Against Gotham

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Conor has a really cool piece up looking at the shadow New York casts over the country:


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.

Andrew responds:

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. A reader response here.

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. 


I've learned to take smug New Yorkers about as seriously as I take smug assholes from other cities who are convinced that their town "isn't getting it's rightful cred." Whatever. I don't get people who travel to other cities in order to complain about them. I don't go to Chicago to tell my friends why our speakeasies are better than theirs. I go to Chicago to delight in the fact that I can actually get a seat in a speakeasy without a reservation. 

I once stayed at a hotel in Los Angeles that was totally not my scene. At night the joint turned into a night-club, and on weekends a pool party started at noon. Nothing like that ever happens in New York--at least not out in the open. And again, it wasn't my thing. But I loved watching it. I loved sitting there with my bloody mary watching people who lived different. God forbid they all be like me.

To the extent that other cities aren't getting their due, I think that says more about the laziness of media, then it does about New York as a city. There are a lot of mediocre people telling mediocre stories. But I suspect that'd be true of anywhere. How many movies, indy and otherwise, feature actors playing actors. How many books by "sensitive" young writers are about sensitive young writers? How many rap songs are there about the rap industry?

Telling a story that extends out of your backyard is really hard.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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