New York, New York

Posted by Arlo on Feb 8, 2007 under Thought Objects

Click for full sizeLately I’ve been thinking a lot about New York — I don’t know why — but it got to the point where I decided to jot down some ideas.  (If you haven’t noticed, I tend to write as a way of forcing myself to organize my thoughts.  What other post-high school reason is there to write essays?)  I’ve been trying to wrap my head around an elusive theme, and recently, a few happenings began lend it clarity:

  1. 1. My writing on the Alaskan mystique started an internal process of comparing and contrasting the same with New York City.
  2. 2. At dinner last week, my friend, Mike, related the story of how one of his friends referred to New York City as, simply, The City.
  3. 3. A perfectly ego-centric, 1976 “map” of New York was posted yesterday on Strange Maps. 

I find New York City, or rather the perception of New York City, very interesting.  In our media-rich culture, New York is everywhere.  Any number of movies — Spider-man, Ghostbusters, King Kong, Taxi Driver, to name a few – couldn’t be set in a different city.  There’s a peek into New York almost every night on any number television shows:  Law & Order, Friends reruns, The Apprentice, and, of course, CSI: New York.  Sex and the City pretty much makes The City a supporting character.  Dominos Pizza gives us a glimpse of New York culture with commercials touting their new Brooklyn Style Pizza.  Even popular websites like Kottke.org nonchalantly mention New York City.

That New York is on our consciousness isn’t impressive.  Sure, it’s a big, important American City; I get that.  What interests me is the matter-of-fact way in which it’s presented.

New York City is served up to us by New Yorkers, and to New Yorkers the city is forefront in their daily lives.  That’s understandable.  I can imagine that living in a city that big would have an impact on your life.  Here’s the thing, though:  By virtue of it’s media-onslaught, even though I’ve never been there¹, New York has an impact on my life, too.

For instance, without ever visiting or studying the city, I know many things about it.  There are taxis everywhere; most people don’t own a car.  Everyone that lives in New York has a mugging story.  There’s a huge ethnic diversity including, but certainly not limited to, neighborhoods of Chinese, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Irish, Italians, and Russians.  Messenger bikers are both dangerous and in danger.  New Yorkers are known for the attitudes and their accents.  The major airports are JFK and LaGuardia.  Tiny apartments are amazingly expensive, but, hey, if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.

Blindfold me, spin me around, and teleport me to any number of New York landmarks.  I’ll bet you I could identify Central Park, Times Square, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Plaza (especially in winter), the U.N., the New York Public Library, Broadway, Madison Square Garden, and Grand Central Station.  I might even be able to make a decent guess at Wall Street, Carnegie Hall, and the Brooklyn Bridge. 

But my inherited knowledge of New York runs deeper than just the landmarks.  If given a pop quiz, I could have named 4-out-of-5 of the city’s boroughs².  I know the names of many of the city’s neighborhoods: The Village, the Lower East Side, Tribeca, Harlem, Madison Avenue, the Upper East Side, and SOHO.  (I even know what SOHO and Tribeca stand for, though given a map, I’d have to hunt around to find either Houston or Canal Street.)  In some cases, I have a good idea of what social classes you can expect in each neighborhood.

All this I know (or at least think I know) because of what I’ve picked up from my entertainment sources.  In fact, New York seems so familiar to me that I really don’t have any desire to visit the city.

Because of where I live, it’s hard for me to make direct comparisons between the average person’s perceptions of Alaska and New York.  Generally speaking, I would venture that both places have an equal hold on the global consciousness.  But where Alaska is foreign and mysterious, New York is well-known and matter-of-fact.  While people know much about the day-to-day life in The Big Apple, misconceptions about Alaskans are the norm.

I guess I’m looking for adjectival labels.  Alaska has a mystique.  New York City has a reputation.

¹  Full disclosure:  I actually lived in Staten Island when I was about 6 months old.  I remember none of it.
²  In brainstorming, I came up with The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan.  Ironically, I left out Staten Island.