Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

A Crucible versus a Company Town

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A question was posited to me concerning my last declaration, in that I may have been overemphasizing the role of New York’s public education system in terms of fomenting the cultural peak we experienced. After all: We attract the best and the brightest the county and the world over, and many of the people involved in New York’s cultural renaissance were themselves domestic or international immigrants to the city. Furthermore, we still have a sizable supply of private schools and universities that are at or close to the top of their respective fields.

This would put more weight on the city’s jobs, housing and transportation in terms of what created our unique situation. To that, however, for the sake of argument I would add that literally everywhere else in this country is cheaper than New York to live in – and there are only a handful of places in the world that are more expensive to live in – and some still yet have cohesive transit systems. The question then boils down to, “what makes New York special?”

Many if not all cities do indeed attract educated, talented people. When the big pundits talk about twenty-somethings figuring out their options (after getting priced out of Williamsburg) they tend to list Austin and Portland as mainstays. Even Philadelphia and Washington DC are, in their way, attracting talented young people. New York, it goes, can’t be all that unique if people can create scenes everywhere.

So, let’s go through this city by city, first in America and then around the world.

Portland, that hipster Mecca, Denver and Seattle all have cultural institutions, cheap housing, viable growth industries to work in for a middle-class existence, and are currently net importers of college-educated young professionals. They are also among the whitest cities in America. Having almost entirely avoided the Great Northern Migration following the Civil War, existing too far north of our southern border, and being too far from major international airline hubs have seen these cities rather bereft of demographic diversity. So, they may not be the best candidates for comparison. We can do better:

San Diego, Miami, Atlanta, Austin and Los Angeles have substantial minority populations, famous arts institutions, Sunbelt jobs, cheap housing, and are net importers of college-educated young professionals. They also stay inside and drive everywhere, and thus self-segregate in a way that New York doesn’t. Perhaps we can do even better that that:

San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington DC and Boston have substantial minority populations, plenty of cultural institutions of all stripes, a core of middle-class jobs, famous private educational institutions, a temperate climate, comprehensive public transportation and walkable streets, an inflow of college-educated young professionals, and are still far cheaper to live in than New York. San Francisco, specifically, is the second-densest city in America. Alright, now we’re getting somewhere.

Now, New York is clearly bigger than these places, but my argument is that New York is not just a bigger version of these places. New York is also more diverse than those places and produces far more cultural output than those places. For the world, as well, we have cities that are comparable for New York when it comes to size, economic output and cultural institutions – Shanghai, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Singapore – yet aren’t New York. So what gives?

Well, when I started listing cities, the first thing I mentioned was diversity, and I think that’s the crux of the issue. Importing talent is one thing – the United States immigration policy has been pretty much explicitly that for 60 years – but talent tends to be self-selecting. Relying on importing young college-educated professionals and artists, especially domestically, results in a scene revolving around a jet-setting, upper-middle-class white population. The aerospace industry of the Pacific Northwest or Silicon Valley’s tech industry are perfectly happy importing whomever they need and local populations have felt the squeeze as they’ve been displaced by jet-setting elites. Gentrification has been the go-to word for this generation: Local investment in education has been comparatively anemic; a fact displayed in the demographics of these growth industries.

New York under Giuliani and Bloomberg has, similarly, hit its stride in attracting educated white yuppies into our media and finance industries. In fact, our white population has increased, not just in raw numbers but also in ratio, for the first time since White Flight started taking off in the 60s. We also have the second-highest proportion in the country of citizens with college degrees, after San Francisco. College-educated people are flocking to New York and San Francisco in record numbers. I would not say, however, that this is either New York nor San Francisco’s golden era of cultural attainment. We are, on the other hand, making record corporate profits.

I’ll bet you can see where I’m heading with this: The issue is one of a landed gentry versus an enlightened citizenry. Diverse as some of these cities’ populations are, their opportunities for upward mobility are uneven, leading to uneven access to that core of middle-class attainment. The question, then, becomes, “is this a class or a race issue?” Well, most race issues are class issues, and the race segregation highlights the greater class division: Chicago is separated by both class and race from its South Side. Los Angeles is separated by both class and race from South Central. Roxbury and Jamaica Plains are a far cry from central Boston. Rich San Francisco is physically separated from poor Oakland. DC looks very distinct from Prince George’s County. The path to becoming an elite in these cities is not necessarily to take part in these cities’ public amenities but instead to be born an elite. Importing elites, or allowing elites to maintain walls around their ivory tower, does not foster diversity, and does not foster a world-class cultural output. What use are those middle-class jobs if they are inaccessible to the local population? What use are those arts institutions if they are in service to a demographic monoculture?

That isn’t to say that New York hasn’t had its problems. Our history of redlining and segregation is well-documented, from the cavalier attitude of Robert Moses’ developments in Mott Haven to the far-flung projects in Brownsville and East New York – which were where the battles over the school system ended up occurring. Between the Democratic machine, the mafia, and good old protectionist racism, Jewish people and non-white minorities might never have gotten a middle-class jobs niche at all, were it not for reformers like La Guardia and bureaucrats like Wagner. Mark Twain was looking towards New York when he coined the term ‘Gilded Age,’ and we are practically heralding the coming of the second Gilded Age.

That said, nobody else in this world has Queens, which exists as probably the purest possible example of American egalitarianism: Uniting the principles of affordable housing, comprehensive public transportation, an inviting immigration policy, middle-class civil jobs on a merit-based system, and finally, a viable, strong universal public education system, we have provided a crucible for upward mobility for practically all and sundry, unmatched anywhere else. It is no surprise, then, that Queens is by far the most diverse place on Earth.

My description of that system, I admit, is a bit utopian. I’m not saying it was ever anywhere near as close to that ideal as it could have been. I’m not even sure to what extent it still exists. What I am saying is that it’s gotten closer to that ideal than any other system, ever. London and Paris’ respective governments and populations never got over what to do with their non-white post-colonial immigration issue, and have opted to disenfranchise them in a way that is not unlike America pre-Great Society. Tottenham and Clichy-sous-Bois are not what I would consider to be fully plugged in to their respective governments’ social infrastructure, and their central cities have priced out the non-elite far more than even Manhattan has done. Likewise, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai have laughably small foreign populations compared to New York, and were I, for instance, to move there, I’d be something of a curiosity to my dying day.

A number of the artistic styles New York fostered during its heyday in the 70s and 80s were decidedly non-elite. We had uptown scenes with rich patrons. We had downtown scenes with the transplanted hip. We also had outer-borough scenes full of homegrown artists – from our public and vocational schools, and from our working and middle-class neighborhoods – as well as folks who came because there was a homegrown audience. Who, after all, would immigrate to the Bronx of all places to promote their career? And yet. We had the ability to cross-pollinate all of this stuff, but that heterogeneity came not just from attracting people to our city but also cultivating the people we had.

I believe in Lazarus’ The New Colossus and I believe in the precepts of compulsory universal education being the gateway to an enlightened society. I believe that nowhere has embodied these as much as New York City and nowhere has benefited from these as much as New York City. It’s one thing to take in the rich – almost everybody does that – but at our best we have taken in the poor as well, and given them the opportunity to enrich everybody.

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