A few years ago, I lived in a walkup apartment in the East Village of New York. Every so often descending the stairway, I would catch a glimpse of a particular family with young children in its Sisyphean attempts to reach the fourth floor. The mom would fold the stroller to the size of a boogie board, then drag it behind her with her right hand, while cradling the younger and typically crying child in the crook of her left arm. Meanwhile, she would shout hygiene instructions in the direction of the older child, who would slap both hands against every other grimy step to use her little arms as leverage, like an adult negotiating the bolder steps of Machu Picchu. It looked like hell—or, as I once suggested to a roommate, a carefully staged public service announcement against family formation.
Apparently, the public got the message. Last year, for the first time in four decades, something strange happened in New York City. In a non-recession year, it shrank.
We are supposedly living in the golden age of the American metropolis, with the same story playing out across the country. Dirty and violent downtowns typified by the “mean streets” of the 1970s became clean and safe in the 1990s. Young college graduates flocked to brunchable neighborhoods in the 2000s, and rich companies followed them with downtown offices.