One possible lesson from the coronavirus pandemic: Maybe the suburbs really are better.
I live in downtown Boston, in a too-small place for too much money. But the argument I always made to myself was that it was worth it. There was the energy and intellectual ferment of folks packed together. There were culture, sporting events, and nightlife right outside the door. Instead of chain restaurants, we had cool little bistros and chef-driven haunts, the better to stretch the palate.
Well, that’s all gone.
The building I’m in used to have amenities like a workout room and roof deck. They’re now shuttered because of stay-at-home orders imposed to stem the spread of COVID-19. Increasingly, that’s true for parks and other recreational areas. Walking outside is discouraged anyway, and if you do, the state has ordered you to wear a mask.
Meanwhile, my friends in the suburbs find the pandemic quite a different existence. For one, most have yards and decks. They can lie in the sun, throw a ball to one another, and pretty much live out their lives normally. Sidewalks are generally uncrowded; social distancing is relatively easy. And, of course, given that a dollar spent on a suburban home buys two to three times the space as in a city, suburbanites have room to roam. (The median price per square foot in Boston is $758, according to real-estate website Zillow; for the rest of the state it’s just $269.) They don’t have to work from home at their kitchen tables; instead they can simply turn the extra bedroom into a home office.
In addition, and perhaps most important, people in the ‘burbs aren’t running the same health risks as those in the city. Pandemics spread when people are near one another. Sure, I’m behind the four walls of my apartment, but going outside for groceries means riding the elevator with other residents, walking through a crowded lobby, and making my way down narrow sidewalks.
In the suburbs, folks just get in their cars. Perhaps suburban grocery stores are as dangerous as Boston’s, but the trip there is a lot less risky.
Someday, of course, the lockdown will end and we’ll eventually be able to venture out of our homes. But even so, the city will probably be the last to loosen its strictures; the governor is looking at reopening in mid-May or June while Boston Mayor Martin Walsh is talking summer or fall. And when that happens, strong remnants of social distancing will remain. No more crowded bars, restaurants, or food halls. Hanging out in coffee shops will be discouraged. Full stands at Fenway and the Garden may never return. All of this will remain in place until the disease is genuinely conquered, either through herd immunity or a vaccine.
Still, after COVID-19 is but a memory, the fear will probably remain. We’ve learned a big lesson from the coronavirus: Pandemics are real, and they can happen to us. Doubtless, another one looms. We don’t know when, but the epidemiologists who have been warning us for years will now be taken seriously.
It’s too bad. Over the last decade, Boston and other urban areas have seen a resurgence in their populations as people moved in, seeking the excitement only a city can provide. Boston, for instance, built entire new neighborhoods — such as the Seaport District or the revitalized Fenway — adding more than 75,000 residents over the last 10 years. Does that continue? I doubt it. The thrill of city living is gone, perhaps never to return. Couple that with our newfound fear of crowds, and I expect we’ll soon see urbanites heading out to the suburbs they once disdained.
Tom Keane is a writer in Boston.