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The Future of the City

"The Tyranny of New York" Revisited

Conor Friedersdorf

In an earlier post, I argued that New York City's supremacy in American culture is unhealthy, despite the fact that NYC is rightfully considered to be the best city in the United States. As that post emerges as the most discussed on The Urban Scene, it occurs to me that I am not helping matters, but I've certainly enjoyed the ensuing discussion. Readers responded here, here, and here. Andrew Sullivan, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Ezra Klein joined the conversation, among many others, going farther than I did in their criticism. Subsequently, writers at The New Yorker and New York Magazine joined the fray, defending the honor of their metropolis, which is only fair.

Amy Davidson's post is particularly worth reading in full -- it's a well-crafted, forceful and enjoyable rebuttal --  though I hasten to add, addressing everyone who has responded, that I neither wrote nor believe that New Yorkers are especially narcissistic, smug, or even blameworthy for the state of affairs that I lament. My post has been taken by some as an effort to diminish the esteem afforded to NYC. It is my intention to raise the esteem in which other cities are held by airing posts that describe their strengths (extending a project I began at Culture11 called Pins on a Map, and my current boosterism for the photography site What America Looks Like).

I also want to call on the progeny of other cities to better them as inexorably as New York has been improved, though in a manner true to their own identities.

Insofar as I've been misunderstood, flaws in my initial post are the biggest culprit. This followup seeks clarity via a specific example: The cultural supremacy that worries me is exemplified in the world of journalism, and the particular way things play out is instructive. Exceptional publications exist outside of New York City. Subscriptions are available to one obvious example. Just as The Atlantic is a tribute to a long line of people in Boston and Washington DC, and is partly a product of the civilizational capital offered by those locales, New York City deserves credit for its exceptional journalistic products, a list longer than any other metropolis in the world can claim.

Abridge that list for the sake of brevity: let us take The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and New York Magazine. A moment's thought about these publications clarifies why it would be folly to blame New York City for its cultural supremacy. After all, these began as publications for New Yorkers, NYC remains indispensable to their identities, and serving its audience remains central to their editorial and business success.

How else would we have them act?

Nor can we fault The New York Times, The New Yorker or The Wall Street Journal for looming large outside the city. Success in America as a whole is a tribute to their excellence and signals an impressive demand for their output.

The unhealthy thing is, for example, that every week in San Francisco when the Sunday New York Times arrives at the doorstep or is picked up at the Starbucks, its readers get international coverage, national news, and a first rate national magazine, accompanied by a bunch of cultural commentary, slices of life, and other miscellany filtered through the lens of NYC, magnifying its ethos and crowding out the local equivalent. As any literate San Franciscan can tell you, this suboptimal state of affairs is nevertheless preferable to relying on the atrocious San Francisco Chronicle

Even better, however, would be a scenario where San Franciscans saw that getting their culture from The New York Times on Sunday, The New Yorker on the exercise bike at the gym, and Gawker while procrastinating at the office is robbing them of something -- that same thing that New Yorkers gain every time they benefit from reading first-rate material written for them and seen through the lens of their own city. We can all read David Remnick on President Obama, James Surowiecki on Wall Street, and John McPhee on whatever subject he wants to render in impossibly elegant prose.

But The Talk of the Town? Its equivalent should be produced locally in the great cities of our nation, as should the equal of New York Magazine, the finest of the city magazines (and to be fair, there are other good ones).

An example of what's needed is This American Life. It's by now a national show, but its perch in Chicago is core to its identity, and responsible for a lot of what I know about that city's past and its present. The election of Harold Washington, the reportage of Alex Kotlowitz, the scenes from the neighborhood swimming pool during the dog days of summer -- all these things broaden our knowledge of the American scene.

Enlightening as the radio show is for all its listeners, imagine how much better it is for Chicagoans to have that program telling them about their city, and about other cities through the lens of people who live where they do. It would be a blow to us all, and especially to the people of Chicago, if Ira Glass and his staff suddenly moved to New York City. We'd start to get its stories through the NYC lens, and there is already an ample supply of material from that perspective.

(CORRECTION: This American Life DID move to New York City! Strange that I missed it, since I am a religious listener, though I suppose I get it mainly go through the archives. Doesn't every episode still say "from WBEZ in Chicago?" Disappointed as I am to hear this, I think the shows beginnings in Chicago certainly affected its outlooks and the stories it did (e.g. the ones mentioned above). And this affords an opportunity of sorts to test my hypothesis. I intend to delve into the show's archives, comparing its content pre-move to NYC and post move to NYC. I'll report on what I find in a future post. Until then, sorry for the error -- it's always the information you're so sure you know that one gets wrong.)

My feelings on this subject are shaped in part by being a Californian. It is here that East Coast magazines sell more subscriptions than anywhere save the Acela corridor -- especially New York publications, but Washington DC publications too. What is lost due to our dearth of top tier West Coast publications and the journalistic trade deficit that ensues? The offices of East Coast magazines are filled with Californians who'd love to live here if only their were sufficiently choice editing or publishing jobs. Writers who do reside here, like Virginia Postrel or Caitlin Flanagan or even a lowlier scribe like myself focus on East Coast events more than we otherwise would because we want to write for the best publications possible, and they buy stories with New York City and Washington DC angles.

Or consider a writer like Lawrence Weschler, a graduate of UC Santa Cruz who got his start writing for LA Weekly. It is a credit to William Shawn that he recruited Mr. Weschler to The New Yorker, and while there, he continued to file some of the most exceptional writing about California artists and museums ever produced.

Perhaps he would've always moved to NYC regardless, for love of its scale or its art markets or so that he could work alongside guys like Ian Frazier. But say he'd wanted to stay in California. Is there anyplace that could've supported him as The New Yorker did? So he entered New York's orbit, ended up at the New York Institute for the Humanities, and now NYC residents and NYU students benefit from his events, attend his lectures, and subject their city to his discerning eye.

As I said, perhaps Professor Weschler could not be kept regardless, but as a Californian and a lover of journalism, I'd like to keep more writers like him in the future. Indeed, I've spent a great deal of time thinking about what The California Scene would look like, so much so that I own the dot com URL, started a Google Document for brainstormed feature ideas, and turned down an opportunity to work at one of the aforementioned NYC publications partly so that I can build a life that eventually allows me to build better journalism in my home state, a place where I have certain civic attachments, and whose ongoing doom I very much lament. I know that others here in California are embarking on related projects.

Of course, many places have it worse than California, journalism isn't everybody's thing, on metrics like Mexican food, NBA basketball and quality avocados New York City is an embarrassing backwater, and centralizing industries like journalism in certain places has its benefits.

Nor do I blame transplants who haven't gone back to their home states. I left for graduate school, delayed my return in order to work at The Atlantic and Culture11, and wouldn't do anything differently. I also aspire to continue writing a great deal for East Coast publications myself: appearing at The Atlantic is a privilege, and before my career is through I intend to grace the pages of every publication I've mentioned in this post (if all else fails, my surviving loved ones, please place the obits strategically).

It is tremendous that New York publications, and East Coast publications, achieve the levels we've all come to enjoy. It's a reality I celebrate, and I no more want to exclude tomorrow's transplants from their pages than I want to be excluded myself. But the ease of getting The New York Times on the doorstep and The New Yorker in the mailbox makes it easy to rely on those publications more than is healthy, never creating a Talk of the Town or This American Life for communities that lack them. 

This is a small piece of a much larger conversation, and advancing it requires broadening our focus beyond New York City. In politics, there is certainly a "Tyranny of Washington DC" that far exceeds what is justified by it being the seat of our federal government, a subject I'll return to at greater length on this blog. The hold Los Angeles has on the entertainment industry is a bit more complicated, but also worth exploring. It is too easy to say, in response to these concerns, that we benefit when talent congregates in our great cities, because I'd never argue against that proposition. I'd merely suggest a populous that severs its roots so often has costs that are disproportionately born by cities other than their destinations, psychical or intellectual, and that we should face these costs with open eyes, mitigating when possible.

As the satisfied alumni of American colleges and universities assume a measure of responsibility for the endurance and improvement of their alma-maters, I wish that conflicted transplants to major cities would invest a measure of themselves in their points of origin. It is my hope that NYC and other great American cities achieve even greater things in coming years -- and that ours is a future where more cities equal its best achievements, worthwhile local cultures flourish in view of the rest of us, and more folks who prefer the Southwest or the South or the Midwest or the Northwest can fulfill their ambitions and potential without having to go through the Northeast.

I loved living in New York City, and wouldn't trade that time for anything. But there are lots of people who wouldn't, didn't, or don't.




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