Pearls: Don’t Call it a Comeback: Reimagining the Post-Pandemic City
By Jenna Lo Castro, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Integrated Marketing Communication, Point Park University
When the effects of the pandemic started to escalate back in March, a transformation in people’s daily routine began to take shape. Work commutes into the city were replaced by the shuffle of a few steps into makeshift home offices. Post-work drinks with co-workers were replaced by home deliveries of subscription-based wine boxes and virtual “zappy” hours. Spending a Saturday night downtown taking in dinner and a show to celebrate a special occasion was scaled down to takeout and Tiger King.
For most of us, these changes have become normalized, signaling that perhaps the doldrums of a post-pandemic world may linger a little bit longer than we all anticipated. In the midst of grappling with these tremendous life changes and shifts in how we practice relationships, we may have also missed another relationship that was quietly changing: our relationship with the city.
Early Greek history points toward the city or the polis as the epicenter of life and the foundation for which a sense of community is cultivated. When the famous philosopher Aristotle wrote that “man is a political animal,” he wasn’t referring to the contemporary connotation of the political–an idea associated with a bifurcated party system and perhaps most recently, ideological embroilment, violence and decaying civility. For him, he was referring to the root of the Greek word, polis meaning, city-state. To be part of the polis in Greek culture meant that you were embedded within a specific community, associated with a particular identity and embraced certain values, unique to your city.
It’d be remiss to not think about the effects that the pandemic has had on urban centers. Businesses that depend on the bustle of warm bodies during the workday grind such as coffee shops and lunch spots have certainly been disproportionately hit. Offices and work spaces remain empty and hollow, resembling a post-apocalyptic scene from The Walking Dead. Entertainment, retail and arts sectors that act as the backbone to metropolitan areas have been significantly impacted and as we know, have tried to “pivot” by offering free virtual shows, socially distance dining experiences (I have to admit, I intrigued by the rollout of these private igloos), and robust e-commerce platforms.
For all the trying, it’s hard not to wonder why Merriam-Webster’s 2020 Word of the Year wasn’t “pivot.” (If you’re wondering, it was “pandemic” and “pivot” didn’t even crack the Top Ten list.) Yes, we know businesses and brands have had to evolve and adapt, but one cannot help but to think about what the reverberating effects may be of this past year. As someone who works in the city, rides public transportation and takes pleasure in spending time in the city even after hours, I’ve been thinking a lot about how our relationship with our beloved, vibrant cities have changed and whether it will remain this way, even long after the Covid-19 vaccine has been distributed.
GWI, a market research SaaS company recently released findings that show how trends such as cooking (Remember the banana bread craze?), gardening (Cottagecore is definitely having a moment.), and working on home improvement projects are all activities that will likely remain key staples. Is the allure of a pulsating city really being replaced by the desire for a quieter, more natural way of living?
To me, when I think of this question and its associated issues, the silver bullet to emerge is sustained interest in hyper local consumerism. In the case of many business owners, it has become, and will continue to be, a vital consideration in preserving the livelihood of business. In my opinion, Pittsburgh already has a leg up on this. It’s a city built upon the dynamic connectivity of 90 neighborhoods. Those living in these communities have a unique double identity–we see ourselves as both Pittsburghers, but also deeply tied to our local neighborhoods, from Beechview to Bloomfield. And we’re passionate about businesses surviving this pandemic. Embracing this hyper local battle cry doesn’t have to signal a fight that results in death, but rather the rebirth of the city.