New York City, where I live, was one of the most dangerous places on Earth during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. At the peak of the outbreak’s first wave, hospitals were overwhelmed. There were shortages of basic health supplies, including surgical gowns, masks, and ventilators. Nurses wore garbage bags to protect themselves. A convention center, a church, a tennis complex, and patches of Central Park were converted into emergency medical facilities. So many people died that hospital morgues could not handle the bodies, and refrigerated trucks were called in to store those that remained. By mid-April 2020, New York City alone had already registered more COVID-19 cases, and nearly as many deaths, as the entire United Kingdom, and more deaths than Germany, Iran, Japan, and South Korea, combined.
Like most disasters, the coronavirus outbreak hit the city’s poorest people and places much harder than it hit middle-class and affluent communities. The number of cases and fatalities in the heavily immigrant, working-class neighborhoods in Central Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn dwarfed those in Manhattan’s toniest districts. The reasons were hardly mysterious. Most working-class New Yorkers had no choice but to keep working. They live in smaller residential units, and are more likely to share their homes with extended family members or roommates. They also shop in smaller, more crowded commercial outlets, and congregate in tighter gathering places, where viruses spread easily. They cannot spend weeks in their apartments, nor stock up on food and medical supplies. Prosperous New Yorkers, however, had resources to shelter at home, jobs that allowed them to work remotely, health care that helped them manage dangerous “underlying conditions,” and second homes in the country where they could escape. The affluent shared a city with the poor and working class, but they effectively lived in another world.
New York’s early and devastating outbreak transformed urban life. Orders to stay at home and maintain social distance have blocked conventional forms of democratic engagement. The traditional public sphere—libraries, plazas, university campuses, union halls, and the like—shuttered. Instead of streets and sidewalks, bookstores and dance clubs, we had Twitter, Amazon, Facebook, and Zoom.
But from the early days of the pandemic, one could also see hopeful signs of movement toward more democracy, more solidarity, and a greater recognition of how we all benefit from building common ground. Something extraordinary happened in the midst of this catastrophe. Thousands of medical workers from around the country volunteered to assist in New York City’s urgent-care units, at considerable risk to their own health. Teenagers, stuck at home, began teaching elderly relatives and neighbors how to use communication technologies that ease the pain of isolation. Healthy young adults delivered meals and medications to people too old or sick to go outside. Cleaners, cashiers, grocers, police officers, and delivery workers turned out daily to fulfill responsibilities that we deemed essential. For months, each workday ended with a celebration of the city’s civic culture and irrepressible will to be together. At 7 p.m., New Yorkers in every neighborhood opened their windows and banged pots and pans, a brash but joyful expression of gratitude to health-care workers.
It’s impossible to measure the pain and suffering we endured during 2020, and we know that more hard times are on the way. But 2020 also awakened a spirit of social solidarity that we desperately need. Reckoning with the health crisis and its aftermath will force us to reconsider who we are and what we value. In the long run, it could help us rediscover the better version of ourselves. Rekindling social solidarity will require changing the way we conceive of and organize the neighborhood, the workplace, the city, and the nation.
We can begin where we live, because our neighbors and neighborhoods shape us in ways that are invisible, especially when we spend so much time on our screens. If the people who live nearby are amiable, we feel safe and secure in parks and playgrounds; we socialize on our sidewalks and stoops. We develop a sense of shared responsibility, and look after each other. We knock on our older neighbor’s door during heat waves, drop off food during a pandemic. If the people who live near us are menacing, however, we grow cautious and distrustful. When the sociologist Elijah Anderson did fieldwork in poor, segregated neighborhoods in Philadelphia, he found that high levels of crime led old people and families with children to hunker down, even at life stages where neighborly support can help.
Children, we know, are deeply affected by local conditions. Living near high-achieving peers and having easy access to libraries, community centers, good schools, and athletic fields pave the way to successful cognitive, emotional, and physical development. Living close to violence delays child development, or worse. Parents, even the most loving and supportive, can only do so much on their own.
Today, though, poor people in segregated neighborhoods are not alone in their dissatisfaction with the social life and mutual support systems in their communities. Across the country, in cities and suburbs, residents of solidly middle class and even affluent neighborhoods complain that people don’t engage with or take care of one another like they once did. Some of this is nostalgia, a longing for idealized communities that were never as tight as we imagine. But the best research on neighborhoods tells us that there is a fundamental truth behind this feeling: contemporary Americans are much less likely to spend time with neighbors. No matter how many friends we have on Facebook or how often we meet colleagues for drinks after work, there’s a hole at the center of our experience.
Americans have so much to gain from building solidarity in the neighborhood, but doing this requires some critical thinking about what’s wrong with the way we’ve been treating each other, and about how our fantasies of independence compromise our well-being. Today, too many Americans feel ashamed to admit that they need anyone. They’d rather be miserable, stressed, and sick than let anyone think they can’t take care of themselves.
During the 20th century, labor unions, and the social contract that they won through successful organizing, were the key to expanding the American middle class and the many privileges that came with it: Eight-hour workdays. Weekends off. Paid vacations. Subsidized housing. Pensions. Health insurance. As they crafted the New Deal, policy makers recognized that the US would not recover from the Depression unless government supported workers and not just capital. The Wagner Act of 1935 established that the federal government would promote the interests of labor. A suite of legal labor protections followed, as did historic growth in the US economy, increased longevity, and dramatic improvement in most Americans’ quality of life.
For decades, “solidarity” was American labor’s guiding principle and rallying cry. It was, at root, an expression of workers’ material interest in organizing to gain power and leverage in a nation that had always privileged capital and disdained regulatory oversight. It was also based on workers’ collective experiences beyond the shop floor, in the union halls, local pubs, sports leagues, and “workingman’s neighborhoods” that shaped civic life and politics. On their own, as the song writer Ralph Chaplin famously put it, in “Solidarity Forever,” individual workers are vulnerable. Together, they are invincible: “The union makes us strong.”
By the late 1950s, this confidence proved unwarranted. Large industrial firms discovered that they could boost profits by building factories in developing countries where workers would accept lower wages and fewer benefits than those negotiated by American unions. Millions of people, and thousands of communities, especially in the rust belt, were devastated by deindustrialization. The pact among capital, labor, and the state came undone, and in place of solidarity came a renewed faith in meritocracy and free markets, the same invisible hand that led the US into the first Gilded Age and the Great Depression.
In the late 20th and early 21st century, America generated extraordinary new wealth, but it was hardly shared. The top 1 percent of Americans accumulated massive fortunes as executive pay surged. Elite professionals flourished. The middle-class population plummeted. Blue-collar communities saw conditions deteriorate dramatically. In white, working-class areas, life expectancy declined for the first time in history, because of what economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton called “deaths of despair” from addiction and suicide. Black and Latinx communities were left out of the prosperity that, through the magic of regressive policies, trickled up. In 2017, Congress passed one of the steepest tax cuts in American history, with the lion’s share of the benefits going to the very same people who already own the lion’s share of the wealth.
Rekindling social solidarity will require changing the way we conceive of and organize the neighborhood, the workplace, the city, and the nation.
Republicans in the nation’s capital are not the only source of the problem. Consider liberal, enlightened Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurs build lush corporate campuses, with athletic facilities, biking paths, yoga studios, outdoor lounges, coffee bars, and gourmet cafeterias offering free food and amenities to their workers—except those who do menial jobs. At Google, cafeteria workers are not welcome to eat at the tables they serve, janitors cannot play in the game rooms they clean, drivers cannot ride the Google bus. Less educated people, primarily people of color, are Silicon Valley’s second-class citizens. They get low wages. They’re ineligible for high-end health-care and retirement plans, and excluded from free childcare.
It’s impossible to build solidarity amid extreme inequality. Just as, during the Depression, the New Deal reset the relationship between capital and labor and evened out the distribution of American wealth, so too must the rebuilding of America after COVID-19. Solidarity will once again be essential. How do we restore it at work?
We must rebuild solidarity across ethnic, racial, religious, political, and class lines. We survived the pandemic by shifting the workplace from the office to the den or kitchen table, from the conference room and water cooler to Zoom. After the crisis, many corporations will want to keep us there—home, alone, with our own private infrastructures, not together in the shared physical spaces where relationships grow. Rebuilding solidarity requires us to resist this. In the coronavirus, we’ve learned to recognize the value of labor—and laborers—that many of us took for granted. Janitors. Clerks. Doormen. Delivery workers. Food servers. Farm workers. We’re not only more aware of our interdependence, we’re also more attuned to our shared vulnerability and strengths. Our challenge is to honor and sustain that knowledge, so that it’s reflected in public policies around taxation and social protection, as well as in our interactions.
We could also adopt new models for building solidarity between workplaces and communities, so that labor unions organize to improve not only wages and working conditions but also the lives of the people they serve. In recent years, teachers’ unions across the country have made surprising gains through campaigns to “bargain for the common good.” In Los Angeles and Chicago, for instance, teachers’ unions have partnered with community organizations to demand more resources for students in “high-needs” schools and impoverished neighborhoods. These initiatives helped teachers find new allies in their communities, new sources of collective strength. We’re better off working together.
In the ways that matter most, the pandemic has been a divisive and unequal experience for urban residents. In New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee, Black people and Black neighborhoods have had significantly higher incidences of the virus than white people and white neighborhoods, and higher mortality rates, too. What these and most other American cities have in common is that they are organized around segregation—by race and by class, often both at once.
Segregation is an engine for sustaining inequality of all kinds. In recent years, as the US has grown more unequal, both class segregation and the gap between conditions in poor and wealthy neighborhoods within American cities have increased. In the COVID-19 crisis, though, segregation did not fully separate city residents from one another. Infectious diseases do not respect race and class boundaries, and dangerous conditions in one neighborhood endanger others nearby. Extremely unequal and spatially divided cities are unhealthy for everyone. That’s why so many affluent urban Americans decided to flee.
After the pandemic, urban Americans will find themselves in a new state of uncertainty. Commercial corridors will be devastated. Restaurants, retailers, and long-running community organizations will be closed. Public institutions—universities, libraries, parks, playgrounds, even hospitals—will need massive bailouts to reopen. Public transit systems will face enormous deficits. Tens of millions of city dwellers will need jobs. Here, again, we can expect Silicon Valley to suggest a remedy. More online shopping. More home deliveries. Virtual libraries instead of neighborhood branches. Digital happy hour instead of drinks at the bar.
That would be a disaster. We long for our gathering places, regardless of the shape they take. If, at first, we may struggle to readjust to physical proximity, never before have we so appreciated the value of shared spaces. It’s hard to imagine how we can revive our cities and our economy without investing in new infrastructure. Social infrastructure, widely and fairly distributed, must be part of that plan.
When the pandemic ends—and it will end—we must reorient our politics and make substantial new investments in public goods and public services. We need not become less communal. Instead, we will be better able to see how our fates are linked. The cheap burger I get from a restaurant that denies paid sick leave to its cashiers and kitchen staff makes me more vulnerable to illness, as does the neighbor who refuses to wear a mask in a pandemic because our public school failed to teach him science or critical-thinking skills. The economy—and the social order it helps support—will collapse if the government doesn’t guarantee income for the millions of workers vulnerable to unemployment. Young adults will struggle if government doesn’t significantly reduce or, better, cancel their student debt.
There has never been a better moment for recognizing the depth and scale of our interdependence, the extent to which our fates are linked. There has never been a better time for reviving the New Deal project that rescued America from the modern historical event most similar to the current crisis, the Great Depression. But what we need now is necessarily different, because building solidarity in a society as open and diverse as the contemporary US requires genuine inclusion, of women and people of color, of white working-class communities ravaged by suicide and addiction, of manual laborers and farm workers who are every bit as “essential” in ordinary times as they are in a crisis. It also requires revitalizing the ecosystems that sustain all life on this planet, which is why the next New Deal must be green.