Sunday, May 28, 2006
Paean to New York City
I suppose there's nothing duller for those of my few readers who are familiar with New York than more wide-eyed observations of the City. But I never visit without my mind running overtime, and where this process has filled private journal entries in the past, this blog is my outlet now. So gird yourselves. Susan and I spent five days there leading a tour from the University of Wisconsin to see Broadway shows and have a generally hand-held visit for those not up to braving the experience alone. This is our second year doing this, and it's meant to be an annual thing, a tradition in the making. And really, there's not much for us to do except help with the coming and going, and to answer questions and generally be available if someone gets scared or lost or confused or whatever. For my part, I love to be the City's advocate for people who feel, at the very least, great trepidation. Susan gets to immerse herself in the greatest concentration of theatre in the world, and I get to walk and watch.
Density. It's all a matter of density, of bodies per square block. Manhattan is an island, which has finite space, and so growth occurs upward--increasing density--rather than sprawling outward. That's it--New York in a nutshell. But even if this is correct, it wouldn't really help a person not already familiar with the city to understand its X-factor. Hell, even with a direct sensory upload I'm still unable to fully understand this X-factor.
So many questions arise naturally to one with an inquisitive nature about the differences--subtle and really unsubtle--between New York City and nearly any other place. I never venture into the City for the first time on any given visit without experiencing the cultural equivalent of sticking my finger into an electrical socket. What IS this? I'm always struggling to put a finger on what exactly--what essential thing(s)--would be revealed when all the other noise and stuff is boiled away. Maybe it's just too many things to put a finger on, a symphony of details that defies a one-line summation.
That this place IS different is immediately and viscerally obvious upon putting foot to the tarmac. My long-standing theory, as stated above (not original, obviously), is that the special character of the City is mostly a question of population density, and of all the stuff that arises from that. The lower 2/3 of Manhattan is probably more heavily saturated with people than any other similar-size stretch of real estate in this country, and the city continues to grow, with density--and rents--rising further and further North on the island with each passing year. (Apparently Manhattan and San Francisco are the only two places in the country where rents are rising precipitously and yet the demand continues to grow). This density begets a concentration of every supporting thing, from restaurants to book stores to myriad museums to, well, you get the point (though I have to restrain myself from making lists of all the stuff that grabs and fascinates one from block to block, all the products of this population density). And all that stuff makes this an awesome place to be. You can see more, and do more, on this island than anywhere else in America. Cue the visitors & tourists. More people. One thing feeds on another, and soon you have a concentration of television and theatre and movie production--the things that spread the word across the country and around the world (which is how everybody knows so much about the City, even if they've never been here--they've all seen a lot of stupid people waving their placards behind the morning show hosts in Times Square, as though being seen on TV makes them people when they weren't before). These media and big-dollar corporate people bring education and fervent intellectual discourse and living fine arts and demands for fine things and good health care and effective transportation. I'm just stabbing at random, but the thrust is there even if my details are askance.
But is even that right? Is this really just a question of the right ingredients thrown into the pot? That seems to encircle only a certain portion of attributes. What, for example, do we make of New York's astounding diversity of races and nationalities? So much of "intrinsic" New York culture is suffused with multi-nationalism--food and literature and painting and music and languages. This is very different from, say, Minneapolis or Dallas. Minneapolis is a diverse place too, but comparatively it feels like a white, english-speaking city that is friendly and welcoming to non-whites (or so it seemed to me); whites have no such prominence on the streets of New York. This is simply what the city is. Somali cab drivers and Indian deli owners and hispanic waiters and white barristas and Jewish businessmen, students and artists and aspiring actors and retired old ladies from the Upper West Side walking their dogs by Central Park. 13,000 cabs. 15,000 restaurants.
I saw a book a couple years ago which profiled the 300 largest American cities and subjected them (and their surrounding metropolitan areas) to a statistical analysis. The result was a ranking, a kind of competitive evaluation of each area for the quality of life provided to its inhabitants. Things like climate, transportation, health care, school quality, general community educational level, cost of living, presence and quality of art, and outdoor activities were measured, and factored according to a predetermined weight into an overall score. And for large cities, New York ranked No. 1 in quality of life, and, as I recall, by a pretty significant margin over the runner-up. And, coincidentally or not, New York is the largest metropolitan area in the country. There was no measure that I remember of population density. Chicago (another place I love) is our third largest metro area, but it was significantly down the rankings--9th or so, I think. It was hampered by a rather brutal climate, by higher crime, by less effective schools and health care--in fact, it ranked lower in most every category. And I'm willing to venture that Chicago is substantially less densely populated than New York. So what role does density play in these things? In quality of schools? In seriousness and prevalence of crime? Chicken and egg: is Chicago less populated because its lower density has failed to bring the necessary critical-mass concentration of society's goods, or is it less dense because it's just not as cool a place to live (protestations of Chicagoans notwithstanding)?
I always do the same things in New York. I eat too much, but I walk probably about 10 miles each day and so, unwittingly, help burn off the calories; I buy CDs, because there are no good classical music stores outside of the bigger cities; I usually catch a movie. But mostly I walk--without a destination, with no firm purpose. More times than I can count I've headed off to a museum or specific shop, only to arrive and decide that the admission fee plus the time spent inside which I might otherwise spend outside walking around are enough to put off my visit for another time. I've been inside the front doors of the Guggenheim five or six times; I've never paid the admission to tour the collection.
For me it's the whole ensemble, it's the sum of all the parts that sweeps over one like a magic cloud, and that essential, overarching character is so much more than any one thing.