The End of New York Exceptionalism?

Toward the beginning of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s multi-award-winning musical Hamilton, the Schuyler sisters are looking to go out and have a good time in New York, which they declare is “the greatest city in the world.” It’s not an original declaration to be sure, but in the musical, it’s a line that always seems to drive the audience wild, tourists and locals alike. New York, the playground where the Schuyler women want to be, is the biggest, the brightest, the best. If you’re not in New York, you’re nowhere worth being.

In recent weeks, though, as New York has become the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic in the U.S., the city has hardly seemed like itself. Biking through Times Square last week on a quick moment out of the house was a surreal experience as the once bustling, noisy center was a virtual ghost town, a shadow of its former self. Stores and theaters shuttered, a handful of tourists walking around with cameras trying to make the best of a bad situation. Years ago, when I was a New York city tour guide, I would lead tourists through these packed and teeming streets, shouting historical information at them, always hoarse at the end of the day. Today, there was only the slightest hum; I could have whispered and still been heard.

As New York inhabits this new (though hopefully not forever) phase, it has brought about another interesting phenomenon: the exodus, both temporary but also perhaps permanent, of many New Yorkers. It’s been well-reported that New York City’s population has decreased by approximately 40,000 people a year for the past couple of years. With soaring rents, a subway system in continual disrepair, and substantial crowds, some New Yorkers seemed to have had enough. In many cases, such departing individuals hadn’t been here that long anyway, people who some long-time residents were happy to see leave as these recent arrivals were not “real” New Yorkers anyway. Such seemingly transient individuals weren’t cut out for New York, plus these newbies were only going to damage New York’s true charms and character in the same ways that the tech world has negatively transformed the Bay Area in the eyes of many long-time San Franciscans.

But since the coronavirus pandemic began and New York has had to go into lockdown, I’ve noticed another trend. Folks who had been here for years, if not decades, who told me they were die-hard New Yorkers and couldn’t see themselves living any place else, were suddenly leaving. Off to parents in other states, renting cabins in the woods, jetting off to second homes by the beach.

On one hand, I hardly blame such individuals for wanting to leave. I, too, have seriously thought about leaving recently as New York is a particularly difficult place to be right now. The city’s sheer population density makes it hard to go outside and practice social distancing without feeling like you’re running into 100 people every minute. No one wants to take the subway, you can’t dine out, and essentially everything arts and cultural that makes New York exciting and well, New York, has disappeared overnight. New York has suddenly become all of its worst parts and none of its good.

What’s irked me, though, about this trend of “die-hards” who are leaving in a sort of “call me when it’s over” moment, are that a number of them are the same people who for many years looked down their noses at those of us who have made lives in other cities. Individuals who had not infrequently disparaged where I was from were suddenly skipping town in what seemed like a richly hypocritical (as well as socially privileged) move. For you see, though I currently live in New York and have for the last three years, I too am not a “Real New Yorker,” but a Philadelphian in exile. Having spent part of my 20s in New York, uninsured, barely making ends meet, I moved back to Philadelphia in my 30s where I built an exciting, vibrant, and affordable life in the City of Brotherly Love.

Yet upon moving back to New York a few years ago for the sole reason of taking an exciting new job, I kept having encounters with people who, when I told them where I was from, looked at me as if I had just fallen off the nearest tractor. In one memorable instance, when I met the husband of an old friend for the first time and told him I had just moved from Philadelphia after spending 12 years there, his response was “I feel so sorry for you.” Not sorry for Philadelphia, mind you, but sorry for me, as if I had endured some sort of cancer or I had been imprisoned for that entire time and had finally been let out on parole. His attitude was not unique, but one I’ve heard frequently expressed by other New Yorkers whose view of the world is: there’s New York and then there’s everything else. Despite being, oh-so-worldly and oh-so-cultured, I’ve also found many New Yorkers to be oh-so- provincial, having not even visited Philadelphia or any of the many cities that they so easily turn their noses up at. When I’ve asked some life-long New Yorkers why they have never made the 80-minute train trip to Philly, their responses ranged from, “why would I want to leave New York? Everything I have is here” to “I don’t know. I just don’t have the time” (before catching a flight to Sydney, Paris, or Buenos Aires). This othering of the rest of America turns anything that isn’t New York into either some sort of backwoods country town where everyone lives miles apart from each other and doesn’t know how to read, or equally “worse,” a suburban strip mall that only has an Applebee’s or Chili’s in it. While New Yorkers begrudgingly acknowledge that L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, and DC exist, the rest of urban America remains invisible. In recent days, though, Nashville, Detroit, Raleigh, Pittsburgh and other places have suddenly become perceptible for the first time for many a New Yorker who is eager to escape their life here.

When New Yorkers talk about New York as being “the best,” they grammatically signal that some sort of comparison has ostensibly taken place. It implies that they’ve experienced the other contenders for “best city” out there and after judging all of them, can now say that New York is indeed superior. Yet, that hardly seems to be the case . Take, for example, the world of theater, a place where I have spent much of my professional and personal life. As anyone will tell you, New York has “the best” theater in America. It definitely has the most theaters in America, but the best? I’m not so sure. While New York has many terrific off-Broadway theaters that produce thought-provoking work, it’s also drowning in dozens of Broadway shows like Pretty Woman: The Musical or Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Are these shows really “the best”? The U.S. on a whole is marvelously spoiled with hundreds of fantastically talented theater companies: Steppenwolf in Chicago, Berkeley Rep in California, ART in Boston, not to mention all the other regional theaters and many smaller companies out there. Sure, there’s great theater in New York, but the city doesn’t have a monopoly on quality.

This obsession that New Yorkers have with being “the best” strikes a parallel with the frequent proclamations of a particular individual whose persona inflames many a liberal New Yorker: Donald Trump. As many of his critics often claim, Trump is a narcissist, but careful attention to his language reveals not just that Trump is an egotist, it’s that he talks about himself by speaking in superlatives. He is “the greatest,” “the best,” “the most (well, you fill in the blank).” In this sense, despite the disdain they rightfully have for the bombastic Trump, they can’t see that they seem to suffer from a collective narcissism, one in which they are “the best” and folks from any other place are, to use one of Trump’s favorite terms, “losers.”

New York exceptionalism is the lie that New Yorkers tell themselves that enables them to look past all that is wrong with the city: the broken transit system, the heaps of trash, the homelessness, the outrageous rents, the rats, the rampant inequality. And whenever a liberal New Yorker who is trying to be even more “woke” than his neighbor talks about not being able to live anyplace else because the rest of America is so conservative and “backwards,” I have to ask, but what about the racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and other injustices that still perpetrated here on a regular basis? New York may be more liberal than many places, but the way most New Yorkers talk, you would think that New York was some sort of social utopia that had figured out how to solve the world’s injustices while the rest of America is completely in the dark.

The Coronavirus, though, has thrown a lot of this attitude out the window and has many New Yorkers asking new existential questions: What things makes me happy? What do I really need to be happy? How do I want to spend my life? Many are quickly realizing that qualities like wide-open spaces, affordable housing, and reliable transit are actually pretty important and that gasp, there are a number of other places and cities in the U.S. that not only have those things, but also have opera companies, yoga studios, farmers markets, and yes, even authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Asks New Yorker Chloé Jo Davis in a recent CNN article about New Yorkers who are looking to leave New York: “If here we are in New York City, and the reasons we’re here, the reasons we’re willing to sacrifice all the basic sort of life benefits that a lot of people have…is for the art, the culture, the diversity, the neighborhood camaraderie, and now, without that, what do we have?” Davis is right, New York has all those things, but so too do many other American cities large and small. Sure, nothing is on the scale of New York, but so what? What the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed, among other things, is not only that we’re “all in this together,” albeit to varying degrees and levels of risk based on race and class, but that that the virus doesn’t care about superlatives or who is “the best.”

To be clear, New York isn’t a bad city by any means. As the theme song from a 1970s New York tourism ad campaign goes, “I love New York” (well, sometimes anyway), but is it the best? I think we’re finally able to puncture that balloon. New York is a wonderful place (especially if you have a lot of money) with much to offer, but it’s not the only place out there. I can’t wait for New York to come back, full of theater and art, restaurants and shopping, people and parks, but when it returns, I don’t need it to be “the best,” I just need it to be New York.

Warren Hoffman is the author of The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical and The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture.

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