The Tyranny of New York
May 12 2010, 4:42 AM ET Conor Friedersdorf
Even if New York is a peerless American city, an urban triumph that dwarfs every other in scale, density, and possibility; even if our idea of it is the romantic notion that Joan Didion described, "the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself;" even if you've reveled in the fact of the city, strutting down Fifth Avenue in a sharp suit or kissing a date with the skyline as backdrop while the yellow cab waits; even if you've drunk from the well of its creative springs, gazing at the Flatiron Building, or paging through the New York Review of Books on a Sunday morning, or living vicariously through Joseph Mitchel or E.B. White or Tom Wolfe or any of its countless chroniclers; even if you love New York as much as I do, revering it as the highest physical achievement of Western Civilization, surely you can admit that its singularly prominent role on the national scene is a tremendously unhealthy pathology.
Despite the rent, the cold, the competition, the bedbugs, the absurd requirements for securing even a closet-sized pre-war apartment on an inconvenient street; the distance from friends and family, the starkness of the sexual marketplace, the oppressive stench of sticky subway platforms in the dog days of August; despite the hour long commutes on the Monday morning F Train, when it isn't quite 8 am, the week hardly underway, and already you feel as though, for the relief of sitting down, you'd just as soon give up, go back to Akron or Allentown or Columbus or Marin County or Long Beach -- despite these things, and so many more, lawyers and novelists and artists and fashion designers and playwrights and journalists and bankers and aspiring publishers and models flock to New York City.
It is the destination, and often it benefits them as it did me: it tests, enthralls, and engages, affording ideas and sex and ambition and triumph and defeat and adventure and fun. Its transplants are given all these things, but in their absence, the folks who live wherever they aren't anymore miss out on their young.
Often they lose them forever.
In New York City's defense, this pillage of every next generation is different in scale but not in kind from what Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, and other cities do to their regions, or to one another's regions. During the holidays, ambitious young people leave all these places to go back home, where they complain to themselves, or to friends from high school on similar returns from other cities, about the poor quality of the local newspaper, or the dearth of local bartenders who can mix a proper cocktail, or the fact that the Blockbuster Video, having put its competitors out of business a decade ago, hasn't a copy of The Graduate available for rent, ever.
Frankly, these urban transplants on holiday are often too snotty. There is a local columnist toiling for the few readers who appreciate his tremendous wordsmithery, a man in town who serves an impeccable Manhattan, a local librarian who stocks good films at an out of the way branch. There are George Baileys who sustain civilization in every American city of any size, though ask a New Yorker, and often as not they'll doubt that anything worthwhile is even happening in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston or Atlanta. In the New Yorker's defense, these places don't compare to his city on all sorts of metrics, and a conviction that the place where one lives is tops hardly manifests itself on the island of Manhattan alone. There are as many Parisians who'd say the same, and on a per capita basis, Seville, Wasilla, Newport Beach and The Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida all might have real life Gotham beat.
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.