Thomas Jefferson’s disdain for big cities and his agrarian vision for America was based partly on the danger of epidemics. He lived through a major one, yellow fever in 1793 that killed one in ten people in Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital.
Today, COVID-19 is helping drive many big city residents out, but the timeliness of considering Jefferson’s views about cities goes beyond the virus. Will today’s trend continue? Are Jefferson’s views about big cities now gaining acceptance?
It’s too early to say, but we are at least getting a better picture of the exodus to date. An outfit called MyMove used a clever way to look at migration patterns since the start of the pandemic. They compiled the number of change-of-address notices filed with the United States Post Office.
As you would expect, their study found that big cities are hemorrhaging residents. Bigger cities would always have bigger numbers of people moving out, so, to correct for that, they compared this year’s change-of-address notices to last year’s.
Chicago’s change-of-address notices more than doubled over last year’s for the period from February 1 to August 1; New York City’s are up 490%; San Francisco’s up 180%; Los Angeles’s up 96%; Washington D.C.’s up 160%; Houston’s up 60%; and Philadelphia’s up 60%.
The good news for cities may be that the vast majority of those change-of-address notices were temporary, not permanent. For the nation as a whole, it was temporary notices that spiked the most — by 27%. Permanent change notices went up by only 2%. Those are national numbers and were not broken out by city.
To where did the city emigrants go?
Predominantly to smaller, less dense locations, including suburbs, the report shows.
Will people return to cities after the virus subsides?
COVID-19 clearly accounts for part of the flight and it is temporary. But there are other causes, and Jefferson’s views about some of those other problems in big cities are seeming more relevant every day.
“The mobs of great cities,” he wrote, “add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.”
Those are tough words that are not acceptable today, but no doubt widely felt.
He called big cities “pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man… When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as in Europe.” Governing Magazine ran a nice summary earlier this year with more on Jefferson’s views on cities.
Jefferson’s views about cities were not embraced by the nation for 230 years, but that may be changing. Most of his other views were held sacred, but that, tragically, is also changing. Time will soon tell which ones prevail.