Out here in northern Westchester where the urban fabric melts into the countryside, we’ve been largely spared many of the more horrific aspects of the virus-induced “pause.” We haven’t been regaled by endless sirens, and given the relative abundance of space, we’ve been able to at least go outside and enjoy nature on a regular basis. Services have, largely, been maintained, and apart from notable commodities like toilet paper and baking flour, shortages have been relatively minimal.
The grim novelty of it all, as we endure the fourth month of the lockdown, has worn off, and although they’re still hazy, the contours and features of the new future are starting to coalesce. Rigorous isolation is starting to relax, businesses are being allowed to cautiously reopen, and some people are being encouraged to go back to their places of work. An impressive number of us allowed our sense of solidarity and outrage to prevail over our sense of caution as we joined the resoundingly affirmative Black Lives Matter protest in Bedford Village Memorial Park on June 6. One thing is crystal clear: whatever was considered normal in the olden days — say, last November — is unlikely to return, at least not for a long time.
As the new future starts picking up, we in the northern suburbs will have to reckon with this vastly changed world. We’ll have to adapt to a lot of new things. What will it look like to eat at a restaurant, for example? And many of us, having now successfully worked remotely, are wondering why — or even if — we ever need to return to location-based employment and commute to Manhattan. Looking at it from the opposite direction, there has been a huge outflux of people from the city to basically anywhere that isn’t the city. According to a recent article in the New York Times, 420,000 people have left the city, at least for the duration of the virus outbreak.
Many of them have already decided not to go back. The very things that made city life so attractive are now the things that render its citizens vulnerable. Yes, the governor may say it’s OK to go back to work, but tell us how elevators will work in the real world (the directive is to stay 6-feet apart, even in elevators). And even if people can go to that favorite restaurant in the East Village, or Jazz at Lincoln Center, or the Yankees game, will they?
So suddenly there’s an uptick in city people inquiring about what it’s like to live here. House sales are starting to pick up. In short, what’s happening “down there” might have profound implications for the way things look “up here.” The city has, for at least 100 years, been the vast gravitational center of the entire metropolitan area. We might sleep out here and send our kids to schools out here, but the money comes from the city, and we go there for the vibrant culture. Right now, that center of gravity is shifting: as the city loses its allure, more of life is going to be happening out here.
This represents a huge challenge and opportunity for the towns and villages we live in. If, as seems likely, we’re about to see an influx of new residents, how can we shape and influence it? How can we position our towns as places that are even more attractive and enticing than we already know them to be? This can and should be the moment to actively pursue and embrace communities that have never considered ours to be a welcoming or viable place to live. We need to introduce programs and policies that eclipse the laws of supply and demand, and assert a more progressive civic future.
It is imperative that we embrace this moment and try to shape the change that’s coming. We have to promote diversity. We must work like hell to shore up the businesses and institutions that are currently hurting, and promote and incentivize the establishment of businesses that will enrich our civic and cultural lives. We can and must rise to an occasion that, whether we like it or not, has been thrust upon us. If we do it right, we’ll have made a profound impact on the citizens of our fair region for many decades to come and leave a legacy we can be proud of.
Jon-Marc Seimon has lived in Pound Ridge for 21 years.