It should take nothing away from the frontline workers honored in New York’s recent Covid-heroes ticker-tape parade to note that one group was slighted. Yes, nurses, doctors, delivery drivers, and grocery workers deserved to be saluted for soldiering on through the pandemic. But there would have been no parade, and we’d all still be masked and locked down, were it not for Pfizer—the New York–headquartered pharmaceutical company that rushed one of the successful vaccines into production and distribution. Underappreciated due to the caricature of price-gouging Big Pharma, Pfizer, based in midtown Manhattan, exemplifies how cities can serve as incubators for new ideas and enterprises.
The mRNA Covid vaccine was far from inevitable in March 2020, when Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla agreed with the firm’s head of vaccine development, Kathrin Jansen, to place a bet on the development of a vaccine that uses an entirely new biotechnology. This decision (along with a similar one by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Moderna) set the stage for vaccine distribution less than a year later and ensured that the sacrifices and pandemic deaths would not continue indefinitely.
Pfizer’s success tells us much about the economies of successful cities. Its New York roots are deep: the firm was founded by two German immigrants, cousins Charles Erhart and Charles Pfizer, in 1849. They quickly set about doing exactly what Jane Jacobs describes and celebrates in The Economy of Cities: replacing imports from elsewhere with new innovations. “During the great growth explosions of New York City in the [late nineteenth and early twentieth] centuries, the city’s exports were growing rapidly,” Jacobs writes. “The economy is a little like a corn popper in which not all the kernels are popping simultaneously; but all the time corn is popping.”
The cousins, as a history of the firm recounts, quickly realized that the knowledge of chemistry and its emerging applications could lead to new-product development. “Chemicals that once interested only scholars were becoming indispensable in manufacturing, agriculture and medicine,” writes historian Jeffrey L. Rodengen. “[Pfizer] also recognized that in the new nation of America, virtually no one was meeting the growing demand.” The result: new exportable products, including a smallpox vaccine, from its Brooklyn factory for distribution around the growing U.S.
The firm has changed in some ways but remained the same in others. It is led by another immigrant, Bourla, a Jew from the small city of Thessaloniki, Greece, whose parents were among the 2,000 of Thessaloniki’s 50,000 Jews to survive the Holocaust. It develops important new products, including vaccines. But it no longer has a manufacturing facility in New York, though this would neither surprise nor disappoint Jacobs. Healthy cities, she believed, constantly create new products that can only be manufactured at scale elsewhere; Jacobs denigrated her hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, for its reliance on the anthracite coal industry. As Jacobs biographer Glenna Lang recounts in her new book, Jacobs believed that a miner strike—which she would view as a futile effort to freeze an urban economy in place—caused Scranton’s decline.
It’s too late to include Pfizer employees in the heroes parade, but New York can honor its example by becoming an enterprise city again. That means making it possible for contemporary versions of nineteenth-century Pfizer to take root by removing barriers to entrepreneurship, accepting the fact that some businesses may choose to relocate and don’t need to be bribed to stay, and celebrating rather than denigrating innovative employers.
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