Last month, the urban theorist Richard Florida struck a chord on Twitter when he expressed something many people were feeling but have been ashamed to admit — that there were aspects of lockdown they really liked. “I feel melancholy about returning to the old normal,” he wrote. “I have gotten off the rat race. I found something deeper in this strange pandemic life that I am not sure I want to give up.” Also accustomed to constant travel, he had been able to spend time with his young children.
“They say the years before 4 are the most important,” he told me, “and I was there for a full year.’’ Much to his surprise, and despite the limitations of lecturing via Zoom, he received the highest teacher ratings of his career. His class at the University of Toronto, The City and Business, benefited from all the guest speakers he could bring into an online classroom — experts from around the world who were unlikely to travel to Canada to spend 45 minutes talking about municipal financing.
Mr. Florida, who lives in the Rosedale section of Toronto, not far from the university, got to know his neighborhood in ways he hadn’t previously. “I used to bike on the weekdays before the pandemic, but I was the only man over 50 — there were women and children and nannies, and I was like this strange guy lurking around,” he said. But now, so many more people were outside and wandering, and Mr. Florida met them — men with whom he has formed close friendships. (During the past year, he biked more and drank less and lost 25 pounds, he told me.)
The serendipity of social life now is something that I have really come to appreciate — texting a friend at 8 in the morning and meeting her for a walk, plans dictated only by the weather. When there is very little to do, there is very little to schedule, which means that it is hard to remember the last time you were forced to exchange 14 emails over three days to land on a dinner date with two other people — one of them flying in from Cleveland — six weeks down the line.
The status competition that has always animated New York — social, professional, intellectual, parental — seems to have faded, if only because it is so much easier to avoid. One distinct advantage to reduced human contact is the marked decline in unpleasant encounters with the perpetually self-marketing — the people who can’t wait to tell you that their 4-year-old is reading “The Decameron,” or how great the skiing was in Alta over winter break. You know what you don’t have to do during a pandemic? You don’t have to go to a class potluck thrown by someone whose sole purpose is showing off a $2 million townhouse renovation. With oblivion comes psychic peace.
The people who cannot isolate themselves from the obnoxiously wealthy are, of course, the people who serve them. If the current crisis has deepened economic inequality, it has also amplified the distinction between the routines of an emergent working-leisure class, in full control of how its time is managed, and an on-call class, consisting of workers who must remain forever in motion both to earn a living and to meet the needs of the affluent.
Many people will be able to carry the best of the pandemic lifestyle into the future — getting on the Peloton,in between morning meetings. Companies, in many instances, will be delighted to shrink their real estate footprints and shift the burdens and expenses of office management onto employees operating at home.