The second home is where the money is.
The second home is where the money is. Miles Astray/

In August 1831, the German philosopher who believed that history was a kind of thinking thing that moved through time and whole societies, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, fled the city of Berlin because of a cholera outbreak. The transmission of this pathogen is fecal-oral; eating contaminated food or drinking water will result in infection. In Hegel: A Biography, Terry Pinkard describes the bad situation that Hegel ran from in 1831 in terms that our COVID-19 times can appreciate.

...Many public buildings, slaughterhouses, and even schools [in Berlin] were closed. Even coins and mail were fumigated with smoke or sulfur. Houses with stricken members were quarantined, funerals were required to be held at night on the very day of death (the nighttime requirement was meant to minimize the contact of the infected corpse with other people), and the corpse was required to be soaked with calcium chloride.

Hegel, the court philosopher of his day, was one among those who could afford to leave the city and "wait until the plague was over before returning." He rented a garden house that his wife described as their "little palace." But Hegel returned to Berlin too soon and he died of the disease on November 13, 1831. (Terry Pinkard is of the opinion that a long bad stomach killed the philosopher, not cholera.) But my point here is not to state my position in the dispute about what finally brought down Hegel, a notoriously bad writer, but about how this business of the rich abandoning the city during a plague has been revived by the present coronavirus pandemic.

Let's look at two recent articles, one in The City, the other in the Seattle Times. The former concerns New York City, which has a concentration of rich people in the borough of Manhattan. Based on records kept by the city's Department of Sanitation, during the stay-at-home order, which began on March 20, there has been a significant drop in waste collected in parts of Manhattan and a significant increase of waste collected in working-class sections of Queens, like Astoria. What this means is that a large number of rich people have split town.

The City reports:

Sally Afonso, 37, says the rest of her East Midtown townhouse has emptied out. One neighbor went upstate, while another couple headed back to North Carolina, where they had moved from. Her landlord, who usually lives next door, is also gone.

Something similar has happened in our corner of the world, according to Seattle Times' FYI guy Gene Balk. What he has gathered from the numbers is that one in every ten households in King and Snohomish counties owns a second home. (That rate, incidentally, is much higher among our representatives in Olympia.) Many of these extra homes are used for vacations in counties like San Juan and Pacific. When the stay-at-home order was imposed on March 16, some of the rich fled the plague and set up in the sticks or the seaside. Balk claims that rural and island people are not one bit pleased with this sort of thing. They want the virus to stay where it thrives, in the city.

Balk writes:

Locals are concerned both about urbanites bringing the virus with them, and also the burden they might place on the limited resources of small towns.
“There are people posting on Facebook, ‘Shouldn’t we have the sheriff down (at the ferry terminal) making sure nobody from the mainland is coming on the island?” said Farhad Ghatan, the mayor of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.

It is here we can spend a few moments considering the history of the city. It has its roots in, of course, agriculture. From this sedentary form of the transhistorical (or universal) metabolic exchange between humans and nature the city arouse.

But the city was not a safe place. Humans loved them, as is made apparent by so many texts from the ancient worlds, but the technology and methods and practices that made them livable and stable did not appear until very recently, in the second half of the 19th century. Indeed, the cause of cholera was discovered only in 1854, a little over 20 years after Hegel's death. A ghost map guided a Victorian physician, John Snow, to a contaminated well in the West End of London. This and many other improvements made it possible for a very large number of humans to safely share a small area. The city did not spring from nature or the genes (one and the same thing) like those earthy termite mounds, some of which can reach 17 feet. The city is, in the deepest sense, a cultural object.