Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

What, exactly, is the point of World New York?

The Hôtel de Ville of Paris at dusk.
The Hôtel de Ville of Paris at dusk.

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of puzzled email about World New York: Why the name? What kinds of entries are those? Is it a blog? What? So I revised our “about this site” page: Reams of quality writing appear and disappear on the web each day; this site attempts to direct your attention to some of the good bits before they vanish. We search the Internet’s multitude of magazines, newspapers, journals and web logs, both domestic and international, looking for smart, witty, intelligent, relevant and significant extracts. Really, it’s a little more complicated than that. Our extracts address issues that affect New York City, issues that can be seen reflected in the images of the world’s other great cities: New Delhi, Sydney, London, Beijing, Paris, Moscow, Cairo, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, Dublin, Mexico City, Vancouver, Lagos, Rome, wherever. In turn, our extracts also reflect typically American issues that appear reflected in the images of the nation’s other, lesser cities (and we say “lesser” with all the affection of the elder child for the runt): Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, Kansas City, Seattle, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Boston, Washington DC, New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco, both Portlands and St. Louis. What makes New York City significant as a crossroads of study is this: Up to 40 percent of New York City’s population is made of people born in another country, another 20 percent are people born in another state. So, 60 percent of the city has consciously chosen to be here, for the Great Experiment. Whether they understood the laboratory before arrival, they get it now, because they’ve decided to stay, each resident a participant, fulfilling a role so clearly defined that soon enough they’ll find that their kind of people are being written about in the style sections of the newspapers, that the magazines are doing features on their types of friends, and when they reach the hum-drum stage of unblinking at famous people on the other side of the bar or at three kinds of human fluids on a subway platform, then they’ve won. No, fame and money are not that sign of true achievement here in New York City: the sign of real achievement is the ability to burden yourself with the staggering amount of stress, stupidity and the unresolved domestic disputes of your neighbors, and still think about tripping lightly off to spend a good portion of your paycheck on dinner for the third night in a row with an acquaintance you don’t really like on the off chance you won’t have to pay and can maybe get sex/a record deal/a job/a better agent out of it. Of course, that’s only some of the people that arrive here. There’s another whole batch that have no clue what they’re in for, believing too much in what they see on the television or read in the books, not knowing that everything they were told about the city before arrival was a lie, both good and bad; instead, there’s another whole set of good and bad to fill the void. These are the people who walk down Fifth Avenue on a summer Sunday evening just before sundown, confused—It’s Fifth Avenue! There should be more stores! They should be open! I just want to spend a little money! But we say, here in New York City, keep reading those books, watching those television shows, viewing those movies with their impossible movie-only geography in which a character can go from DUMBO to Central Park in a minute, in which the Empire State Building falls and crumbles at the end of a street that doesn’t exist, we say keep consuming those works, consume them for their myths and education on what the higher ideals of the city are supposed to be, because by God or whoever’s in charge, without the schmucks and suburban chumps, what yard stick of our own progress will we have? That temptation to destroy the familiar skyline of New York, whether with a bomb-loaded rental truck or a screenplay, proves the enduring legend of the city. Unfortunately, the legend is also why we no longer have a Great-White Way, but a Great White Sneaker Way, in which big-haired loud-mouthed tourists try to out-do what they think is the real New York—That’s okay! It’s New York—and then, unexpectedly finding kindness, interest and even love on the part of the supposedly hostile natives, send their amusing letters week after week to the Times‘s Metropolitan Diary. Ha ha! Zabar’s! Cab drivers! Bus drivers! The subway! Those gruff but lovable beggars! So foreign! Ha ha! They won’t be laughing long. We, the nation, are undergoing a massive population shift: immigrants and our young from the less significant places are moving more rapidly into our larger cities and long-time residents are moving out. With this movement comes a transfer of knowledge and culture, and the assumption that the “city is bad” and the countryside is “parochial and provincial” (in the pejorative senses, of course), is blurred, even obliterated, as the solutions used in the city to maintain livability in a high-stress, highly competitive environment are found to be useful in the much-more-complex-than-we-suspected countryside, in the small towns and in suburbia, and as the methods used in all those Nowheresvilles to find peace and a life’s purpose—beyond vowing to get reservations at this week’s favored restaurant in New York magazine—become useful in the city. New York City is not quite the strange, un-American beast that it has often been proclaimed to be by the outlanders and outsiders, and, frankly, by the ignorant, and if we New Yorkers are, as they like to say elsewhere, slow to catch on to pop culture trends and then quick to proclaim a discovery long after origination when we do finally get it, and we mean Get It, well, our approval is a badge of acceptance that’s hard to imitate. Put that on your logoed jeans, shirts, sneakers, television shows, NASCAR jackets. It’s clear: New Yorkers do not automatically accept anything, not even a promotional flier from a tout on the sidewalk, without consideration. They don’t blindly grasp it and, God forbid, say “Thanks!” like the bright-eyed tourist: New Yorkers consider it first, after they consider whether to even consider it. A tourist—that is to say, anyone from anywhere else—will always take anything handed to him on the street, and that in a phrase is the difference: we’ve got discretion, judgement, consideration, and we learned it here. How much and how often do we reject what the world foists upon us? Almost all of it and almost always, because not only is it usually gauche, tacky, creepy, appalling, unlikely and so, so, elsewhere, our sense of irony lasts about five minutes in the face of realizing that the sheer numbers, the simple majority, of outsiders mean nothing if the outside’s latest little whimsical trend is, in the end, insurmountable crap. We in New York have a tendency to think of “The City,” a proper noun that summarizes our feelings about the way we believe NYC eclipses all other urban centers on the planet, past and present. We seem to believe we truly are the capital of the world, and anyone in disagreement can leave. It’s not the presence of the United Nations that makes us feel this way, for we are certain that our collective importance surpasses that of the United Nations, and if there should ever come a day when the two should be pitted squarely against each other, NYC vs. UN, we have no doubt we could win, if we could even be bothered. We’ll take your hard-working citizens, your strivers, entrepreneurs and go-getters; but your diplomats, well, who are they, anyway? No, that bit of local ego about our superiority, supremacy even, more likely originates from an understanding that we are undergoing trials. We, as individuals, are being tested. Our daily battles to live within our means, to make friends and find lovers, to achieve a suitable level of prosperity and peace, to live as close to the limit of our potential as possible, those things collectively mean we at our best are the best. Our discretion, our consideration, of the events and individuals around us is just one of our tools. That’s the exchange that’s taking place, as our long-timers leave and your young and innocent arrive for education. They’ll come, they’ll acquire our methods, and then they’ll leave, and when they get back to Nowheresville and find it’s changed to become more like The City, well, you’ll bless them and thank them for knowing how to handle the new reality. An alternative view is that maybe we should all pack it in, go complain in the suburbs and forget the whole experiment. Maybe we’re losing our edge. Maybe we don’t even have the charm to take people slumming anymore, no tours of this century’s equivalent of the last’s opium pits. They say we don’t even hurt and maim like we used to (though thanks to the Post and David Letterman for keeping up appearances), that we’re frankly a little bored with the experiment and poking the newcomers with sticks isn’t all that much fun anymore. But if we leave, subdued, chastened, a bit relieved, a bit regretful, we leave knowing everything after is a dead free-fall into the sea from a zenith of perfect form that is still within our recent memory. The short version, then, is this: what New York City has been, the rest of the country is becoming, and the world not far behind. That peculiar bit of urban subtext shows up in media around the country, whether accidentally or willfully, proving other cities are living parallel lives to ours, though delayed. Comparisons to be made, lessons to be learned. Across the broad spread of, say, several months postings on World New York, you’re bound to recognize a peculiar sense of anomie: that you’re not where you need to be and not sure where to go, not sure what to wear, what to watch, not moving fast enough, not doing enough, not famous enough, rich enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, moral enough, not faithful, honest, wise, clever, funny, competent or even altogether sure whether your dog likes you. That’s what World New York is after.

author avatar
Grant Barrett