The City That Never Sleeps – Or Shrinks

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Mark of New Jersey

Mark is a Founding Editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the predecessor of Ordinary Times.

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  1. Avatar Michael Drew
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    There’s omething tautological about the whole debate. It is culturally dominant, and that makes it rightly culturally dominant. It’s just culturally dominant. That’s that. What is it really that we’re being asked to say about San Antonio or Charleston? Both wonderful, distinctive places with amazing history. And I do take the point about people who can’t hear a good word said about another city without having to remind everyone around them how much greater New York is. But there’s just no getting around its status as cultural capital. And it’s just not the case that we could somehow redistribute its gifts outward and have anything like the same richness. It’s development is historically and geographically bounded, as you say. I see far more upside to having one place where all Americans can go either to visit or to live and access such a great depth and breadth of cultural, and indeed economic, capital all in one place. Because in reality it takes nothing away from all the other unique places with their own distinct histories we have in the country at the same time. But the unending layeredness of New York (which Ta-Nehisi Coates has discussed in is fantastic post on this topic a day or so ago), is indeed unique among the unique, and is entirely particular to New York’s development over the centuries as the dominant economic, and therefore cultural, crossroads of North America.Report

  2. Avatar North
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    Harumph! I agree with your substantive points but you get minus ten points to gryffindor for writing a piece about New York City culture and not mentioning Liza.Report

  3. I’m happy to let NYC have the attention. It has its strengths (for me it’s all about the food) and its weaknesses (crappy job market, traffic, crime, high living expenses, etc). Just like every other city in the country. It’s just a whole lot bigger. I’m quite sure that NYC will remain the biggest city in the US but I can’t help but wonder if it will lose its spot at the top of the heap in culture.

    I remember in the 80s we said that it took 2 years for NY fashions to reach us in the midwest. Now I would say that timeframe is less than 6 months. It used to be that if Apple released some new product it was always available in NYC first and then trickled to us. Now you get them the same day (thanks Amazon!). Being on the coast is no longer a huge advantage.Report

    • @Mike at The Big Stick, No doubt about the traffic (but why drive in the first place?) or the living expenses, but crime? NYC has one of the lowest crime rates in the country for any city over even 100,000 in population. And while the job market isn’t good, it’s pretty well in line with the rest of the country, and I’m guessing if you factored out the financial services bubble, it’d probably be better than the rest of the country.

      Regarding your main point – I think there’s a lot to be said for the cultural leveling effects of the internet and modern common carrier delivery (which are both good and bad), but I think these effects cut both ways, and could just as easily increase NY’s cultural dominance even as it mitigates the need to actually be in NY to be a player in our national culture. I say this simply because as long as there’s an MSM of some sort or a desire to see live theater or to go to an art museum or to taste a unique cuisine, it will be NY’s institutions that remain most prominent. As people increasingly turn to the internet for their information or seek out the “best” fashions or whatever, they will do so by bypassing the local institutions upon which they have historically relied and turn instead to the most nationally-known institutions. In other words, you wind up with greater focus on NY as people are more able to bypass (and thus ultimately kill) their local institutions.
      Social networking, as I allude to, mitigates this by allowing cultural elites to learn from each other without actually being in the same place. Similarly, the lack of entry costs enabled by the internet flattens the cultural hierarchy, allowing people with little social or economic capital to reach thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions in some circumstances, regardless of where they live.

      BUT even with that mitigating factor, the type of cultural influence one will be able to exert is going to be dependent on the strength of the local culture from which a particular one of these cultural democrats hails. Somebody trying to become Phoenix’s Bruce Springsteen is still going to need a rich local culture to draw upon and, perhaps even more so than in the past, they’re going to need that local culture to have a reputation that extends nationally. Somebody just trying to be the next internet sensation? Well, that’s a lot easier.
      For better or for worse, I suspect that’s where things are going to wind up: to the extent we are influenced at all by the cultures in other locales, it will increasingly be New York’s. But we will also be less influenced by the culture of other locales as widespread cultural relevance increasingly requires generic appeal.
      This is, I think, basically what the Front Porchers fret about as a descent into monoculture, and I think there’s more to that fear than I’d like to admit, even if I don’t think it has to end that way and even if I think that the positives of such a democratized culture outweigh the negatives.Report

      • @Mark Thompson, I don’t share FPR’s fear of a monoculture. I see too many articles about the local food movement and too many creative ways to publicize local attractions. My city is medium-sized but, for example, we have a hotel that was just rated the best in the country. Why? Serious PR. Our restaurants get noticed in national publications all the time. The Derby is popular with young Hollywood. This is all thanks to the information age and shrinking communication distances. My point here is that while technology is enabling us to share ourselves with the rest of the country more easily, the message we are sending is, “Here’s why you should plan a trip to Louisville instead of NYC. Here’s what makes us unique.”Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
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          @Mike at The Big Stick, Regarding the local food movement and the like, I am generally amazed at how involved and interested people my age have become in their own communities. The hip young people in the steel town where I live know more about the place and its history than seems fathomable to me.Report

          • Avatar Mike at The Big Stick in reply to Rufus F.
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            @Rufus F., I can’t speak a lot for other cities but at least around here the folks in my age group (30-40) are HUGE cheerleaders for the town. We have a lot of professionals who left and came back and they become our biggest boosters. It’s good to see.Report

            • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
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              @Mike at The Big Stick, Yeah, that’s what fascinates me about the Front Porchers- when they talk about the joys of local communities, they sound just like most of the young, liberal hipster 30 somethings I know.Report

              • Avatar Mike at The Big Stick in reply to Rufus F.
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                @Rufus F., I’m not a HUGE fan of the FPR fascination with moving out to the rural. I’ve spent a lot of time in those areas and while there is a certain charm and I love visiting, I would miss the joys of city life as well. What they don’t realize is that yeah, these small communities can feel close at times but in rural areas you are alone for much of the time. When your closest neighbor is 1/2 mile away there’s a certain isolation that can feel uncomfortable. Things we take for granted like streetlights and a neighbor reporting a break in at your house or a fire. That’s why I like my place in the far suburbs. I get the scenery and charm of the rural areas right down the road (I have a horse farm about 20 seconds from my house) but I have neighbors close by who say hello every evening while I am working in the yard or jogging.

                The movement that I think has it right is the planned community folks. In a lot of places they are acknowledging that the suburbs are going to keep eating up rural areas. Instead of letting sprawl do its thing they are conciously working with farmers to incorprate agriculture into new developments. Suburban homes interlaced with farms creates a really interesting area in my opinion and encourages an exchange of ideas, etc. The farmers are finding new markets in CSAs and farmer’s markets and the suburban folks feel good about supporting them and can see where their food comes from.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
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      @Mike at The Big Stick, My experience with the NYC job market was actually pretty good. Better than anywhere else I’ve been.

      I really look at the sheer numbers of openings as a plus, even though competition is stiff. When there’s that much churn, it seems to me your chances of landing something really go up. You chances of alnding exa tly what you are definitely cut by a lot, as the top-end competition for everything is absolutely ridick. But at the same time, a resume doesn’t need to be wildly impressive to likely stand out from the bulk of those a typical hiring manager looks at for mid-organization positions. With 5-10% of eight million needing to find employment at any given time, there’s necessarily a lot of chafe in the system to distinguish yourself against.Report

  4. Avatar Boegiboe
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    As far as metropolitan culture goes, this is a really insightful piece. But your reference to Mellencamp to support your thesis belies a big missing piece of the American pie: the Small Town. The metropolis, like San Diego or Dallas or Charlotte, that grows up in the middle of small-town America is really just an accumulation of economic wealth that the locals find increasingly convenient in our times of big government. That doesn’t mean there’s no history or culture: It just means it’s a history and culture that has less to do with cities than the older metropolises (metropoloeia? metropolides? I never learned Greek).

    (I will now out myself as Jason Kuznicki’s life partner and coparent. I’ve made a couple of other posts here before, but as Jason was not involved, I didn’t see a reason to say who I was relative to the folks here. But if I’m going to keep posting, I’d better make a disclosure. I will also say I was pleased when my then-anonymous first post here got some attention. I must be in a good place, since that’s never happened to me before.)

    I grew up in rural North Carolina, which was a cultural backwater in my young, internalized-homophobic mind. As an adult free of its religious chains, I can now visit and talk with folks I grew up near and recognize it for the rich and vibrant artistic culture it is. My own grandfather used to play his music on the local radio, and a mass gathering of musicians and picnickers at some family’s farm (just like Woodstock?) was the sort of story I grew up hearing without any surprise. The rich culture of Appalachia is inherently anti-metropolitan. The people of Appalachia will happily go to the cities to get good prices on cars and furniture and to see the circus, but they’ll always be glad to get back home to the rich and warm environment they know.

    I still sometimes wish I could be fully a part of that culture in which I was raised. But where I am now affords other benefits, in addition to a culture that, though somewhat unfamiliar to me, will be the medium in which my little girl will grow.

    New York may be a focus of the culture that Money values, but this country is a great, big, beautiful Petri dish with few places that are sterile. The places that can’t find their identities are those metro areas that have sprouted from anti-city cultures.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Boegiboe
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      @Boegiboe, Welcome to the conversation sir. Tip ‘o the hat to you. Hope you contribute more. Best wishes to the Mr.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Boegiboe
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      @Boegiboe, A-ha! I knew there was a reason I instantly enjoyed your comments!

      Anyways, this is really useful insight that I think explains quite a bit that I hadn’t been able to exactly put my finger on. I’m wondering, though – to the extent that these cities that just “grow up” in the middle of small-town America wind up having a gravitational pull of their own, do they wind up killing some of that rural culture?

      Awhile back, my wife and I took a day trip to Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We happened to stumble upon a family gathering of some form or another with maybe 20-30 people and a trio of them standing around playing bluegrass. It was intoxicating, and the 10 minutes or so that I watched from the trail were far more culturally rich an experience than attending a performance of Mozart in an historic hall in Vienna.

      Hopefully this won’t upset Will Brafford, but what happens to that culture when it becomes urbanized, and small town America moves to, say, Charlotte, mixing with the I-77 Rust Belt refugees attracted by the accumulation of wealth you mentioned?

      I’ve visited friends down in Charlotte several times, and even though the area is superficially a great place to live, the thing that always occurs to me is that, large a city as it’s becoming, it is perhaps the least culturally rich place I’ve ever been. Which is amazing, when you think of it – you’ve got a place that is basically an amalgam of Rust Belt transplants (who ought to carry some of that rich Rust Belt culture with them), formerly rural southerners (see above), and an old black community. But whenever I’m down there, none of those influences seem to be much in evidence – just chain store shopping outlet after chain store shopping outlet.

      I guess the way I’d describe it is thusly: when I’m in NYC, Philly, Boston, Buffalo, Baltimore, the South Jersey suburbs, the North Jersey suburbs, South Florida or rural West Virginia, I know exactly where I am at all times just by the way people act and dress, not to mention the obvious signature building styles. When I’m in Charlotte, though, if I didn’t have my airplane ticket with me, I wouldn’t be able to tell you where I was or even where anyone hailed from.Report

      • @Mark Thompson, Mark, you would have enjoyed our last family reunion then. My brother and I invited several of our picking pals and we played bluegrass for all my relatives who were in town. I’m not bragging when I say there were tears in the eyes of several folks who hadn’t been back to Kentucky in a decade or two.

        The bluegrass scene is alive and well here. You can find open jams in local bars every night of the week.

        I’m happy to say that Louisville hasn’t lost its small town feel despite its size. Around here we often say, “Big city amenities with small town charm.”Report

        • @Mike at The Big Stick, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous.

          I’ve heard that sort of thing about Louisville, and sitting on the Bourbon Trail as it does, is actually very high on my list of places I need to get to. I’m curious as to why that is – basically, how did it develop in a way that allows it to be reflective of the more rural surrounding areas while still becoming (and remaining) a reasonably large city? Looking at Wikipedia, I see that it’s only a little larger now than it was in 1890, although it had a surge in population in the 30s and 40s followed by a rapid loss of that population. Was Louisville in the 30s and 40s culturally analogous to Charlotte today? Or was it always culturally what it is now?Report

          • @Mark Thompson, Louisville is a fantastic town Mark. I have met very few people who have visited and didn’t enjoy.

            Louisville was quite the metropolis at one time. I think at its highest point it was the 10th largest city in the country. Back during the Southern Exposition of the 1890s it really flexed its muscles as the industrial gateway to the South. What’s interesting about the area today (and why i’ve never thought of leaving) is that even within the city limits there are farms and once you cross the city line it becomes rural very rapidly. It’s not like other cities where the urban gives way to the rural slowly. Just to give you some perspective, my house is about 1/4 mile from the county line and I can see grain silos from my backyard. If I drive 1/4 mile in the other direction I can shop at Barnes & Noble and go to Starbucks.

            Take a look at this link:

            http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=oxmoor%20mall&rlz=1W1SUNA_en&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&tab=wl

            Just south of the Oxmoor Center, which is a big mall, you’ll see one of the oldest farms in the state. I have friends who dove hunt over there. That’s inside the city limits.

            So…I think our very close connection with the rural areas around us allow us to maintain some of the flavor, manners, etc.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Mark Thompson
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        @Mark Thompson,

        If Charlotte is anything like my home city, it’s not just small-town people moving to Charlotte. It’s people moving in from all over the place.

        The bane of my home city (a large city in the south) were actually people from Chicago. They would come down, complain about all the ways that the city is unlike Chicago, declare that “real cities” do this or that, and then complain about the culture or lack thereof. Well, the culture of the city is exactly what they consider to be wrong with it. My city is backwater because there are pickups everywhere, for instance.

        In Chicago, they embraced the local institutions and whatnot. In my city, the stuck to Olive Garden if they ate out at all and then complained that there’s nothing but chains in town.

        I can’t speak for Charlotte, but in a lot of these cities if you’re only seeing chains it’s cause that’s what you’re looking for. I think there’s something psychological there. We notice and remember the things we recognize.

        Lastly, I want to say that the biggest threat to “local culture” comes mostly from those that seek to make the city “world class” by viewing everything that makes it different as a problem to be corrected.Report

        • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Trumwill
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          @Trumwill, I think you’re largely right. I don’t know that the whole “real city” complaint works for Charlotte, though. The impression I’ve gotten every time I’ve been down there is that it’s primarily become the destination of choice for the decaying Rust Belt cities – Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh – each of which has a distinctive local culture, but none of which could be considered cosmopolitan in a way that would lead its expatriates to feel entitled to complain about what a “real” city looks like. Indeed, I do believe that anyone suggesting that “this is what we would do if we were in a ‘real’ city like Buffalo” would rightly be laughed at for hours.

          As for my experiences with Charlotte, I have to say that my view is certainly colored by the fact that I’m not usually in a position to make choices when I’m down there. But the fact that my friends seem to always choose the chains that I ordinarily try to avoid still tells me something. The more telling thing for me, though, is just in the “feel” of the place. Like I said above, I think there are a huge number of places where you can step off the train or plane or get out of the car and immediately know almost exactly where you are just by the way people act and dress, or more obviously, by the architecture and scenery. I go down to Charlotte and it’s like I imagine I’d feel at one of those golf courses where they try to replicate 18 famous holes. It’s kind of cool, and certainly very convenient, but there’s nothing original, unique, or special about it. Don’t get me wrong, though – I’m willing to wager that before it doubled in size over the last 20 years, there was still some readily apparent local culture.Report

          • Avatar William Brafford in reply to Mark Thompson
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            I’ve spent most of my life in Charlotte, and the copycat golf course comparison is right on, mostly. Charlotte’s spent a lot of time trying to present itself as a city with no history, a sort of city-size white-collar office park, replete with rings of glorious subdivisions. (For the purposes of promotion and business recruitment, the east and west sides of Charlotte might as well not exist. The Charlotte we’re talking about here is comprised of the University area, the uptown area, sections of North Davidson, Dilworth and the south end, sections of Plaza-Midwood, and south Charlotte all the way out to the state line.)

            But Charlotte does have a history, and they haven’t managed to erase all of it. There are still a few great old neighborhoods that are worth seeing. I also like the new Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, though I’m not sure if it’s the kind of thing that will kick off a cultural revival. The Levine Museum of the New South is wonderful, too. And as for local restaurants, next time you’re in Charlotte, force the people hosting you to take you to Dish in Plaza-Midwood.

            Anyways, even though I’m a Charlotte native, it’s clear to me that Asheville and Durham are much more interesting places to live.Report

  5. Avatar Trumwill
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    Hmmm. I have attributed Charlotte’s growth to it’s success at luring the banking industry and becoming a financial center. So I imagined a lot of people who imagined that they would end up in NYC but find themselves in Charlotte instead.Report

  6. Avatar Boegiboe
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    There is something I suspect a lot of the older large cities lacked that is not lacking in the mid-size cities that have super-sized in the last few decades (such as William Brafford’s take on Charlotte, with which I can’t disagree: I haven’t lived there except as an infant). That something is geographical expandability.

    In the pre-Industrial and Industrial ages of this country, proximity to waterways was almost an absolute requirement to growth of an urban culture in the sense in which were discussing it here. The water permitted shipping to and from unlimited locations, but the water’s edge is one-dimensional, so the value of area fell off sharply with distance from the water. Exposure to unlimited locations also allowed the kind of mixing of workers in bars and captains in parlors that established special local cultures. New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Montreal, Seattle, St. Louis, Chicago, Miami, Cleveland, Savannah…I’m not going to try to list all the cities of North America that benefited from a special mix of cultures on their rivers, bays or sounds, but the pattern is strong. (I suspect Los Angeles fits into this pattern in a peculiar way, but as I have no direct experience other than watching the movie Chinatown, I’ll let someone else talk about that.) But proximity to water often means much less livable space, either because of partially bounding waterways (e.g. New Orleans, San Francisco) or the overwhelming advantage of locating on islands (e.g. New York).

    Nouveaux-grandes cities like Charlotte, Sioux Falls, Houston, Sacramento, (and bunch of other state capitals, actually) have been able to grow because of the Information Age overtaking the Industrial Age. But in this, the other, more “water-locked” cities can compete. So, how does an Albany or a Phoenix compete? Build giant golf-course/shopping malls that are, honestly, quite convenient for anyone just trying to work their job and come home to their families. tax incentives figure in as well.

    I think the story of Baltimore could be instructive here. Once the center of the East Coast by virtue of its shipping importance, Baltimore developed a truly unique local culture that persists in many ways to this day. But it did not adapt quickly to the making-stuff to thinking-stuff shift; it is now doing a mighty job of adapting, and I hope it will continue to improve as a place to live and work.

    What other cities might fit the pattern of Baltimore, with water access, good culture, but recent decline? Detroit? Cincinnati? Toledo? Maybe people would dispute that one or another of those cities have declined. And I think this points to the following equations:
    Old + Water Access = Rich Culture
    Adaptability to the New Information Age = Big City
    Intersection of the Above = Culture this Post Started About

    Humbly Submitted for Ridicule (as I’ve got far less direct experience with these cities than my post might imply)Report

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