Taking A Bite Out Of The Big Apple (Yes, The Worst Post Title We’ve Ever Written)

Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic:

New York City’s role on the American scene isn’t unhealthy merely because it attracts creative, ambitious people with its dynamism, or because its residents have a healthy ego about the relative merits of their city. The problem is that along with those inevitable traits of great cities, Manhattan and certain of its surrounding boroughs happen to dominate American media, finance, and letters so thoroughly that even the most impressive achievements of other cities are routinely ignored while New Yorkers talk about local matters of comparatively smaller consequence, either tempting or forcing the whole nation to eavesdrop on their chatter depending on the day.

In Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, San Diego, and San Antonio, all among the top ten most populous cities in the United States, the smallest with well over a million residents, the average person has watched countless hours of television set in various New York City apartments, and perhaps never seen their own city portrayed in a sitcom. The executives read The Wall Street Journal far more carefully than the local newspaper, the aspiring writers dream of getting a short story published in The New Yorker, the local Starbucks sells The New York Times, the romantics watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s on AMC at six month intervals, and every New Years Eve people gather around to watch a tape-delayed broadcast of a ball that dropped on Times Square hours earlier.

New York is a great city, but in America today, someone who seeks out the best television or novels or magazine writing or art or newspaper reporting is confronted with an even greater degree of NYC centric stuff than is justified. The city is a legitimate giant, yet its shadow somehow reaches much farther than it should. It thereby deprives other cities of the light they need to grow half as tall.

Andrew Sullivan:

I feel exactly the same way. I love it to death, but would never live there. And the narcissism of its inhabitants (yes, I know I’m not exactly one to talk) is deeply irritating. It’s much less different than it once was; and nowhere near as interesting as it believes.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

I think this definitely true of media in the New York-Washington region. We give way too much attention to what happens in our backyards. On a personal note, the first five times I visited New York, I absolutely hated it. Everything just felt so inconvenient. I basically moved here because all the magazines were here, and Kenyatta (unlike me) grew up wanting to live here. But I didn’t come because I thought New York was the greatest city in the world. I came here because work was here. Even now, if Kenyatta weren’t in school, I would gladly live in a Denver, a Seattle, an Oakland, a Charlottesville, a Richmond, a Chicago or, above all, a Baltimore.
But that’s not because I think New York isn’t all it’s cracked up to be–if anything I think it’s more.
I think it’s hard to get what happens when you slam millions of  people who are really different into close proximity. It’s incredible to watch. I think that’s only smug if you’re the kind of person to attribute accidents of environment and history, to genetics.
Moreover, I think New Yorkers only seem more smug, because there are more people in New York and thus more arrogant New Yorkers. In my time, I have watched mo-fos from everywhere from Dallas to Cleveland to Columbia, Maryland hold forth about why their neck of the woods is touched by God. This kind of person would be that way, no matter where he or she were born. Regrettably, in New York we have more of those kinds of people, because we have more of all kinds of people. It’s worth remembering the sheer population size of the city–it’s like ten Detroits.

Ezra Klein:

“I think New Yorkers only seem more smug, because there are more people in New York and thus more arrogant New Yorkers,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates. “In my time, I have watched [folks] from everywhere from Dallas to Cleveland to Columbia, Maryland, hold forth about why their neck of the woods is touched by God.”

This is true, of course. About the worst thing that can happen to you in life is to be in a room with two Texans who start trying to tell you about the Alamo. Or about Texas. Or about how Texas was affected by the Alamo. But there’s something endearing about it, too. Texans are battling stereotypes that don’t tend to favor them. It’s like talking up your mom’s meatloaf. New Yorkers, by contrast, have what’s considered the greatest city in the country and can’t stop talking about it. It’s like an A-student bragging about his grades, or a rich guy making everybody look at his car. It’s unseemly.

Amy Davidson at New Yorker:

But on to the really baffling characterization: the supposed “tyranny” of New York.

In that context, it’s exceedingly odd that neither Friedersdorf nor Sullivan mention the most relevant fact about New York, vis a vis its supposed power over America: our city is not the nation’s capital. (We’re not even the capital of our state.) For all our business and media influence, and the endless sitcoms that bother Friedersdorf and, he worries, give writers in Phoenix complexes, we have deferred remarkably to a city built on disease-ridden wetlands (as opposed to on one of the best natural harbors that tectonic plates and glaciers ever conspired to carve out) and give to, rather than take from, places like Alaska. If we were actually tyrannical maybe we wouldn’t have to bother with an ethanol subsidy—the tyranny of Ames—or, looking backward, about a disproportionately powerful Southern bloc in the Senate. Perhaps we have let our retiring nature get the better of us, and should learn to assert ourselves more. But it’s for the best, really—good for our democracy. It’s steadying, and probably helps explain our resistance, over more than two centuries, to things like coups. If we were truly a country unbalanced by its metropole, those other cities Friedersdorf feels are unappreciated might never have emerged with the same force, or flourished.

The separation of political and financial-and-cultural power has benefited the country as a whole, and helped make America what it is. Really, far from being pathological, New York’s role has been remarkably healthy. Call that a narcissistic view, if you want to. New York can take it.

Julian Sanchez and Conor Friedersdorf at Bloggingheads

David Schaengold at The League:

But why did Conor pick a list of cities unusually famous—justifiably or not—for their blandness? Is it because the average American has watched countless hours of television set in San Francisco, Boston, LA etc, underscoring how much of a non-problem the supposed tyranny of New York is?  Baltimore, for instance, recently received a thorough, realistic, and gripping 60-hour treatment on television. Arguably national television audiences know more about how Baltimore works than about New York.

Conor’s lament wasn’t confined to television, however. He also objected to New York’s dominance in print and in the national imagination. This is a little more on the mark. People from the around the country really don’t read the sometimes pretty good stuff published in Baltimore magazines, or dream about kissing in fabled Baltimorean parks. I don’t see what’s so bad about this, though. People in Baltimore do read local magazines, and dream about leading lives in the city, even if a small, usually college-educated and fairly transient sub-set of the population reads the Times every day and knows more about Breakfast at Tiffanies than breakfast at Howard’s down the street. It seems inevitable that as a country we will have national newspapers and national magazines and places that loom large in the national consciousness. Isn’t in much better that these national institutions retain some local savor? Isn’t the New Yorker, in part because it sometimes seems like a local, even a parochial journal, superior to the tranquil no-whereness of Time magazine? Isn’t the inimitable New Yorkiness of the Times, what Fr. Richard Neuhaus used to call “our parish newsletter,” one its few redeeming features, especially compared with the truly national and placeless USA Today?

What Conor is complaining about is just that we have a cultural capital. Admittedly, having a cultural capital can be galling for provincial cities, even if ours doesn’t loom nearly as large over our country as Paris or London or Toronto or Lagos or Buenos Aires, say, do over theirs. But this isn’t an unusual set-up. The concept has a wikipedia page. In fact, national cultures without such dominant cities, Germany for instance, are quite unusual and usually indicate a fairly late or incomplete degree of cultural unity. Is it really so terrible that we have one?

Mark Thompson at The League:

Anyhow, there’s one important justification for New York’s cultural dominance that I don’t think David touched on, a justification that explains why large cities like San Diego, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Phoenix have little-to-no national cultural significance – and, indeed, why they shouldn’t have much: longevity.

New York is not only our biggest city/metro area, it’s also always been our biggest city/metro area. This is important – for the amount of time that New York has been a major center of American population and business, it has been able to develop deep cultural roots from which to build. To complain as Conor does about the lack of cultural import of San Diego, Houston, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Dallas is to ignore the recency of their development. Until about 1950-1960, not a single one of those cities was even in the 20 largest American cities, much less the top 10, and none was even regionally dominant like New Orleans was.

Point is, it takes time to develop a thriving and distinct culture that will interest people nationally, or even regionally – local hangouts don’t become dining meccas overnight; locally-published magazines need time to develop a national reputation; and brilliant artists need time to gel into a cohesive group.

And on top of all that, a deserved reputation as a cultural center can and does help to ensure that a city will continue to be a cultural center – as it should. Talented young writers want to write for the New Yorker or the New York Times in no small part because of the giants that have written in the past for the New Yorker or the New York Times and, significantly, the legacy those giants have left in their wake, a legacy that guarantees a certain level of prestige to anyone who writes for them down the line.  I realize that Conor laments the pull of this prestige factor on potential cultural elites from other cities, but that lament ignores that those cultural elites may (and often are) only able to realize their full potential by working in close contact with other cultural elites.

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