And the Winner Is? Altucher and Samuels Debate NYC’s Alleged ‘Death’ at Propelify

On August 17, 2020, several months into the global coronavirus pandemic, author, comedy club owner, podcast host and former hedge fund owner James Altucher published a controversial opinion piece in the New York Post. Its title: “New York City is Dead Forever.”

Here’s an excerpt …

I love NYC. When I first moved to NYC it was a dream come true. Every corner was like a theater production happening right in front of me. So much personality, so many stories.

Every subculture I loved was in NYC. I could play chess all day and night. I could go to comedy clubs. I could start any type of business. I could meet people. I had family, friends, opportunities. No matter what happened to me, NYC was a net I could fall back on and bounce back up.

Now it’s completely dead. “But NYC always always bounces back.” No. Not this time. “But NYC is the center of the financial universe. Opportunities will flourish here again.” Not this time.

A week later, none other than comedian Jerry Seinfeld, born and raised in Brooklyn, responded to Altucher, defending the Big Apple’s honor with his own New York Times editorial, “So You Think New York is ‘Dead’ (It’s Not).”

To quote Seinfeld: “Manhattan is an island off the coast of America. Are we part of the United States? Kind of. And this is one of the toughest times we’ve had in quite a while.

“But one thing I know for sure: The last thing we need in the thick of so many challenges is some putz on LinkedIn [referring to Altucher, whom he personally knows from the comedy world] wailing and whimpering, ‘Everyone’s gone! I want 2019 back!’”

This was the backdrop for Propelify’s invitation to Altucher to defend his thesis about New York City’s death on the Stage of Wisdom — pitting him against Julie Samuels, executive director of the nonprofit Tech:NYC.

It should be noted that, while Ms. Samuels was live and in person at Propelify, Mr. Altucher was appearing remotely from the Atlanta vicinity. It would have looked particularly bad for him if he had actually been across the river, in the Big Apple.

New York has some big problems, according to Altucher, that many residents are in denial about. They include underlying financial and economic issues that are still there, and have not been adequately addressed during the pandemic. As a result, the business tax base has decreased.

He points to tens of thousands of bars, restaurants and other businesses that have permanently closed. Another alarming statistic is that offices are approximately only 20% occupied, compared with roughly 98% during the economic peak just a short while ago, in 2019.

The above numbers would at least partially explain why more than 330,000 people filed changes of address last year with New York City post offices. Former residents have been relocating to other cities, such as Miami, Austin and Denver, to name a few.

Altucher pointed out that, given the smaller tax base, it will be challenging for the city to support its wide array of government-funded services, and this could result in a “downward death spiral,” he fears.

Crime is up significantly compared with 2019, including shootings, and this could at least partially correlate with the issues concerning law enforcement dating back to many of the racial and social protests related to George Floyd and other issues.

At this point, it is unclear how much taxes will have to rise to make up for the likely budgetary shortfall. By some estimates, New York may find itself in a $100 billion hole, with expenditures significantly outweighing expected tax receipts.

A new mayor will be elected next Tuesday. At this point, Eric Adams is the clear frontrunner, and Altucher supports him — although he is clearly concerned about the state of the city the new mayor will be inheriting from Bill de Blasio.

Despite all of the above fears and concerns expressed above, Ms. Samuels clearly won the debate with Mr. Altucher by a unanimous decision, at least based on the Propelify audience applause levels.

Some of her key pro-New York points are summarized below:

  • Many restaurants are still open, and the tremendous success of outdoor dining has had their customers spilling out into the streets.
  • After much COVID- and vaccine-related controversy, the schools are open once again.
  • Samuels says that, more than ever, she has been running into various friends and acquaintances on the streets of New York in recent months.
  • The city has always faced challenges, throughout its history, but it remains resilient and is constantly being recreated.
  • Tourism is coming back slowly, but maybe this is a period when we should all take a step back and figure out how New York should best serve its residents.
  • Rents are back to 2019 levels — a positive sign of renewed demand following the brief downward blip during the height of the pandemic.
  • Many of the largest global tech companies (including Google, Facebook and Amazon) have doubled down on New York, committing to commercial office space.
  • Tech is growing, and it’s resurgent … breathing new life into the city.
  • Brooklyn continues to survive and thrive — perhaps bouncing back even stronger than Manhattan.

Who will be right in the long run remains to be seen. For now, Ms. Samuels is clearly in the lead.

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