American Cities Aren’t Doomed After All

For a year or two, as first-wave pandemic panic gave way to a more generalized perception of ragged social disorder, it was hard to read or talk about the plight of American cities without encountering the chilling phrase “doom loop.”

At first, the term referred to an intuition that the economic and social dislocation of the pandemic would not only linger after Covid-19 retreated but also unmake the American city: If workers didn’t have to return to the office, they could leave the city, taking with them the money they spent on taxes and retail. This would shrink the tax base and hollow out the urban core, leading to decreased public spending on public safety and housing, and eventually to a self-perpetuating cycle that looked like an existential threat. But in conversation and in print, “doom loop” quickly came to signify something broader: a perception of generalized and pretty terrifying Covid-era urban decline, characterized by homelessness and out-in-the-open crime and drug use, that not only recalled the legendarily wild and violent cities of the 1970s and 1980s but also threatened to metastasize well beyond those memories. On the right, they were calling places like New York and San Francisco and Seattle “trashed” or “lawless.” Centrist publications were using phrases like “failed cities” or “ungovernable,” and progressive ones were lamenting that even committed locals no longer believed that cities’ problems could be fixed.

In some cities, a certain unease remains. But to the extent that we have data with which to fact-check the vibes, it turns out that the doom loop wasn’t really much of a loop at all. It was a blip. And by some measures, it was not all that “doomy” to begin with.

American cities did get a bit more dangerous when all social and public life was suddenly suspended and then haphazardly, gradually and only partially stitched back together. But they also were emptied out — first by shelter-in-place guidelines, then by extended school closings and work-from-home policies, and then by some amount of continuing pandemic precaution by individuals and communities. Large-scale protests against police brutality rattled some Americans and, in some places, probably produced a police “pullback” distressing and disconcerting to others. And as recently as the death of Jordan Neely at the hands of Daniel Penny in New York City last May, there was a certain kind of conventional wisdom that American cities were going through a protracted and open-ended crisis. But by then many measures of social disorder were already on their way back to prepandemic levels. And by now, it is safe to say that by most objective measures, the worst of that “crisis” is well behind us. There was some cause for alarm, of course. But it also looks like the passing panic may have been powered as much by pandemic anxiety and simple agoraphobia as by genuine urban anarchy.

Some of the “doom loop” fears were illusions at the time — or perhaps it would be better to say propaganda. This past December, for instance, the country’s largest retail trade association retracted its much-repeated claim that organized crime was responsible for a large pandemic surge in missing merchandise. Nationally, lost inventory — known in the retail world as “shrink” — was actually flat in 2020 compared with 2019, as Kevin Drum has highlighted, and down again in 2021 compared with 2020. The experience of individual cities varies, of course — in New York retail theft is still running relatively high — but across 24 cities reporting data to the Council on Criminal Justice, shoplifting actually fell significantly at the beginning of 2020. And average monthly shoplifting rates have stayed well below prepandemic levels.

Each of these measures comes with some amount of uncertainty — we can’t really say for sure how much shoplifting is getting reported and how much not, and whether that ratio may have changed in recent years. (My guess: We’re probably missing a lot, though the ratio probably hasn’t changed all that much.) But more conspicuous kinds of crime are harder to overlook, and there, too, different data sets are also in broad agreement that even those crime rates that did rise at the outset of the pandemic are now well past those peaks, reassuringly close to or below the levels from 2019 and earlier years.

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