Lately I’ve thought a lot about what it means to investigate cities through the lens of New York.
It started a few weeks ago when David Simon, former Baltimore Sun crime reporter and writer/producer of HBO’s The Wire and Treme, gave a presentation at the Lab where he put forth an intriguing analysis of New York’s place in the context of urban America. (Watch highlights of his presentation here.)
He began by recounting his experience of publishing his first book in 1991, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which detailed his year as an embedded reporter with the Baltimore Police Department homicide squad.
Despite reporting and narrative that later won him an Edgar Award, the New York Times refused to review the book—a slight that Simon later discovered was due to the fact that the book was considered “regional” because it was set in Baltimore.
The editor of the New York Times book section eventually admitted to Simon’s editor that if it had been set in New York, it would have been considered national.
In his presentation at the Lab, Simon suggested that this is the exact opposite mentality that we should have when approaching an investigation of the American City—that New York, in fact, is as far from the American City as you can get.
With New York booming despite the recession while other American cities drown in economic and social decline, Simon said, to tell stories set in Baltimore or Saint Louis is to represent the true “America of the 21st century, a country that is deeply divided, and in which the other America is growing and is ever more divorced from that which is viable in our economy and our culture.”
“To tell a story here is to tell a story about New York,” he said. “To tell a story in Baltimore is to tell a story in the American City.”
It was a simple and profound statement. New York, in so many ways, is an entirely unique city. From its 24-hour subway system, its nearly 800 languages, its immense income gap, and its mere 46 percent vehicle ownership rate, to the fact that it houses giant global players like the United Nations and Wall Street, New York is special in both its successes and its failings.
Why, then, this made me think, should we be talking about the future of cities in the context of a city like no other?
Earlier this week The Atlantic Cities published an article that deepened my musings on this issue sufficiently that it warrants sharing.
Titled “Mayor of the World: How Bloomberg Flexes New York’s Diplomatic Muscle,” the article proposes that while “a new class of global cities” emerges and gains an increasing amount of not national, but international power, they should look to New York as a trailblazer and role model.
“As this new crop of global cities increasingly set their own agendas to maintain stability and prosperity, they might take a page from what is still the world’s undisputed capital of capitals: New York,” the article’s authors, Parag Khanna and Mahanth Joishy, write.
The article goes on to detail how Mayor Bloomberg has, through his various environmental, economic, security, and other campaigns and policies, “stepped in to attempt to fill almost every void the federal government has left open” and taken on international ambitions that have previously been reserved for, well, nations.
It brings light to a fascinating challenge the global cities of the 21st century will face, and suggests an exciting and daunting vision of what our cities may become in the urban era. With more than half the world’s population now living in cities, and the majority of our environmental and social problems converging on their streets, the leaders of our major cities may increasingly become the leaders of the world.
Khanna and Joishy sum up this challenge beautifully at the article’s end:
In a complicated and messy world, such foreign policy activism on the part of mayors is no longer viewed as over-stepping bounds and treading on others’ turf but rather contributing to a stronger America through agility and innovation. Strong city diplomacy doesn’t undermine America’s federal authority, it gives it credibility and demonstrates innovation.
Around the world, mayors are taking the national and international stage. From West Germany’s Willy Brandt to France’s Jacques Chirac, and today Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, mayors have become heads-of-state and increasingly vie for executive office. Running an over-populated mega-city or world-class global city is increasingly seen as a job no less challenging than running a country.
So, maybe New York isn’t telling the narrative of the rise, fall, and future of the American Dream. Maybe it’s instead telling a different story—of the rise, fall, and future of the world.
. . .
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