The Actors of the City: the keepers of the intangible

In our cities, the skin of the city, the membrane that pulls it all together, the intangible, was eroded by decades of factual living. COVID-19 eats out the meat of the city (jobs are gone, empty storefronts display for rent signs, small businesses are closed, entertainment is absent, tourists are gone, Time Squares is deserted, more homeless in the streets). The City is left on the bones (buildings only partially occupied).

Now fear is my main emotion out in the city. City equals contagion. The city can erase life easily (tens of thousands of deaths in New York in only two months), the city doesn´t have a lot to offer. Beyond the distanced diners in temporary shelters restaurants have erected on the sidewalks and in the streets, there is little social interaction. Most activities take place online (from meetings, to yoga, to parties). The location is irrelevant and the physicality of the space has lost its value. Plenty of amenities are still closed and for many, the city has become non-desirable. 

When the levels of covid were still under the frightening twenty per cent, and the lockdown was in effect, following the New York Times report  420.000 mostly wealthy New Yorkers left for their second homes. From May 28 to June 30, when the count for deaths by the coronavirus was over 20,000, with the highest death rate in the poorest neighborhoods and after the killing of George Floyd, roughly 60.000 protesters took to the streets. The number is inexact because the protests were less well-documented than the documentation of the exodus of the wealthy from the city. It is important to remember that the rate of COVID-19 infection didn’t increase with the protests, which proves that political activity in the city did not adversely affect the general health, and that the wealthy did not contribute to the significant civil rights movement of the early XXI century. An important change has occurred: the city is less social, and in the case of New York, more political. Those who supported the intangible values of the City, who were fed up with icon city touted on the ILOVENY T-shirts of tourists, the love for New York that was for too long only present on tourists T Shirts (ILOVENY), were those who had never forgotten why they came here in the first place.

Several hundred residents, including students and temporary workers, have fled the city and continue to do so and dramatically fewer are arriving. Now it is very clear that New York was a city of migrants and visitors who are no longer coming. Following the paper, The Dynamic Population of Manhattan In 2012, the census of How will the pandemic shape the urban landscape of the city, and how will it change my life as a resident and my capacity to live and work in the city? 

World wide, the forces of capitalism in the 21st century have consistently destroyed the intangible values that characterize cities. Cities became (on different scales and with different timing) pure muscle. Run by culturists using the different weights for different parts of the body: real estate, tourism, spectacle of art, flashy architecture, etc.. The cities have been overdeveloped as parts, with no correlation to the living organism of the whole. Strong muscles, even when disproportional, hold the bones in place, but the muscle has debilitated tremendously in a very short time. Now that the demand is down and the tangible elements are much less present, the lack of intangible qualities in cities appear clearly. The establishment has been blind to them.

In New York what began as an isolated development in Brooklyn next to the Sugar Factory, has been extended throughout the boroughs into Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and, most recently, the South Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. A change in zoning of construction from five to twelve floors has made even fully developed neighborhoods such as Chinatown, the Lower East Side and East Village and along the Bowery, targets for redevelopment. 

A city holds both the material patrimony (monuments, buildings, parks, plazas, urban furniture and urban infrastructure) and the immaterial patrimony (intellectual, existential and relational elements). Because these two concepts are tied together, the immaterial patrimony is altered when the built environment is modified. For instance, if a public space (like a square) is eliminated or built upon, the immaterial patrimony (gatherings, conversations, meetings, celebrations and initiatives) of the whole neighborhood will be damaged. The intangible patrimony is associated with the architectural and urban elements in a city. 

The intangible qualities of the city, already devalued by the lack of open free space to interact, a ground for spontaneity, the time and state of mind to encounter the other, the disintegration of communities is further attacked by the pandemic, but the forces are now different. People are dealing with life and death. The total collapse of the machine of the city can be an opportunity to have the city that nobody wants, that brings fear, that is dirty and dangerous.

The intangible is in the complex. And is therefore, what in one way or another, we fear. When the intangible was suffocated, a previously urban-phobic population moved to cities because they were simple, safe and suburban (SSS). The intangible is inversely proportional to the level of commodification of a city. Everyday life within the intangible, the existential, takes mental strength. Now, under the pandemic, we are starting to develop the discipline it takes to regain them. The cities have their tangible values decreased tremendously because of the pandemic. The fear of contagion and the realization that cities have nothing to offer and a lot to create is promting an urban exodus from cities. But the intangible values were vandalized by overdevelopment, which removes complexity and increases convenience. Now there is a moment of opportunity to correct and feed at the same speed of the tangible and the intangible elements of the city.

Jana Leo

October 16 2020