The Supposed Tyranny of New York
Conor Friedersdorf has written a disastrous post about New York over at the Atlantic. His specific complaints — that Manhattan transplants who spend the holidays back in Dubuque complain about how sorry Dubuque is — are hard to argue with. It is indeed a terrible shame, as he says, that “In Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, San Diego, and San Antonio, all among the top ten most populous cities in the United States, the smallest with well over a million residents, the average person has watched countless hours of television set in various New York City apartments.” But why did Conor pick a list of cities unusually famous—justifiably or not—for their blandness? Is it because the average American has watched countless hours of television set in San Francisco, Boston, LA etc, underscoring how much of a non-problem the supposed tyranny of New York is? Baltimore, for instance, recently received a thorough, realistic, and gripping 60-hour treatment on television. Arguably national television audiences know more about how Baltimore works than about New York.
Conor’s lament wasn’t confined to television, however. He also objected to New York’s dominance in print and in the national imagination. This is a little more on the mark. People from the around the country really don’t read the sometimes pretty good stuff published in Baltimore magazines, or dream about kissing in fabled Baltimorean parks. I don’t see what’s so bad about this, though. People in Baltimore do read local magazines, and dream about leading lives in the city, even if a small, usually college-educated and fairly transient sub-set of the population reads the Times every day and knows more about Breakfast at Tiffanies than breakfast at Howard’s down the street. It seems inevitable that as a country we will have national newspapers and national magazines and places that loom large in the national consciousness. Isn’t in much better that these national institutions retain some local savor? Isn’t the New Yorker, in part because it sometimes seems like a local, even a parochial journal, superior to the tranquil no-whereness of Time magazine? Isn’t the inimitable New Yorkiness of the Times, what Fr. Richard Neuhaus used to call “our parish newsletter,” one its few redeeming features, especially compared with the truly national and placeless USA Today?
What Conor is complaining about is just that we have a cultural capital. Admittedly, having a cultural capital can be galling for provincial cities, even if ours doesn’t loom nearly as large over our country as Paris or London or Toronto or Lagos or Buenos Aires, say, do over theirs. But this isn’t an unusual set-up. The concept has a wikipedia page. In fact, national cultures without such dominant cities, Germany for instance, are quite unusual and usually indicate a fairly late or incomplete degree of cultural unity. Is it really so terrible that we have one?