Monday, April 10, 2006

The Yin and Yang of New York (both photographs immediately below representing the yin, to keep things pretty)

(Apologies ahead of time for the awfully generic observations found below, but I made a promise.)

One of the funny things about spending significant time in the south is that you meet a lot of smart, well-traveled, interested people who ask for a defense (of sorts) of New York. I’ve been here almost six years now, and one of the deepest truths of the place is the fervent belief among young(ish) people who come here that it’s where they need to be. They complain about the more taxing aspects of the city on occasion, but you get the sense that they couldn’t live anywhere else (at least for a while). So the longer I stay, the odder it seems when someone -- especially someone who has a lot in common with my Yankee friends -- asks me to describe why I choose to live here. But I’m glad they do, because, probably more than the average place, New York causes you to take stock every now and again, and rededicate yourself to the project of hanging in here (or to the project of fleeing in some way that won’t feel like giving up).

As the humid season approaches, when I spend every other day wondering why I don't move to Saratoga Springs (aside from dearth of employment opportunities, lack of social options, and a better than even chance that I would become a degenerate horse gambler within a year or two), it's time to briefly answer a friend's recent question about just what's so great about living in the city. (Calling New York the city is a pretty surefire way to piss off people who live elsewhere. It's fun. Try it.)

First, if you love street living -- walking down the block for pretty much every practical need, and several highly impractical needs as well, at just about any hour -- then there's nowhere else in America for you. In this sense and others, the positive aspects of living here are so broad as to verge on cliche. Just think of the communal, continually adolescent group fun fetishized in shows like Seinfeld and Friends, but with real beauty around you instead of plastic L.A. sets, and with, you know, real people, too. (The beauty, of course, takes the form of the pristine -- Lincoln Center, the Chrysler Building, the bridges, the broader skyline (see above), residential streets (also see above) -- but also what one friend calls "picturesque urban decay." The perfect phrase.) Not excluding myself by any stretch, I've found that New York is an incredibly provincial place for a certain group of people in their 20s and 30s, where they can extend their college experience to its breaking point (which point, for many, doesn't seem to exist). This is enjoyable and incredibly annoying in all the ways you would expect, but you can wring a lot of the former feeling from it before you hit the latter.

Every day, there's something to seek out. My recommendation today (though it doesn't actually happen for another couple of weeks) is the opening of the redesigned Morgan Library and Museum. And every day, something seeks you out. Another friend recounted a cab ride last week, during which the Russian driver had a fender bender with a Chinese counterpart and ended up screaming at him, "I will kick you in your brain! In your brain!" If that doesn't sound like a good time, don't come here. It might come down to this: New York is perfect for people who need constant stimulation, regardless of the type, and probably ruinous for anyone else.

I walked along the east side of Central Park the other night for the first time in a long while, for the last hour or so of sunlight, and was giddy. That said, I needed the reprieve it gave me. Because here's the yang: yes, the place can drive you crazy.

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Blogger Dezmond said...

I am sure all of that is true, and it is nicely put. But my beef with you has not always been your opinions of NY, but more with your opinions of some Southern areas. San Antonio, for instance. That is a really great city to live in for many reasons. You generally trash the city, and you have a right to in some sense, since you spent 4 years going to school there. But I was with you those 4 years, and hung out with you for much of that time. So in many ways, I know how and where you spent your SA time. It was on the Trinity campus, downtown every once in awhile, and to any store/restaurant etc. along the street called San Pedro. (Maybe some places on Broadway and on Blanco). That ain't San Antonio. It is a small part of it. But my impression of what you often did (and other SA-haters who are friends of mine), was that you restricted yourself to these small areas, and then complained that there wasn't much to the city. Since I lived there for quite some time after our college years, I explored SA and its surroundings much more thoroughly and it is a great, varied place to live. Plus you've got Austin, which is an hour north. Within an hour to the West, you've got the hill country and great outdoors activities, camping areas, etc. A couple of hours to the South you've got the beach and the Gulf Coast. Three hours East is Houston and all it has to offer (three hours is nothing for Texas standards).

Don't even get me started on the greatness that is Houston.

Anyway, I appreciate your continued Texas living vs. NY living commentary, but you've got to give Tejas a fair shake!

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


12:23 PM  
Anonymous lfw said...

This point might be too obvious to bother making, but much (to all) of our affection for places grows out of familiarity. No one should have to apologize for favoring one city over another, or feel condescended to by others who happen to love their cities, too. I have no doubt that San Antonio and Houston are fine cities in their own particular ways, and that some people are better suited to them than to New York, say. That said, New York is in a whole different league than San Antonio and Houston (and even Austin, for that matter) as far as cities go. You can't compare them objectively. New York is New York. The beauty of the immense pride we take in living here is that it requires no explaining or defending.

1:48 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

This probably warrants a follow-up post, so I'll limit myself here. Just want to say that San Antonio is a fine city, but I find it very narrowly appealing. Can't imagine living there for years and years. I barely made it through four -- and no, I didn't explore much, but I didn't feel all that inspired to either. And despite the fact that I'm not a big camper-type, I do like the outdoors -- beautiful Atlantic Ocean beaches are a very, very short drive from Manhattan (even shorter from Brooklyn), and just north of the city is beauty that, frankly, you can't find much of in Texas.

lfw makes a good point about the city thing -- Houston and Dallas have things to offer as places once you adjust to them, but as far as street-level city life, there's just no comparison at all (for that, you have to go to Chicago, Boston, etc.) It's not really the fault of the cities, it's just the way that American places are developed now, and that's a shame for those of us who prefer the more old-fashioned structure.

And although I think lfw is absolutely right about familiarity engendering affection (how else could I ever defend Dallas?), there's also the opposite at work, I've found, in NY (and other places) -- the longer you live here, the more you take the good stuff for granted and focus on the bad. After all, "familiarity breeds contempt" is the real cliche.

So much for limiting myself. I guess this serves as the follow-up.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

Leigh, it is that attitude ("New York is in a whole different league than..." and that it "requires no explaining") that many people from other parts of the country find alternatively humorous and irritating. But, I don't necessarily feel condescended to, it is just that this discussion is born from years and years of discussions with JW. It is my view that JW has not fully explored and considered all that these places have to offer in his years of berating them in our conversations. But you are right in one sense, unlike some of the more obvious things about New York, some of the charms and benefits of living in some other places do need a little more explanation because they are less like a blunt instrument over your head and are more subtle.

It is funny you say "or even Austin", like that is the best city Texas has to offer. Having lived in Austin for 3 years, San Antonio for 7 years, and Houston for 17 years (other "homes" have been Nashville and New Orleans), out of those three Texas cities, SA and Houston are both superior places to live over Austin. Austin is one of the most overrated places to live in this country. It is great and a lot of fun and eclectic (I had fun while I was there), but it is far from the mecca so many Austinites say it is.

3:25 PM  
Anonymous lfw said...

Attitude, fact; toMAYto, toMAHto.

Like I said, dezmond, of course I don't begrudge anyone the right to enjoy living somewhere other than New York. Many people would hate living in New York. You might be one of them, if you ever gave it a shot. But I find it strange that you can't accept that New York is just on a different level, as cities go, than Houston or San Antonio. It's hard to put it in a way that doesn't sound belittling, but I swear that's not my intention here.

4:01 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Dezmond understands, lfw, so don't provoke him further. He has strong jedi mind tricks that cause people to scream at him when they don't want/need to. He spent four years using them on me to great effect.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

But lfw, what exactly do you mean by "level"? Whether you mean it or not, it definitely comes across as condescending. You can take different criteria and say this city has more of this, that city has better that. But which "league" are talking about, exactly? OK, NYC has got more pizzarias. I jest, but my question is a serious one. How do you define "league" or "level" within the context of this conversation?

We can take SA out of this discussion, because yes, SA
and NY are not really comparable. What is great about living in SA is what makes it in many respects a modest city (even for its size. I am not sure if you are aware, but SA is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. It has surpassed Dallas in size and population. I am speaking of Dallas proper, not all of the suburbs and wannabe little
cities around it). But, take SA out of the conversation, fine.

I will put Houston up against any city in this country, though. Come on, Houston is the 4th largest city in the nation (NY, L.A., Chicago and then H-town). So, how can the 4th largest city in the nation (and all that a big city has to offer) not even be in the same League or conversation as the amazing NYC? I find that difficult to believe.

10:02 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

You find it difficult to believe because you've never lived here.

10:29 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

Or in Chicago, for that matter, which also puts Houston to shame.

10:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

By "level" here, I think we're talking something along the lines of "ability to secede from the union and still remain totally intact and functioning without any of its residents batting an eye."

10:40 AM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

Your NYC pride is endearing.

12:15 PM  

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