When the Editor-in-Chief of this journal invited me to come East to work with him and his colleagues some six and a half years ago, it was in almost every way an offer I could not refuse. It meant doing work I wanted to do in the company of people I wanted to work with. I had not previously thought of leaving academic life, but I realized immediately that I was presented with a critical—and very enticing—vocational opportunity.
Except for one thing. It would mean leaving the small Midwestern community I loved in order to live (and here my stomach muscles tightened) in New York City. Cities were not strangers to me. I had grown up mainly in Detroit and disliked it so thoroughly I determined never to live in a big city again. I had visited New York a number of times over the years and, though often exhilarated by the experience, had always been relieved and eager to leave. A (mostly) nice place to visit, but . . .
In the end, the job was too attractive to pass up and so, swallowing my fear and loathing, I headed warily for Manhattan.
The first few years were so consumed by learning the job and by adjusting to unforeseen events related to it (you’ll have to wait for my memoirs) that living in New York drifted into the background. I didn’t much care for the city—on bad days I hated it—but I endured it. Yet something strange was happening, and it came to awareness some two and a half years after I’d got here. I was coming out of a lunch meeting in midtown Manhattan, and I looked up and around and simultaneously recognized two things: one, I no longer felt like a tourist, and, two, I liked the place.
“Like,” of course, is an improbable word for New York. People love New York, they hate it (often at the same time), but to say they like it is as incongruous as to say they find it gracious. There is, in fact, a great deal not to like.
It is incessantly noisy, unspeakably dirty. (New Yorkers actually work heroically at keeping the city clean, but, as with so much else in the city, they find themselves overwhelmed.) The fundamental fact of there being too many people for the space available breeds habits of impersonality, isolation, and incipient aggression that war with instincts to fellow-feeling. If you ride the subway—and more people than make up the population of Chicago do so every day—you are subjected, at least on the most-crowded lines, to a degradation ceremony that would do the Marines proud. Emerge from the subway and you are engulfed in a sea of panhandlers, street people, and crazies of every sort. If New Yorkers typically affect the demeanor of people who have seen it all, it is because they have.
And then there’s the expense. When Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities depicted the wealthy neighborhoods of Manhattan as besieged fortresses of privilege threatened by Third World surroundings he exaggerated, but not by all that much. There is a middle class in Manhattan; it simply begins at an income tens of thousands of dollars beyond that elsewhere. Prior to moving to the city, I asked a prominent New York editor what salary I should negotiate for. “What are you making now?” he asked. When I told him my modest but not embarrassing Midwestern salary, he threw up his hands. “That’s poverty level here,” he said. Unlike Tom Wolfe, he did not exaggerate.
Given all this, why the (unexpected) affection for New York? Begin at the simplest level: it’s not always as dreadful as advertised. Take crime, for example. For reasons I do not fully understand, the city is commonly perceived as a place where citizens live in constant fear for their lives and property. But it’s simply not true. American cities are all, to some extent, unsafe places. But New York is not prominent among them. Its crime rates rank well down in comparative terms. More than that, the rates are dropping. A few weeks ago a cab driver (founts of all knowledge concerning the city) told me he had never felt safer in fifteen years of driving here. That same night on the local news I learned that official crime rates were lower than they had been in two decades. For whatever it’s worth—I can testify that in my half-dozen years here I have never felt in physical danger.
But one loves New York (all right, I said it) not simply because it’s not as awful as its worst critics portray it. Much of that involves all the cliches that surround life in the city: its infinite variety, its boundless energy, its unrivaled opportunities, its magnificent urban beauty (it still takes my breath away to cross the Queensboro bridge at night into midtown Manhattan). That’s all been remarked on so often that the temptation to take it for granted is overwhelming, but the temptation ought to be resisted.
And there’s more. New York is strong where it is often thought to be weak: its sense of community. Community talk is very big these days, and it’s often just that—talk. One hears a lot about the virtues of “thick community,” and one wonders if those who extol it have in fact ever experienced it. Our excessively individualistic society finds it easy to romanticize its opposite: living for a time in circumstances where private lives are regularly the subject of communal discussion—not to mention resolution—might lead theoretical communitarians to reconsider their enthusiasm.
I loved the small town in upstate New York I lived in for a few years as a child; I’m sure I would go mad there—both out of limited opportunity and out of desire for privacy—as an adult. And I recall even as a child moments of intense shame occasioned when embarrassing family matters became the subject of town gossip. Communities know you: that is why we at once yearn for them and retreat from them in dread.
The great thing about New York is that it offers as much opportunity for community as one desires. Its variety allows for the most exotic forms of community imaginable: if you require fellowship with other cross-dressing Latvian cribbage players, New York can provide it for you. My own communal needs are considerably more pedestrian, but I can report that, having lived in communities of seven thousand, twenty-five thousand, sixty thousand, 150 thousand, 1.5 million, and, now, 7.3 million, I have nowhere more fully felt a sense of community—nowhere found myself so securely part of a band of brothers—as in cold, impersonal Manhattan. New York is not a home—it is far too large for that—but its very size and variety allow it to provide homes within it for a staggering range of home-seekers. Beyond that, it provides a backdrop so expansively grand and multifarious as to remind bands of brothers of the larger worlds, and the wider visions, that exist beyond them.
Dr. Johnson famously remarked that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” He then added, “For there is in London all that life can afford.” I assume that was true of Johnson’s London. I know it’s true of my New York.
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