The City That Never Sleeps – Or Shrinks
I enjoyed David’s defense of New York’s cultural dominance far more than I probably should have, and agree wholeheartedly. This despite the fact that, as a kid – and even into my early 20s – I did all I could to hate Manhattan. That all started to change rapidly on December 31, 2000, when my now-wife and I realized we were in love there. Not coincidentally, this was also at a time when I was living in the DC area and suddenly realizing the relative poverty of that city’s culture (well, at least the parts of DC’s culture that are accessible to a 22-year old white kid). Now? There are few places on Earth I’d rather spend a weekend.
Anyhow, there’s one important justification for New York’s cultural dominance that I don’t think David touched on, a justification that explains why large cities like San Diego, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Phoenix have little-to-no national cultural significance – and, indeed, why they shouldn’t have much: longevity.
New York is not only our biggest city/metro area, it’s also always been our biggest city/metro area. This is important – for the amount of time that New York has been a major center of American population and business, it has been able to develop deep cultural roots from which to build. To complain as Conor does about the lack of cultural import of San Diego, Houston, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Dallas is to ignore the recency of their development. Until about 1950-1960, not a single one of those cities was even in the 20 largest American cities, much less the top 10, and none was even regionally dominant like New Orleans was.
Point is, it takes time to develop a thriving and distinct culture that will interest people nationally, or even regionally – local hangouts don’t become dining meccas overnight; locally-published magazines need time to develop a national reputation; and brilliant artists need time to gel into a cohesive group.
And on top of all that, a deserved reputation as a cultural center can and does help to ensure that a city will continue to be a cultural center – as it should. Talented young writers want to write for the New Yorker or the New York Times in no small part because of the giants that have written in the past for the New Yorker or the New York Times and, significantly, the legacy those giants have left in their wake, a legacy that guarantees a certain level of prestige to anyone who writes for them down the line. I realize that Conor laments the pull of this prestige factor on potential cultural elites from other cities, but that lament ignores that those cultural elites may (and often are) only able to realize their full potential by working in close contact with other cultural elites.
I recently was privileged to attend a lecture on Picasso and the development of Cubism, with a subsequent tour of the Philadelphia Art Museum’s fantastic (but now-concluded) exhibit on Picasso and those he influenced. In retrospect, one of the things that strikes me is that none of that could have occured without the “tyranny” of Paris’ culture drawing talented young artists from the world over and putting them in close contact with each other and able to get a feel for how they each worked. How many of these artists would have realized their full potential in the absence of Paris’ “tyranny”? How many would have even become locally significant rather than becoming merely another artist doing the same thing that other local artists had always done?
The answers to these questions are, I think, pretty obvious. And why was Paris able to exert such a powerful pull in the first place? Picasso did not move there by happenstance, and few of those Picasso influenced moved to Paris because Picasso – a relative unknown at the time – was there. The answer, of course, is Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Rodin, Renoir, Degas, and Gauguin, and before them, Houdon and David.
The point is that it takes decades to develop a strong local culture, even one that can be regionally significant. Moreover, I woudl submit that such a culture must develop independently of elites. In order for local cultural elites to develop at all, there first needs to be a developed, grassroots, local culture for cultural elites to depict, write about, or represent in their cuisine.
It is no coincidence that cities like Philadelphia, Boston, New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco continue to be culturally influential (if nowhere near as much as New York) – they’ve all stood the test of time long enough to develop a rich and unique grassroots local culture. Many of us certainly wish we’d never heard of Emeril, but the fact is that we never would have heard of Emeril were it not for the fact that New Orleans long ago developed a rich and unique local food culture. San Francisco didn’t become culturally influential because a couple of talented musicians hailed from there; it became culturally influential because those musicians were products of its culture. Finally, we would never primarily associate Bruce Springsteen with New Jersey or John Mellencamp with Indiana if there wasn’t something culturally unique about New Jersey or Indiana worth depicting. Without that established unique local grassroots culture, the cultural elites a locale produces will just be cultural elites who happen to hail from that locale rather than cultural elites who represent that locale and provide that locale with cultural influence on a national or regional scale.
The one exception to this rule proves it: Los Angeles, which became the home of the movie industry despite having been a relative backwater up until that time. But there you’re talking about an entirely new industry cropping up and looking for a home around which to coalesce after New York proved inhospitable. Moreover – and maybe I’m wrong – I’m guessing that it took some time thereafter before the movie industry started regularly depicting or reflecting the local LA culture (in the development of which, of course, the movie industry played a central role).
The simple fact is that cultural influence and the existence of a locally-oriented cultural elite presupposes the existence of a well-developed grassroots local culture. That takes time, and often lots of it.