Loving and Hating New York

by Thomas Griffith

Those ad campaigns celebrating the Big Apple, those T-shirts with a heart design proclaiming “I Love New York,” are signs, pathetic in their desperation, of how the mighty has fallen. New York City used to leave the bragging to others, for bragging was “bush.” Being unique, the biggest and the best, New York didn’t have to assert how special it was.

It isn’t the top anymore, at least if the top is measured by who begets the styles and sets the trends. Nowadays New York is out of phase with American taste as often as it is out of step with American politics. Once it was the nation’s undisputed fashion authority, but it too long resisted the incoming casual style and lost its monopoly. No longer so looked up to or copied, New York even prides itself on being a holdout from prevailing American trends, a place to escape Common Denominator Land.

Its deficiencies as a pacesetter are more and more evident. A dozen other cities have buildings more inspired architecturally than any built in New York City in the past twenty years. The giant Manhattan television studios where Toscanini’s NBC Symphony once played now sit empty most of the time, while sitcoms cloned and canned in Hollywood, and the Johnny Carson show live, pre-empt the airwaves from California. Tin Pan Alley has moved to Nashville and Hollywood. Vegas casinos routinely pay heavy sums to singers and entertainers whom no nightspot in Manhattan can afford to hire. In sports, the bigger superdomes, the more exciting teams, the most enthusiastic fans, are often found elsewhere.

New York was never a good convention city—being regarded as unfriendly, unsafe, overcrowded, and expensive—but it is making something of a comeback as a tourist attraction. Even so, most Americans would probably rate New Orleans, San Francisco, Washington, or Disneyland higher. A dozen other cities, including my hometown of Seattle, are widely considered better cities to live in.

Why, then, do many Europeans call New York their favorite city? They take more readily than do most Americans to its cosmopolitan complexities, its surviving, aloof, European standards, its alien mixtures. Perhaps some of these Europeans are reassured by the sight, on the twin fashion avenues of Madison and Fifth, of all those familiar international names—the jewelers, shoe stores, and designer shops that exist to flatter and bilk the frivolous rich. But no; what most excites Europeans is the city’s charged, nervous atmosphere, its vulgar dynamism.

New York is about energy, contention, and striving. And since it contains its share of articulate losers, it is also about mockery, the put-down, the loser’s shrug (“Whaddya gonna do?”). It is about constant battles for subway seats, for a cabdriver’s or a clerk’s or a waiter’s attention, for a foothold, a chance, a better address, a larger billing. To win in New York is to be uneasy; to lose is to live in jostling proximity to the frustrated majority.

New York was never Mecca to me. And though I have lived there more than half my life, you won’t find me wearing an “I Love New York” T-shirt. But all in all, I can’t think of many places in the world I’d rather live. It’s not easy to define why.

Nature’s pleasures are much qualified in New York. You never see a star-filled sky; the city’s bright glow arrogantly obscures the heavens. Sunsets can be spectacular: oranges and reds tinting the sky over the Jersey meadows and gaudily reflected in a thousand windows on Manhattan’s jagged skyline. Nature constantly yields to man in New York: witness those fragile sidewalk trees gamely struggling against encroaching cement and petrol fumes. Central Park, which Frederick Law Olmsted designed as lungs for the city’s poor, is in places grassless and filled with trash, no longer pristine yet lively with the noise and vivacity of people, largely youths, blacks, and Puerto Ricans, enjoying themselves. On park benches sit older people, mostly white, looking displaced. It has become less a tranquil park than an untidy carnival.

Not the glamour of the city, which never beckoned to me from a distance, but its opportunity—to practice the kind of journalism I wanted—drew me to New York. I wasn’t even sure how I’d measure up against others who had been more soundly educated at Ivy League schools, or whether I could compete against that tough local breed, those intellectual sons of immigrants, so highly motivated and single-minded, such as Alfred Kazin, who for diversion (for heaven’s sake!) played Bach’s Unaccompanied Partitas on the violin.

A testing of oneself, a fear of giving in to the most banal and marketable of one’s talents, still draws many of the young to New York. That and, as always, the company of others fleeing something constricting where they came from. Together these young share a freedom, a community of inexpensive amusements, a casual living, and some rough times. It can’t be the living conditions that appeal, for only fond memory will forgive the inconvenience, risk, and squalor. Commercial Broadway may be inaccessible to them, but there is offBroadway, and then off-off-Broadway. If painters disdain Madison Avenue’s plush art galleries, Madison Avenue dealers set up shop in the grubby precincts of Soho. But the purity of a bohemian dedication can be exaggerated. The artistic young inhabit the same Greenwich Village and its fringes in which the experimentalists in the arts lived during the Depression, united by a world against them. But the present generation is enough of a subculture to be a source of profitable boutiques and coffeehouses. And it is not all that estranged.

Manhattan is an island cut off in most respects from mainland America, but in two areas it remains dominant. It is the banking and the communications headquarters for America. In both these roles it ratifies more than it creates. Wall Street will advance the millions to make a Hollywood movie only if convinced that a best-selling title or a star name will ensure its success. The networks’ news centers are here, and the largest book publishers, and the biggest magazines—and therefore the largest body of critics to appraise the films, the plays, the music, the books that others have created. New York is a judging town, and often invokes standards that the rest of the country deplores or ignores. A market for knowingness exists in New York that doesn’t exist for knowledge.

The ad agencies are all here too, testing the markets and devising the catchy jingles that will move millions from McDonald’s to Burger King, so that the ad agency’s “creative director” can lunch instead in Manhattan’s expenseaccount French restaurants. The bankers and the admen, the marketing specialists and a thousand well-paid ancillary service people, really set the city’s brittle tone—catering to a wide American public whose numbers must be respected but whose tastes do not have to be shared. The condescending view from the fiftieth floor of the city’s crowds below cuts these people off from humanity. So does an attitude which sees the public only in terms of large, malleable numbers—as impersonally as does the clattering subway turnstile beneath the office towers.

I am surprised by the lack of cynicism, particularly among the younger ones, of those who work in such fields. The television generation grew up in the insistent presence of hype, delights in much of it, and has no scruples about practicing it. Men and women do their jobs professionally, and, like the pilots who from great heights bombed Hanoi, seem unmarked by it. They lead their real lives elsewhere. In the Village bars they are indistinguishable in dress or behavior from would-be artists, actors, and writers. The boundaries of “art for art’s sake” aren’t so rigid anymore; art itself is less sharply defined, and those whose paintings don’t sell do illustrations; those who can’t get acting jobs do commercials; those who are writing ambitious novels sustain themselves on the magazines. Besides, serious art often feeds on the popular these days, changing it with fond irony.

In time the newcomers find or form their own worlds; Manhattan is many such worlds, huddled together but rarely interacting. I think this is what gives the city its sense of freedom. There are enough like you, whatever you are. And it isn’t as necessary to know anything about an apartment neighbor—or to worry about his judgment of you—as it is about someone with an adjoining yard. In New York, like seeks like, and by economy of effort excludes the rest as strangers. This distancing, this uncaring in ordinary encounters, has another side: in no other American city can the lonely be as lonely.

So much more needs to be said. New York is a wounded city, declining in its amenities, overloaded by its tax burdens. But it is not a dying city; the streets are safer than they were five years ago; Broadway, which seemed to be succumbing to the tawdriness of its environment, is astir again.

The trash-strewn streets, the unruly schools, the uneasy feeling of menace, the noise, the brusqueness—all confirm outsiders in their conviction that they wouldn’t live here if you gave them the place. Yet show a New Yorker a splendid home in Dallas, or a swimming pool and cabana in Beverly Hills, and he will be admiring but not envious. So much of well-to-do America now lives antiseptically in enclaves, tranquil and luxurious, that shut out the world. Too static, the New Yorker would say. Tell him about the vigor of your outdoor pleasures; he prefers the unhealthy hassle and the vitality of urban life. He is hopelessly provincial. To him, New York—despite its faults, which he will impatiently concede (“So what else is new?”)—is the spoiler of all other American cities.

It is possible in twenty other American cities to visit first-rate art museums, to hear good music and see lively experimental theater, to meet intelligent and sophisticated people who know how to live, dine, and talk well; and to enjoy all this in congenial and spacious surroundings. The New Yorker still wouldn’t want to live there.

What he would find missing is what many outsiders find oppressive and distasteful about New York—its rawness, tension, urgency; its bracing competitiveness; the rigor of its judgments; and the congested, democratic presence of so many other New Yorkers, encased in their own worlds. The defeated are not hidden away somewhere else on the wrong side of town. In the subways, in the buses, in the streets, it is impossible to avoid people whose lives are harder than yours. With the desperate, the ill, the fatigued, the overwhelmed, one learns not to strike up conversation (which isn’t wanted) but to make brief, sympathetic eye contact, to include them in the human race. It isn’t much, but it is the fleeting hospitality of New Yorkers, each jealous of his privacy in the crowd. Even helpfulness is often delivered as a taunt: a man, rushing the traffic light, dashes in front of an oncoming car. “Watch it, Mac,” shouts the man behind him. “You want to be wearing a Buick with Jersey plates?”— great scorn in the word Jersey, home of drivers who don’t belong here.

By Adolf Hitler’s definition, New York is a mongrel city. It is in fact the first truly international metropolis. No other great city—not London, Paris, Rome, or Tokyo—plays host (or hostage) to so many nationalities. The mix is much wider—Asians, Africans, Latins—than when that tumultuous variety of Europeans crowded ashore at Ellis Island. The newcomers are never fully absorbed, but are added precariously to the undigested many.

New York is too big to be dominated by any group, by Wasps or Jews or blacks, or by Catholics of many origins—Irish, Italian, Hispanic. All have their little sovereignties, all are sizable enough to be reckoned with and tough in asserting their claims, but none is powerful enough to subdue the others. Characteristically, the city swallows up the United Nations and refuses to take it seriously, regarding it as an unworkable mixture of the idealistic, the impractical, and the hypocritical. But New Yorkers themselves are in training in how to live together in a diversity of races—the necessary initiation into the future.

The diversity gives endless color to the city, so that walking in it is a constant education in sights and smells. There is a wonderful variety of places to eat or shop, and though the most successful of such places are likely to be touristy hybrid compromises, they too have genuine roots. Other American cities have ethnic turfs jealously defended, but not, I think, such an admixture of groups, thrown together in such jarring juxtapositions. In the same way, avenues of high-rise luxury in New York are never far from poverty and mean streets. The sadness and fortitude of New York must be celebrated, along with its treasures of art and music. The combination is unstable; it produces friction, or an uneasy forbearance that sometimes becomes a real toleration.

Loving and hating New York becomes a matter of alternating moods, often in the same day. The place constantly exasperates, at times exhilarates. To me, it is the city of unavoidable experience. Living there, one has the reassurance of steadily confronting life.