The downtown cores in many big cities are poised to vanish or become shadowy ghost towns of the past because of the global pandemic, worldwide recession, and the end of the office era.
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
–Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792-1822
Off to the big smoke
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people travelled like herds of cows, flocks of birds and schools of fish to and from work in the crowded core of big cities.
But they didn’t walk, or fly or swim to get there. They came and went in subway cars, railway trains, express buses, street cars, ferry boats, water taxis, air planes, and of course, automobiles. And if they didn’t bring their germs with them, something worse happened: they brought them home at night.
Think of the risk of infection from one typical journey from home to work in downtown Toronto, similar to my daily routine years ago when I worked for Alcan Canada, in a glass office on the 30th floor for of the Royal Trust tower at King and Bay, at the very heart of Toronto.
With a laptop over one shoulder and gym bag over the other, you leave your high rise apartment or high priced condominium and take an elevator that stops on almost every floor on the way down to the front door.
From there you walk to a crowded bus that takes you to the subway, where you take an escalator underground. If you miss your subway train or can’t get on because it is too full, you don’t worry, because you know another one will be along in a few minutes.
After leaving the subway you walk underground past coffee shops and shoe stores to the elevator in the air-conditioned skyscraper that you work in, and never leave all day, except to take the elevator back underground to the crowded food court where you eat a green salad from a styrofoam container with a plastic fork.
Same, in reverse
The trip home at night is the same as it was in the morning, but in reverse, except for a one hour stop at the gym, where you spend your free time running in the rat race on a treadmill, while plugged into an iPhone listening to musical escape songs with lyrics like this:
Oh, baby, this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
‘Cause tramps like us
Baby, we were born to run
Because of the pandemic most of the office workers now work from home. The workforce has shifted from downtown work pens to suburban bedrooms and basements.
Information technology allows workers to connect, communicate and be productive by e-mails and Zoom calls. They don’t have to run the gauntlet for an hour each way between home and work while exposing themselves to an invisible virus on buses and streetcars that are standing room only.
Like social distancing, working at home may be the new normal when the pandemic ends. Employees can stay safe and save time and money by remaining at home. They may not want to return to overcrowded downtown COVID-19 epicentres where they once worked. Employers may not want them to, especially if it means they don’t need to rent office space, hire cleaning staff and pay insurance premiums.
Of course some big companies may not survive and recover from the economic decimation caused by COVID-19. Big league sports franchises like the Toronto Raptors, Maple Leafs and Blue Jays are also located downtown. They probably will lose millions of dollars due to the impact of social distancing requirements on their large venues with tens of thousands of seats.
Other downtown Toronto tourist attractions like Ripley’s Aquarium, the Hockey Hall of Fame, Roy Thomson Hall, and the entire theatre district, including shops, bars, hotels and restaurants, will incur large decreases in revenues and staff from which they may never recover.
What will happen to all those multi-million dollar skyscrapers and big expensive buildings if they become unsustainable and obsolete?
Herds of cows can’t graze inside their uninhabited office stalls. Flocks of birds can’t nest in their deserted hallways. And schools of fish can’t swim in their empty underground parking lots.
No one wants to buy an unkempt 50-storey eyesore. Nobody wants to see an empty old dinosaur that was once a baseball stadium with a retractable roof that was closed to block the sun and stop the rain.
No one wants to be reminded that we once built big ivory towers with gold-plated windows over green fields.
There’s only one thing left to do: knock them down and take them away.
Maybe the herds of cows and flocks of birds and schools of fish will return to graze and nest and swim in a place once considered a centre of civilisation.[author title=”About the author”]
Photos: Shutterstock | Dimitri Houtteman, Unsplash | Marvin Ronsdorf, Unsplash.