Declaring the Republic of New York

26 Apr

Readers may have noticed I’ve been missing New York desperately. But this 1975 article by Pete Hamil in the Voice that appeared on Twitter (definitely read in its entirety) really amped up my urban patriotism. At first I thought it was written tongue-in-cheek and ironically, but then it becomes obvious, in its detailled agenda, that Hamil was being totally sincere.

The mid-seventies were, as most must know, a time of terrible crisis in New York’s history. Nearly a century of uniquely progressive social policies (begun, not in least part, by the city’s Jewish immigrants), in education, health, housing, services and impressive infrastructure investment (before we bitch about the subway again, let’s remember what a visionary project of urban integration it represents and what a treasure it remains) came into a crashing conflict that all of America’s nineteenth-century industrial cities had to face in some form: in New York’s case, the almost complete departure of manufacturing and shipping. We’re so used to living in a New York whose economy is dominated by high finance and, in an increasingly cartoonish way, by culture-entertainment-leisure production (no matter that most New Yorkers can’t afford to participate in the latter) that it’s now hard to imagine New York as a great manufacturing center and a great port city and to conceive of how devastating the loss of those sectors was for the city’s economy.

(For an absolutely brilliant analysis of the above process see episode 7 of Ric Burns’ New York: a Documentary Film; or watch the whole series too; all episodes are available on Amazon Prime.)

Part of what Hamil was so angry about at the time was that despite the financial straits the city was in due to the massive erosion of its tax base, New York was still contributing more to federal coffers than it was getting back:

It is hard to explain; the closest I can come is to tell him [a hypothetical stranger trying to understand New York at the time] that New York is essentially a colony of the United States, that its people consume American goods to the tune of billions of dollars a year, to pay the mother country some $14 billion in taxes and receive in return about $2 billion, and that even that small return is given begrudgingly. New York, like all colonies, has a balance of payments deficit. The man raises his brows in surprise. “In that case,” he says gravely, “why do you not revolt?”

Then, when on the verge of bankruptcy, the city, under the administration of Mayor Abe Beame, requested federal aid, and then only in the form of a credit line and not even a straight out request for funds, President Ford vowed that he would veto any bill to bail New York out, prompting The Daily News to publish its now famous headline:

Hamil rightly puts this reaction into both an ideological and psychological context. First, that Republican America had always thought that New York’s generous, progressive spending policies had a whiff of dangerous socialism about them and/or that they were simply a form of financial profligacy that the city now deserved to be punished for.

And second, and more importantly, Hamil’s anger zeroes in on what he correctly identifies as white, conservative America’s long-standing — from mild to intense — distaste for New York and its essence: its literal foreigness, its ethical liberalism, its density, its decay and dirt (though that was precisely why the city was requesting federal help), and its intimidating sophistication and baffling cosmopolitanism.

Hamil’s money quote on this is:

Most of America hates New York. The citizens of America hate New Yorkers. They cannot stand our diversity, our great clanging mixed-up bowl of Jews and Blacks and Puerto Ricans and Irishmen and Italians. and Chinese and Poles and Cubans. They despise our energy, the great driving engine of the town that sends us into sweating, mulling, ferocious contact with each other every day of our lives […] The hicks and the boobs arrive in New York for their tours in the summertime, and they can’t believe it: “Too much rushing around for my blood.” Of course. Too much talent too. Too much energy. Too much intelligence. [my emphases]

(It’s funny; if anybody today described the majority of Americans as “hicks and boobs”, he would be attacked for snobbery and political incorrectness. And frankly, I have to say that his form of deprecating non-urban, non-coastal America only contributes to the polarization of American social and political consciousness that has brought us Donald Trump.)

In the end, Washington did come through with some aid, but mostly New York got back up on its feet through a series of extremely painful spending cuts, and then on the burst of economic energy a massive new wave of immigrants brought starting in the mid-eighties.

And finally, on riding the wave of the new urbanism, post-industrial transformation that most Western cities underwent in the nineties. But…at what cost? At turning Manhattan into a sterile playground for the privileged, or a brutal cage for the desperately poor, that has left the boroughs the by-far most interesting and vibrant parts of the city? At what Hamil would probably see, correctly, as the suburbanization and “Americanization” of New York? I’m not nostalgic for a city where getting on the train at night felt like going on safari, or where my car got broken into on the average of once a week. But sometimes I dunno if I wouldn’t prefer going back to the ratty New York that I grew up in, instead of living in this simulacrum New York that seems to be closing in on us day by day. If you want more reading on the subject — though, warning: if you’re a New Yorker the book might be devastatingly depressing — see Jeremiah Moss’ Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul.

Finally, just one point offered as an antidote to Hamil’s anger at America and one often overlooked by New York chauvinists like me: that’s that New York may not be America, but it also wouldn’t be possible in any other country on earth.

He dicho.

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