Whence the Name
December 10, 2003
For those of you who live in the United States or are familiar with its culture, imagine a place that starts with a political and social system that's identical to today's United States, but has a few significant differences.
In this place, most people speak more than one language. Almost no one owns a car, even the millionaires. Many people don't even know someone who owns a car. There's no Wal-Mart, no Target, no Home Depot.
People regularly and willingly use mass transit to get around for the few things they can't approach on foot. Almost every neighborhood has the basic amenities in walking distance, like a hardware store or dry cleaner or drug store, and they're almost all mom-and-pop operations, not multinational chains.
The people in this place, in addition to being well-educated on average, are extremely friendly, showing a repeated willingness to talk to and greet strangers, and an eagerness to educate tourists or visitors on the customs and rituals of their home. Their cultures are an extremely varied mix of cultures, backgrounds and identities, pervaded with an astonishing level of tolerance and respect.
There's also a deep ethic of civic-mindedness. Average citizens are not just aware of, but actively engaged in efforts such as city planning and zoning laws and the design and preservation of public spaces. Architecture is valued and protected by well-organized, well-financed groups, often consisting of canny partnerships between public, private, and corporate concerns. New urbanism is an understood goal, not just a theoretical ideal.
And this society exists within an unparalleled environment of artistic and entrepreneurial innovation. Constant reinvention paired with startling new creations. Music, dance, theater, film, sculpture, writing, and any other manner of expression all functioning at levels unsurpasssed anywhere else in the world at almost any other point in history.
So this place? It's where I live, Manhattan. New York City. That's why I write about the city with such reverence, and why it exists as a living, breathing character in my life and in the lives of every New Yorker. It seemed like something I needed to remind people about, if they're interested in reading what I have to say.
I was recently asked what my site was about, and what I had originally intended for it to be about, and I replied that the first name for my site was "New York New Media New Funk" and that I was hoping to get back to that mandate. I've mostly moved the New Funk over to my Pop Life site on TypePad, so the focus for now is to try to articulate why, exactly, I love my city so much.
There's a tendency for any positive dialogue about New York to be seen as unseemly, the vain preening of a city already too obsessed with itself. This is mostly the opinion of people whose impression of New York City is stuck somewhere between 15 and 25 years ago, when subway cars were still covered in graffiti, and when city parks were dangerous instead of idyllic. I'm fine with people's outdated notions of New York, though; It keeps them from overcrowding the city with their tourism.
And it goes without mention that there are problems here, serious ones. Most of them we see as charming idiosyncrasies, the same way we see the failings of a curmudgeonly uncle. It's loud here, much of the time. There are, of course, Targets and Home Depots in the outer boroughs. Sometimes the power goes out. People resent the Yankees. Bill O'Reilly broadcasts from here.
But it's important to remember that New York isn't just peerless among modern cities, it is inarguably among the greatest cities that has ever been. The renovation of our public parks in the past 10 years alone seems poised to leave this city, even in the shadow of our still-aching wounds, on the brink of a renaissance to rival the Beaux Arts splendor that beautified the city 100 years ago.
I tend to have a status update on the top of this site, as a tagline. Right now, it says "New York Invented Xmas" but it's just as likely to say that New York Invented Hip Hop, and the beauty of being here is that I get a vivid reminder that both of those statements are true.
So thanks for indulging me in keeping New York as part of my site's title, even though I've never done an adequate job of explaining exactly why it gets such a significant role. If you've never been here, if you've never lived here, you might not ever understand. But maybe now you'll at least have a hint of why it matters so much to me.
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