This past Sunday, Frank Rich wrote a typically snooty, self-absorbed, preeningly obnoxious essay in the New York Times, claiming that New York City is the “real” capital of the United States, and a far superior capital city to Washington, D.C. Almost instantly, a number of writers whom I really do like (like Rod Dreher and Jonah Goldberg) started responding on National Review Online’s blog, “The Corner.”
To the lot of them, I say, get real. And I point out the obvious.
New York City is the place where a whole lot of people with adolescent delusions of grandeur go to work out those delusions with others of their kind, and persist in those delusions well into purported adulthood, well beyond the point when any truly mature person would have abandoned them. Yes, all sophisticated societies have a place for this kind of thing — it happens in Paris and London and Rome, too. And somebody has to make movies and television shows and run advertising agencies and book publishers. And if you are drawn addictively to the business of looking down your nose at people, then such a business must undoubtedly have a capital, and New York is that capital in the United States.
Washington, D.C. attracts those for whom federal government is an addiction and the juice of life, when in fact the glory of the United States, even in these over-governmented times, is that the great majority of us mostly never think of our government at all, and don’t have to. Try that in Iraq, or in Taliban Afghanistan, for example, or Zimbabwe, or even Singapore. For most of us, the idea of living in a government city carries about the same attraction as spending our lives flying on commercial airlines — hermetically sealed, indoor liberal hell, and you can have it.
The partisans of New York and D.C. living tout cultural attractions, 24-hour everything, multi-cultural attractions like food and entertainment, excitement, intellectual stimulation, the world of ideas — we all know the constellation. I have had better talk in Massachusetts suburbs than in either of those urban colossi. You can eat well anywhere. (The best restaurant of any kind I’ve ever seen is in Springfield, New Jersey.) Medium-sized cities are easier to get in and out of, no small consideration with children in tow, and therefore offer up more frequent visits to shows and museums, plus more wonderful easy treats (Boston’s water shuttles, for example) for the visitor from the immediate neighborhood. And major cities like New York, D.C., Paris, Rome, and the rest are inevitably surrounded by a blasted 50-mile moraine of ex-urban ruin. Jersey Meadowlands, anyone?
Let’s look instead at what you can’t do — or can’t do with any ease — if you live in New York or D.C.
You can’t play golf.
You can’t play softball without a wearisome process of signing up for leagues and teams and fields.
If you’re a middling musician, like me, you can’t find anybody to play with on a casual basis, because all the good guys are gaunt-eyed with constant work, and generally have a bad attitude. In the Boston area, I can play with anybody. The same thing is generally true around Austin or Nashville or Richmond or Savannah.
You can’t send your kids unsupervised outside to play. There’s nowhere to ride a bike for a kid without worrying about getting beat up and having your wheels stolen.
You can’t send your kids to the public schools.
There’s nowhere to park. Yes, yes, I know all about mass transportation; I lived in Manhattan for six years and let my driver’s license lapse. But the free market spoke on the transportation question 50 years ago. The car won. Out of nearly 300 million people in the country, what percentage ride trains and busses anywhere? And no, I’m not begging the question because of the lack of mass transportation elsewhere. We like it that way.
You can’t see the stars. If you’re a photographer, you know that, at high noon on a clear day, there are two whole stops less light in Manhattan than in, say, Minneapolis.
Time and life itself mitigate against the great cities. Yes, they offer a great adventure for the young, the childless, the ambitious, the starry-eyed with show biz dreams. But most of us grow out of that, and cities too are growing out of it. Frank Rich cites the 9/11 glories of New York’s response to terrorism, very real. But very real too is the ever-more rapid exodus of the great corporations from Manhattan.
D.C. will continue to be D.C., half-monument, half-city, all embalmed. One thing alone might save it: trading popular sovereignty for tax-exempt status could create a new Hong Kong on the Potomac. That’s not likely. For New York, that city is poised forever on the knife edge of bankruptcy. How long can it live in the Weimar excesses of last days? Not long.