Here's why people are leaving New York city
03:06 - Source: CNN
New York CNN  — 

Lori Cheek obsessed about the coronavirus pandemic until one February day, when she packed a couple bags and, after 25 years, left New York City to live with her parents outside Louisville, Kentucky.

“I was in New York City through 9/11 and Sandy and the recession, and I wasn’t about to give up on New York,” says the 47-year-old dating app creator who lived in Manhattan. “But there was something about this that was completely different.”

Half a year later, Cheek is among a legion of New Yorkers who fled the nation’s most populous city following a spring and summer of Covid-19 stay-at-home orders and record death tolls, mass protests and social unrest, and spasms of violent crime.

Lori Cheek relocated from New York to Louisville, Kentucky, where she grew up, early in the pandemic.

Finally settled in her own place after staying in her childhood bedroom for months, Cheek doesn’t know if she’ll return to this onetime coronavirus epicenter, which last week reported its lowest percentage of positive tests – 0.24% – since March. Still, she keeps a Manhattan PO Box and an on-hold membership to a private club.

“I don’t see things changing in New York for a very long time,” she said.

NYC hit with ‘an absolute perfect storm,’ mayor says

Some headlines have predicted New York’s demise as the city confronts a spate of distressing economic and social indicators.

Interest in moving out of the city has doubled compared with last year, according to United Van Lines.

“I literally talk to people all day long who are now in their Hamptons house … or in their Hudson Valley house, or in their Connecticut weekend house,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said earlier this month.

“And I say, ‘You got to come back. When are you coming back? We’ll go to dinner. I’ll buy you a drink. Come over, I’ll cook.’”

Additionally, more than 5,000 businesses have closed since March, according to Yelp.

The number of homes on the market jumped more than 86% in Manhattan, according to the latest Street Easy market report.

With businesses closing and residents leaving town, those who stayed started to pay more attention to the city’s growing homeless population.

To keep those living on the streets safe during the pandemic, the Department of Homeless Services moved more than 10,000 people from group shelters to dozens of hotels.

“There’s incidents that are troubling,” said city resident Chris O’Connor. “You know, there’s a man masturbating in front the Natural History Museum. There’s reported drugs being sold and used more commonly now.”

And the city has seen a rise in crime in recent months. The NYPD reported the number of shooting victims increased 84% – from 551 to 1,017 – compared with last year. Overall, shooting incidents spiked 79% to 833 from 466 in 2019 – which has led some people to draw comparisons to the crime-ridden ’70s and ‘80s.

“What we got hit with was an absolute perfect storm: a health care crisis and economic crisis, a budget crisis, a social justice crisis of crime uptick – all at once and all interrelated,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week. “But this too shall pass, and when it does, the strength of New York City will come to the fore again.”

‘Diaspora of the elites’

Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, said reports of the city’s demise are exaggerated. He called the exodus of some New Yorkers in recent months a “diaspora of the elites.”

“Some of them are kids who are going home to be with their parents or they’re students and a lot of people who can work remotely,” he said. “Others are families who have left the city for summer rentals … in the Hudson Valley or Pennsylvania, as well as the normal set of people who go to the Hamptons. The difference is, they went to the Hamptons in March and they haven’t come back.”

Still, Moss said he would be concerned if many of these families don’t return to the city in the fall. Also troubling, he said, was the pandemic’s impact on the local economy, particularly with swaths of the city abandoned by office workers.

“This is a very serious,” he said. “We have office buildings open, but no one’s buying coffee because they’re not coming to the office. The entire city of New York street vendor industry has been decimated by the desire of so many of our talented people to work remotely for good reason. We’ve now got homeless people replacing tourists in hotels.”

While Manhattan has suffered during the pandemic, Moss noted that most outer-borough neighborhoods remain intact and stable.

“Those people aren’t moving,” he said. “They have families and jobs, and they own homes.”

‘Who knows? I might be back.’

The Extra Virgin Restaurant in Manhattan, like other small city businesses, has struggled of late. It has laid off most of the staff, turned to outside table service and broadly expanded its delivery service area.

“I don’t think the city is dying,” said the restaurant’s general manager, Josip Raspudic. “I think the city is definitely going through a phase where we need to adjust and adapt to new things.”

Raspudic is unsure what the winter months will bring for his industry if officials don’t restart indoor dining in the city.

“I’m only worried about my job and this restaurant and my life, personally,” he said. “When it comes to the city, I think it’s gonna be a quiet summer. It’s gonna be even a quieter, more quieter winter.”

Cheek hasn't ruled out a return to New York, she said.

Back in Louisville, Cheek said that while her “soul is still in New York City,” she has enjoyed living in “what feels like a mansion” for a third of what she was paying for a tiny, dark apartment in the Big Apple.

“I’m not sure I could go back,” she said.

And as the founder of a mobile app, Cheek can work remotely from the rest her team.

“New York will come back on some level, but it’s not going to have that magic that I wanted to pay so much money to live there for,” she said.

Sill, Cheek did not rule out a return to the city where she spent nearly half her life.

“Who knows? I might be back. I’ve got that PO Box,” she said with a laugh. “I need to check my mail.”

This story was reported by Aaron Cooper, Jason Carroll and Ray Sanchez in New York, and written by Sanchez.