I love New York City. Sure, it has its flaws: the air reeks in summer, people are surprisingly rude and insensitive (and desensitized to people acting that way), the city whines, groans, and clanks at a painful volume, and the crowds move with all the speed and grace of a human mudslide. Despite that, I love it for all the things that it gets right: the superb mass transit, the unsurpassed arts, and the melting pot of worldwide culture that lets you wander in and out of America while staying comfortably within 200 streets and 12 avenues. I also simply love the beat of a city that, true to its word, never sleeps. I am very much looking forward to returning there at the end of summer.
I need to make it crystal clear that I do love New York City so that the following statement is not taken as bitter whining:
New Yorkers need to actually open their eyes for ten seconds, shut up, listen to the world, and realize that they are not at the center of the universe, and there is life even when you’re outside of an island whose great geographic pride is that it’s not physically attached to New Jersey.
I realized that I needed to make this argument when I landed at La Guardia and started listening to a conversation that a flight attendant was having with one of the passenger. The passenger had apparently asked the attendant what he thought about Indianapolis.
“Eh, I guess it’s a fine city,” he responded, “but I’m not sure what there is to do if I lived there.”
I have heard that sentence, or a slight variation on it, far more times than I care to count. A week without at least one, “Oh, I think $place is fine, but there’s nothing to do there,” was an odd week indeed. Now, the statement is invariably false. To defend Indianapolis simply because I know enough to respond: it has one of the best symphonies in the US, and the largest children’s museum in the world, and the only basketball team to innovatively integrate boxing when playing Detroit, and the Indy 500, and a massive art museum with some truly great works, and a repertory theater, and the Colts, and then tons of seasonal events, such as the Broadripple arts show, touring theater productions, and more. On top of that, you’ll find bars, comedy clubs, jazz, and just about anything else you want. It may not all be centralized downtown, but it’s all there. Anyone who cannot find anything to do has their head buried in the sand.
Although this list is specific to Indianapolis, I have no doubt that I could create a similar list for any other city someone throws into that sentence. Yet that’s not what bothers me the most. What bothers me most is how arrogant and, more importantly, how pretentious that claim is. When I took a boat tour of New York this summer as part of my internship, the tour guide told us that he was frequently asked about how you live in a city of eight million. His response is worth reprinting:
You live here just like you live in any other town. People laugh when I say that, but it’s true. New York is broken into neighborhoods, and each neighborhood has its own feel and its own community. The dirty little secret is that most New Yorkers only know their own neighborhood. It’s only when you realize that, and then look at all the neighborhoods together, that you get how people really live in New York City.
That statement is more true than most New Yorkers would willingly admit. Most New Yorkers seem to live in private bubbles that cover their apartment and five or six surrounding blocks. New York City may have eight million, but most New Yorkers actually know a much smaller community on the order of a few tens of thousands—far smaller than most cities in the US. This is, in fact, how every city operates, except that the neighborhood feel actually gets exaggerated so that its occupants can find some identity within the sprawling whole.
More than that, though, the same New Yorkers who claim loudest that there’s nothing to do…don’t actually do that much. Most New Yorkers, just like most people everywhere else, only go out a few times a week to places truly unique to Manhattan, such as Broadway or the New York Philharmonic. (Expensive restaurants and bars do not count. The Magnolia Grill, off Duke’s East Campus in the dinky city of Durham, North Carolina, has better food than many of the best restaurants I’ve eaten at in New York. Bigger cities have a greater selection, but any half-decent city has enough restaurants to keep even its richest, most pompous diners quite happy.)
If New Yorkers don’t already know this, it’s only because they’ve not reflected on it for the ten seconds needed to reach the above conclusion. Why, then, are New Yorkers so insistent that there’s nothing else to do anywhere except Manhattan? What it comes down to is that New Yorkers feel a pressing need to make others feel as if they are missing out, and that every New Yorker is inherently superior to everyone else. New Yorkers have lives; the Others simply survive. It’s an insidious inferiority complex that brings with it a dogma every bit as inflexible as religious law. I don’t know whether its cause is simply that most New Yorkers really haven’t reflected, or that they need to justify their small apartments and painfully living expenses, or that they simply really do need to believe they are at the center of the world, but, bluntly, I’m sick of it.
There’s stuff to do everywhere. Lots of stuff. There are many, many things that make it wonderful to live in New York, but the mere presence of “stuff to do” is not among them.
So I’m going to enjoy my week here in The City. By which I mean Indianapolis. And I’m going to enjoy it.