greener, larger pastures, there’s a whole generation of future misfits and outcasts looking to move in.
Get in the Ring
Indeed, the key passage in Terry Roosevelt’s inspiring Citizenship in the Republic speech is called “Man in the Arena.” New York isn’t merely a “concrete jungle where dreams are made of,” but the major leagues: if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
Life is indeed a highway, but unless you get on and off, you don’t accomplish anything. In the past, people who bailed on the city would do so largely due to the cost of living. In the near term, people will leave, reducing demand and increasing supply of homes. Some will leave, in particular families with kids living in small confines. But others will come. Others, like that young version of myself who stepped in to a coffee shop to chat with someone… that someone btw, was James Altucher.
It’s a small world, and New York City makes it smaller.