Saturday, February 11, 2012

The New New York City

Any American who wants to move to New York City will have to leave the country. Sao Paulo is one possibility. Istanbul is another option. From the latest New York Times Magazine:

On my way out, I ran into Mari Spirito, a longtime director at 303 Gallery in New York. Spirito had just moved to Turkey to set up a nonprofit called Protocinema. Above our heads, Arabic script was etched into the marble: “He who earns money is God’s beloved servant.”

“In New York it feels like the best years are behind us,” she said. “In Istanbul it feels like the best years are yet to come.”

Like London, there's no more frontier left in New York. Punk is dead. The city's own success squeezed the life out of it. Jonathan Raban, author of "Soft City", provides the best epitaph for New York while lamenting what became of wild London:

The inevitable consequence is that diversity is being driven from the central city to its remote peripheries – a trend that is reflected in metropolitan areas around the world. Here in Seattle, for instance, to find good Indian, Chinese or Korean restaurants one now has to make a 20-mile drive into the suburbs, which is where immigrants, along with artists, students, freelance writers and other natural denizens of the soft city are increasingly moving because they can’t afford the alpine rents of downtown. The densely populated inner-urban honeycomb – what Henry James, writing of London, once called “the most complete compendium in the world” – has become so expensively reconstructed, so tarted-up, that only people with a merchant banker’s income will soon be able to live there, outside of the steadily diminishing supply of low-rent public housing.

Either you move to the suburbs or head to Istanbul. If you aren't up for playing expat and would like the soft city experience in an actual city, there are domestic options. For the Left Coast, Portland beckons. For the East, it's Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh more so than Portland, the best years are yet to come. In the Midwest, Chicago's best years are behind it. The urban frontier is now in Detroit. The South? That's easy. Big Easy. Atlanta peaked about a decade ago. And as you know, Miami is dying.

But if you want to experience what New York was like in the 1970s, then you must go to Istanbul or another emerging cosmopolitan center. You have to find an "Instant City" that suits you. For Americans, life is elsewhere. Time to emigrate.


Brendan Crain said...

The fatalistic glamorization of bankrupt, crime-ridden New York in the 1970s seems almost as ludicrous and myopic to me as the contemporary lamentation of the city's diversity being pushed to its very edges. As an outer borough resident living on a very modest salary, I can tell you that Queens, the Bronx, and the vast majority of Brooklyn are incredibly vibrant, diverse and, relatively speaking, affordable. And no, it's not affordable for most people to live in Manhattan (at least not the part south of the park), but it hardly prevents any of us who live a mere subway ride away from coming into the center and enjoying the hell out of it. If people think Queens sounds scary and far away, off at "the edges" of the city, that's fine with me. My rent stays reasonable, and I don't have to deal with tourists. Ignorance is bliss--sometimes, even, when it's someone else's.

Jim Russell said...

It's a matter of urban aesthetic. I recommend Steve Inskeep's book, "Instant City". Karachi is portrayed as poor, violent, and wonderful. For better or for worse, it is where the action is. New York seems nice and that may suit a number of people just fine. Others need more from a city.

Brendan Crain said...

New York is many things, depending where you are within it. The South Bronx is not the Village, nor is Flushing anything remotely like Cobble Hill. There are vast social and cultural differences from neighborhood to neighborhood. "New York" is often used as a signifier for Manhattan south of 96th Street. That's not New York; it's a small part of a much larger whole.

And I doubt that any considerable number of Americans are in a hurry to move to Karachi. Some people may want to move to cities that are "poor, violent, and wonderful," but they're hardly in the majority. Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but are you arguing that that moving to New York in 1975 is equivalent to moving to Karachi today? As rough as New York may have gotten, that doesn't seem quite right.

I'm curious: what is the "more" that others need from a city, that a place like New York is unable to provide, in your view?

Jim Russell said...

Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but are you arguing that that moving to New York in 1975 is equivalent to moving to Karachi today?

Karachi is an extreme example. But that's the gist of my argument. There is the overall city experience. Then there is the frontier city experience. Talent has to leave New York to find that latter fix.

Noel Maurer said...

I'm with Brendan, though. In the 1970s, civic life basically collapsed in New York. Compared to a decade previous, the city was poor, dangerous, and unpleasant.

Are you arguing that the New York of 1978 was a better place than the New Yorks of 1958 or 1998?

If you are, you need to explain your use of "better."

I also have to admit that I cannot parse what you mean by "frontier." Can you explain?

Jim Russell said...

Are you arguing that the New York of 1978 was a better place than the New Yorks of 1958 or 1998?

No, I'm not making that argument. I'm not talking about quality of place or livability. I'm sure "tarted-up" New York is a better place.

I'm thinking about how cities help develop people, enable them to amass human capital that they can't anywhere else. For Raban, that place is the Soft City. The urban frontier. His London, also of the 70s, wasn't much better than the New York you and Brendan describe.

Some people hate how New York has "improved". They romanticize the collapse of civic life. It pushes them out of the city in search of that fix. As a geographer, I find that aesthetic instructive and useful for explaining talent migration.