The Plague of Athens ended the golden age of the West’s first great city in 430 BC—not only because of the disease but also because, as Thucydides wrote, “Athens owed to this plague the beginnings of a great state of unprecedented lawlessness.” Justinian’s attempt to revive the Roman Empire collapsed when a pandemic struck Constantinople in AD 541. Europe then sank into centuries of warfare and rural poverty. Contagious diseases, like cholera, routinely depopulated cities throughout the nineteenth century, until local governments made enormous investments in water systems and improved public hygiene. “Times of pestilence,” wrote the great classical historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr in 1816, “are always those in which the animal and devilish in human nature assume prominence.” While that claim is far from universally true, past pandemics have sparked riots, pogroms, and unrest.
And even before Covid-19, discontent seethed in America’s cities—and reemerged dramatically in both the heartfelt protest and the deplorable looting and violence that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. Protests have broken out against gentrification, Uber, new housing projects—and the absence of new housing projects. Police have been vilified. Unhappiness about the glaring inequities in schooling, income, and upward mobility is widespread. The city triumphant has become the city discordant.