I recently made what is shaping up to be the worst trade of my life.

In the carefree days of December, I bought a townhouse in an up-and-coming Brooklyn neighbourhood. Four bedrooms and a backyard the size of two parking spaces now represent the bulk of my net worth.

I won’t tell you how much I paid. You would laugh, unless you live in one of the economic reality distortion fields surrounding cities such as London or New York, in which people become confused about where the decimal points belong in the prices of real assets.

Now, inevitably, reality has reasserted itself. In 2020, living in a big city means fearing for your health. Months of remote working is teaching people that you don’t need to live crammed in a box where you are forced to listen to your neighbours fight about who will do the dishes, and where you have to keep your record collection in storage.

The New York Times, which I would have expected to take the city’s side on this, is crammed with articles about urban-dwellers who have pulled up stakes and moved to, say, the Hudson River Valley. The transplants gush about their new lives. I hope they are lying, and that life in lawn country remains a hellish combination of a John Cheever short story and The Ice Storm, but I am beginning to harbour doubts.

Meanwhile, rightwing media outlets dance on the grave of the American city. That people are willing to pay higher taxes for smaller houses next to God Knows Who while depending on public transport has always been an embarrassing counter-example to the conservative account of human nature.

Now they note with glee how renting a moving van to go to New York or San Francisco costs a fraction of what it does to rent one to get out, and editorialise about feckless mayors reaping what they have sowed as taxpayers hit the exits.

I recently had an alarming conversation with a Manhattanite who bid 30 per cent over the asking price for a house in the New Jersey suburbs — and lost badly. New! Jersey! Irrational pricing is for our side of the river, you monsters.

My friends say, soothingly, that a house is not an investment but a place in which to live. To which I respond that it damn well is an investment if the price goes up. Worst of all, my decision to buy is indicted by my own behaviour: in April, we left the city to live with family in a resort town 100 miles away. How valuable can my house be, if even I don’t want to live in it?

Desperate for reassurance, I called the economist Edward Glaeser, who wrote Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. But our conversation did not leave me feeling any richer, smarter, greener, healthier or happier.

In his best-case Covid-19 scenario, in which we have a working vaccine in a year’s time, property values in cities take a hit, richer and older people move out, and younger and poorer people move in. “It will be no worse than what we had in the 1970s, and probably not as bad,” he said cheerfully. I grew up in a city in the 1970s, and his forecast seems unsettling, unless you are a car thief.

Faced with one expert’s testimony that boded ill for my balance sheet, I did what journalists do, and found another.

“9/11 was also supposed to be the end of New York — but then there was a surge in economic activity,” Jennifer Bradley, an urbanist at the Aspen Institute, told me. She thinks the social capital we develop working face-to-face with others is irreplaceable, and we have been depleting our stores of it since February. Zoom calls are not getting it done.

What worries her is that economic pressures will drain cities of their appeal, dividing rich from poor and limiting the kinds of business that can prosper in the city limits: “The losses [from] homogenisation and segregation are a bigger threat than the virus.”

Either way, I am going to find out. I am lashed to the mast: loss aversion and plain stubbornness will keep me in the city even as the suburban sirens sing.

The test will come when Covid-19 is over and the question — for the city, for the value of my house — is not how we survive it, but how we remember it. How long will the residual fear and sorrow cling to the pleasures of city life, from dive bars to concert halls? Who will feel safe again, and when?

My house turns out to be a large if accidental wager on selective amnesia. There is some precedent on my side. The 1918 flu killed more people than the first world war; try and find a memorial commemorating its heroes or victims. People remember what is glorious, not what is important.

Garages and picket fences look good now. But my guess is that the swarming, uneconomic, sociable pleasures of the city will reassert themselves, as we do to Covid-19 what we have done to so much else: forget it.

Robert Armstrong is the FT’s US finance editor; robert.armstrong@ft.com @rbrtrmstrng. Simon Kuper is away

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