Why New York Remains America’s Most Fascinating City
Despite many obstacles, New York City is still the best place on Earth. A destination in its own right, our town proudly rests in the upper echelon of civic greatness. Gotham maintains distinction well beyond the spheres of arts and entertainment and is often considered the cultural capital of America. While other cities exist as single-industry economies, New York is multifaceted. The Big Apple’s economic machine sustains business beyond finance and media. New York City is also a catalyst for architecture, medicine, publishing and other industries.
As seen during recent flooding, the distinctive and touching soul of New York stems from the communities. Tightly-knit and distinct neighborhoods weave the fabric of the city, creating a sense of community not felt among other towns and strip malls throughout the remainder of America. Like many enterprises, New York’s greatest resource is its human resource, and the city’s ability to adapt, evolve, enchant and inspire elevates the town to fairy tale significance.
The streets are certainly not paved with gold, but the riches derived from living here pay dividends beyond one’s wallet. Distinctively different from anywhere else, New York has always danced to its own beat. From a renegade trading outpost in the new world to the renegade voices of Occupy Wall Street, an ambitious spirit has nested on our shores for centuries, sparking innovation through the prism of enlightenment.
Considering Gotham’s controversial history, no wonder the citizens possess a distinctive edge. The vibrant culture of the city induces feedback from every visitor -- even if the opinions are based on half-baked stereotypes. But having a New York story is what every visitor seeks; because in New York, like nowhere else, the exposure is the attraction. The soul of the city is felt on the sidewalks and subways, on the front stoop and back alleys. You just can’t paint it on the walls.
Despite well-known flaws, New York offers a top-notch quality of life. The high cost of living, tainted air, crime, and the strain of life-on-the-go, take its toll; but again, the dividend of living in the cultural cradle of America is worth the hassle. Almost like osmosis, New Yorkers are enriched with attributes that, when properly cultivated, place us at the top of the societal food chain. The air of superiority plays a role in boosting New York’s brand of confidence and productivity to the world. Peter W. Kaplan, writing for The New York Observer, wonderfully characterized the attitude as “constantly congratulating itself for the lovely, roaring, extravagant business of being New York.” Simply stated…we pick up instincts here that enable us to excel in any environment.
Comedians and the social sciences also demonstrate that there’s a touch of truth in every stereotype. Nudging the stereotype along -- like teenage bystanders in a schoolyard fight -- are the filmmakers and visitors to New York City. The aforementioned groups do a bang-up job selling a story to gullible strangers. With such strong influences at work, counteracting the stereotype is easier said than done, but hey, as we say in New York, ”It is what it is.” The New York stereotype is largely promoted outside of our enclave, but there is wisdom in recognizing a stereotype and not letting it get the better of you.
Dreams are fulfilled in Gotham, but not without a cost. In the last few months alone, many have perished trying to start a new life in New York. Foreign stowaways routinely starve to death in overseas shipping containers, or are suffocated, crushed, or frozen in the landing gear of airplanes.
As of this writing, there are people still without shelter or utilities from hurricane Sandy. The historic 12-12-12 benefit concert took place in midtown, while downtown streets were dark. Trailer-sized generators still provide heat and power to the financial heart of the city, while New York struggles to get back onto its feet. Most shoreline communities in the outer boroughs remain decimated. Many have not been permitted to return to their homes, and many formerly flooded, but structurally intact homes are still without utilities. Times are tough for New York City now, but at times like these the spirit is often strengthened.
Public opinion of New York’s quality of life varies at times. The storm of the century has been New York’s greatest test of morale since the September 11th attacks. New Yorkers, though, have grown accustomed to disruptions in their lives. Aside from the looming, prolonged daily reminder of terrorism, our citizens have been caught in a myriad of public inconveniences.
The American Airlines crash in the Rockaway’s (flight #587) two months after 9/11 is overlooked in memory; but that disaster also tore apart a community while the city grieved the loss of nearly three thousand at Ground Zero. The controversial delays and rebuilding of downtown’s hallowed ground keeps the wounds very visible. In recent memory, the Big Apple has struggled through the inconveniences of a major blackout, a crippling blizzard, and a week-long occupation of the Republican National Convention, and a frigid three-day transit strike in 2005. Aside from the destruction on 9/11, there have been 16 unsuccessful terrorist plots in New York City alone since 2001. Adding irony to the strain, on November 25, 2012, New York City recorded the first 24-hour period in many decades without one recorded shooting, slashing, or stabbing. Looking at the big picture, one can understand a mood of pessimism from the locals.
In 1987, Iconic New York author Pete Hamill denounced changes he perceived in New York. In his famous essay “The New York We’ve Lost” for New York Magazine, Mr. Hamill shredded vestiges of a city he saw regressing since the 1950’s -- including the demolition of famous ballparks, dance halls, movie palaces and the loss of Brooklyn’s famed trolleys. “Growing up here you learned one bitter lesson: whenever something was destroyed for the crime of being old, what replaced it was infinitely worse” writes Hamill, “for many of us, looking back is simply too painful.” Interestingly enough, a similar sentiment was expressed by Walt Whitman in the Brooklyn Eagle a century earlier about the dissolution of New York City culture. Hamill’s lament also reflects a tone not unlike disenfranchised New Yorkers today.
As a lifelong city resident and the recipient of complaints for decades, one sees patterns develop from the complaints. Most critics are skeptical of change because it challenges their pleasant notion of the good old days. Their concern is reasonable because the magical land of yesteryear embraces fondness in memory - and the era often complimented some high point in their lives.
But too many often focus on nostalgia instead of reconciling one of life’s great lessons…change happens. Nobody likes letting go of old memories, but, of course, it’s only a matter of perspective. Part of the allure of New York City is the connection between nostalgia and modernization. A masterful municipality in flux, Gotham today promotes innovation while trying to embrace its past. From public spaces to eco-friendly office towers, it seems the Big Apple’s construction perpetually diverts pedestrians around sidewalks and through ever-present scaffolding across town. Change happens here, but not everyone appreciates the change -- particularly with the city’s terrible track record of preservation.
Much is discussed of the folly of destroying the old Pennsylvania station, or the citywide real-estate swindles that traded lush oceanfront assets for public housing developments. During the Giuliani era, a wrecking ball literally demolished Coney Island’s famed Thunderbolt rollercoaster overnight. The Thunderbolt was murdered in its sleep just prior to a hearing to determine landmark status. Preserving New York’s past should be a priority, but in the quarter-century since Hamill’s essay, poor planning has endured. Coney Island’s amusement area alone has fallen victim to treacherous acts of municipal vandalism and must be carefully monitored, especially since the storm has ravaged the area and bankrupted the few remaining small business owners.
Profound changes have altered the New York landscape since the 1980s. Areas of the city littered with derelict vehicles and abandoned buildings provided an ample habitat for squatters and the drug-addicted. Slowly, many blocks were reclaimed and redeveloped. Development continued even as the gangs and drug wars raged in the streets. Communities in East Flatbush, and Bedford-Stuyvesant (which had the highest levels of murder and violence in the Northeast) began to lure newcomers. Into the late 1990’s, brave new faces priced out of Manhattan, began colonizing the outer boroughs and confusing the locals as they pushed up rents. They stood out like hipsters in the ghetto. I called them pioneers, but some cops called them marshmallows (soft-white people). Scruffy beards and tight-legged jeans, they could not have stood out more if they traveled in covered wagons down Fulton Street to their 4th floor walk-ups. Yes, they were the new lifeblood in a booming economy, and yes, they were frequently victimized.
Before the local exodus of Manhattan there was a middle class in New York’s least populous borough. Neighborhoods resembled the outer boroughs where families lived for generations. Blue-collar jobs and rent control laws helped keep neighborhoods intact before real-estate investment firms gobbled up properties and reorganized them as condominiums. As the cost of living skyrocketed, many legendary mom and pop shops were lost to corporate chain stores only paying employees minimum wage.
Then “Sex and The City” encouraged legions of bankrolled princesses to colonize Manhattan, stagger clumsily in high heels, and fumble with Martini glasses for the first time. The middle class was eventually squeezed out, leaving only the wealthy and those in public housing to coexist on the island. Despite small pockets of “old money,” many wealthy New Yorkers are new arrivals. Today Manhattan is not New York. Outside of a diminishing area uptown, the New Yorker is an endangered species on the island of Manhattan. Fortunately, Manhattan still offers vivid nightlife and entertainment that far exceeds other cities of the world -- even if the experience has been diluted by our out-of-towners.
While my prime years were not spent patronizing iconic institutions as the Stork Club, Gilly’s[N1] , Plato’s Retreat or Studio 54, I still have the good fortune of experiencing CBGB’s, Chumley’s, Limelight, and the Bottom Line. Pete Hammill’s experience riding the trolley to see the Brooklyn Dodgers is grand, but riding in an air-conditioned subway to the Barclays center in a fraction of the time is notable. Living through an era where the great borough of Brooklyn has now adopted two professional sports teams is a definite thrill as well.
Egotistically, many New Yorkers fail to recognize and respect the memories of those in their prime today. Yesterday’s Sound Factory nightclub is an ancestor to Pacha, and those enjoying a late-night papaya drink and hot dog deserve credit -- even if the combo today costs more than a buck. Faltering about the Lower East Side, midweek morning, beneath the shadows of the bridge after too long at the speakeasy, or simply strutting the ‘walk of shame’ is a time-honored right of passage. Glancing sharply upward, obscured by the century-old steel and stone structures, one can notice the string of cabs rushing back into Manhattan. Their white triangular rooftop advertisements glow in the dawn light as they hustle back for the morning rush hour. Memories of sunrise over Chinatown after a good meal and a better night out, or watching the sun set behind the Statue of Liberty is a timeless dividend granted to every generation in our great town.
Still, today’s, short-timers, comfortable in their reclaimed enclaves of Bushwick, Harlem, and Long Island City complain without a proper frame of reference. Lacking time-tested experience, their opinions seem baseless, as they are not the pioneers of the early 1990s. Despite decades of criticism, what differentiates today’s experience from generations prior, is that New York has improved in recent times. In a way, though, their reflections are still nostalgic. Rents go up as crime goes down, and the city prospers. But there are tradeoffs. Just as ambassador Hamill and many generations experienced changes in New York, recent years have still been bittersweet to the city.
Not long ago, 99 cent stores sold items for under a buck, and for another dollar one could purchase a 32-ounce fountain soda without violating the law; subway tokens were very reliable and never got damaged or demagnetized; parking tickets didn’t cost as much as monthly garage space; and an overabundance of bike lanes and pedestrian medians didn’t discourage drivers from entering Manhattan for noncommercial purposes.
The world has changed in ways we have always predicted. Today, the greatest free speech experiment on the planet is under surveillance as Big Brother is alive and very present in New York. Like it or not, we have given up liberties in exchange for safety…and it’s working. Violent crime has steadily declined, yet being on camera every step from your building lobby to the corner coffee shop, through your subway ride and into your workplace may cause performance anxiety.
Today New York City is the safest big city in America - if not the world - and the safest it has been in generations. We can split hairs and rant about the particulars, but the stats can’t lie that much. I say all the time that, as locals, we won a planetary lottery. Whether rich or poor, we have the good fortune of having the most dynamic place in the world outside our door. We could have been born in the slums of another country, never to know New York beyond folk tales. Instead we are in a good place. In fact, we are cradled in the best place on earth.
Eugene Durante is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine and a born-and-bred New Yorker.
Photo: Marianzetta (Flickr, Creative Commons).