Tony Judt is the famed British historian and essayist who died of Lou Gehrig's Disease this past summer. Today, an op-ed of his appears in The New York Times. Here are the key parts of his featured reflection on New York City, due to appear in a posthumous essay collection called The Memory Chalet. In the piece, he muses on the decline of world cities at the center of empires, and suggests that New York may continue brightly even as the empire that hosts it flickers and fades.
WHAT MAKES A WORLD CITY?
Mexico City, at 18 million people, or São Paulo at near that, are unmanageable urban sprawls; they are not "world cities." Conversely, Paris--whose central districts have never exceeded three million inhabitants--was the capital of the 19th century. Is it a function of the number of visitors? In that case, Orlando, Fla., would be a great metropolis.
WHAT WORLD CITIES ARE LIKE ON THE DECLINE
It has been my mixed fortune to experience [the world cities of London, Paris, Vienna, and New York] at twilight. In their prime they were arrogant and self-assured. In decline, their minor virtues come into focus: people spend less time telling you how fortunate you are to be there.
WHY NEW YORK IS DIFFERENT FROM OTHER SUCH DECLINING CITIES
New York remains a world city. It is not the great American city--that will always be Chicago. New York sits at the edge: like Istanbul or Mumbai, it has a distinctive appeal that lies precisely in its cantankerous relationship to the metropolitan territory beyond. It looks outward, and is thus attractive to people who would not feel comfortable further inland. It has never been American in the way that Paris is French: New York has always been about something else as well.
ON MULTICULTURALISM IN NEW YORK
Today I drop my cleaning off with Joseph the tailor and we exchange Yiddishisms and reminiscences (his) of Jewish Russia. Two blocks south I lunch at a place whose Florentine owner disdains credit cards and prepares the best Tuscan food in New York. ... On my way home, I enjoy a mille-feuille from a surly Breton pâtissier who has put his daughter through the London School of Economics, one exquisite éclair at a time. All this within two square blocks of my apartment--and I am neglecting the Sikh newsstand, the Hungarian bakery and the Greek diner (actually Albanian but we pretend otherwise).
HOW NEW YORK MAY SURVIVE AMERICAN DECLINE
We are experiencing the decline of the American age. But how does national or imperial decay influence the lifecycle of a world city? Modern-day Berlin is a cultural metropolis on the make, despite being the capital of a medium-sized and rather self-absorbed nation. Meanwhile, Paris retained its allure for nearly two centuries after the onset of French national decline.
New York--a city more at home in the world than in its home country--may do better still. ... To be sure, we all have our complaints. And while there is no other city where I could imagine living, there are many places that, for different purposes, I would rather be. But this too is a very New York sentiment. Chance made me an American, but I chose to be a New Yorker. I probably always was.