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746 Empty Spaces

What happens to cities when no one returns to work?

"You're out of your room and down on the street / You can feel the crowds in the midnight heat / The traffic roars, the sirens scream / Look at the faces, it's just like a dream” —Glen Frey (“You Belong to the City”)

The signs are everywhere: cities are in peril

Last year we started wondering what might happen to cities if workers abandon office buildings. The January 2023 cover of Atlanta magazine features a story about the city’s downtown redevelopment. What will happen to 'Portmandia' (my nickname for the section of Atlanta’s skyline developed by late architect John Portman that became famous as a brutalist backdrop for post-apocalyptic films)? (BTW: see my 2015 essay in The Atlantic here). Will the Westin become residential real estate? Will Truist’s tower sit empty? The New York Times wondered the same thing about Manhattan in December, with every other publication piling on, not only questioning what will happen to buildings, but to the workforce itself:

What will happen to city culture?

What is city culture? It is people, food, traffic, motion, concrete, graffiti, steam pipes, bridges, trains, cars, art, music in the streets, hot dog stands, picnics in parks, and yes, all sorts of crime and mayhem.

The cities we know and love –including our own, Atlanta–are lovable because they are a pastiche of who we are. They tie us to the past and give future generations something to renovate, add, to build upon. The suburbs are constantly demolishing old strip malls and building new ones with the next unimaginative, easily replicable design. Get 25 miles outside most major cities and you could be anywhere in America, only with different trees. What about cities around the world like Vegas and Dubai where they just build paint-by-numbers buildings to approximate what a real city is? Yuck.

I love remote work, too, but my life has changed drastically over the past decade as I have spent more time inside and then the pandemic put us at home around the clock. Being at home, even with beloved family, is not the same life as also enriched by people watching, absorbing the energy of passersby, or having a work meeting in a high rise where people are sharing good ideas around a table of bad catering, but the view is so stunning it doesn’t matter. I never thought I’d yearn for a brown box lunch with a stale cookie again, but here we are. I’m a 20th-century girl – and this blog is named after that feeling I get when I think about the loss of the culture before the internet. I don’t want to go back, but the erasure began at the turn of the millennium, and it keeps speeding up. We’re all just trying to make sense of it. Would I want to live in NYC’s Chrysler Building reimagined as an apartment building? Maybe. Would I want to live in a city where every building was a refurbished condo?

No more wondering who has that office light on at 2 a.m. working on a presentation that will change the face of (name a profession)? I am grateful to live anywhere, but we can’t forget that architecture matters and it affects our daily lives. I think we’re making a mistake if we think cities can be replaced by ‘live/work/play’ hodgepodge developments that mush chain restaurants, LA Fitness, and ugly five-story apartment buildings together with cheap balcony railings and faux brick facades. Neither Atlanta nor New York is the same city it was in the ‘before’ times. And the ‘before’ times weren’t perfect, but to me, the glittering, brutal chaos of cities has always made sense. I was thinking about this topic all day. Tim and I went to Publix to buy rye bread for a reuben sandwich recipe and “You Belong to the City” came on as we were checking out. Tim rolled his eyes and laughed as I sang along. Yes, it’s a cheesy song, but who else gets a little shiver when that saxophone cranks up? Can you see the lights? Do we want empty cities?

30 songs about city life for you:


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