“I’m writing this in Venice, Italy. This city is a pleasantly confusing maze, once an island of fortresses, and now a city of tourists, culture (biennales galore) and crumbling relics. Venice used to be the most powerful city in Europe – a military, mercantile and cultural leader. Sort of like New York.
“Venice is now a case study in the complete transformation of a city (there’s public transportation, but nocars). Is it a living city? Is it a fossil? The mayor of Venice recently wrote a letter to the New York Review of Books, arguing that his city is, indeed, a place to live, not simply a theme park for tourists (he would like very much if the big cruise ships steered clear). I guess it’s a living place if you count tourism as an industry, which I suppose it is. New York has its share of tourists, too. I wave to the doubledecker buses from my bike, but the passengers never wave back. Why? Am I not an attraction?
“New York was recently voted the world’s favorite city – but when you break down the survey’s results, the city comes in at No 1 for business and only No 5 for living. Fifth place isn’t completely embarrassing, but what are the criteria? What is it that attracts people to this or any city? Forget the business part. I’ve been in Hong Kong, and unless one already has the means to live luxuriously, business hubs aren’t necessarily good places for living. Cities may have mercantile exchange as one of their reasons for being, but once people are lured to a place for work, they need more than offices, gyms and strip clubs to really live.
“Work aside, we come to New York for the possibility of interaction and inspiration. Sometimes, that possibility of serendipitous encounters – and I don’t mean in the meat market – is the principal lure. If one were to vote based on criteria like comfort or economic security, then one wonders why anyone would ever vote for New York at all over Copenhagen, Stockholm or some other less antagonistic city that offers practical amenities like affordable healthcare, free universities, free museums, common spaces and, yes, bike lanes. But why can’t one have both – the invigorating energy and the civic, intelligent humanism?
“Maybe those Scandinavian cities do, in fact, have both, but New York has something else to offer, thanks to successive waves of immigrants that have shaped the city. Arriving from overseas, one is immediately struck by the multi-ethnic makeup of New York. Other cities might be cleaner, more efficient or comfortable, but New York is funky, in the original sense of the word – New York smells like sex.
“Immigrants to New York have contributed to the city’s vibrancy decade after decade. In some cities around the world, immigrants are relegated to being a worker class, or a guest-worker class; they’re not invited to the civic table. New York has generally been more welcoming, though people of color have never been invited to the table to the same extent as European immigrants.
“I moved to New York in the mid 1970s because it was a center of cultural ferment – especially in the visual arts (my dream trajectory, until I made a detour), though there was a musical draw, too, even before the downtown scene exploded. New York was legendary. It was where things happened, on the east coast, anyway. One knew in advance that life in New York would not be easy, but there were cheap rents in cold-water lofts without heat, and the excitement of being here made up for those hardships. I didn’t move to New York to make a fortune. Survival, at that time, and at my age then, was enough. Hardship was the price one paid for being in the thick of it.
“As one gets a little older, those hardships aren’t so romantic – they’re just hard. The trade-off begins to look like a real pain in the ass if one has been here for years and years and is barely eking out a living. The idea of making an ongoing creative life – whether as a writer, an artist, a filmmaker or a musician – is difficult unless one gets a foothold on the ladder, as I was lucky enough to do. I say “lucky” because I have no illusions that talent is enough; there are plenty of talented folks out there who never get the break they deserve.”