New York Is Not the Nation’s Capital

Frank Rich has it wrong.

A yellow banner above the entrance to an elementary school not far from my house proclaims, “This School Is Filled With Terrific Kids!” Whenever I drive past, I think to myself, “What a shame. They must have terrible discipline problems.” The headline to Frank Rich’s Oct. 6 New York Times Magazine piece, “The De Facto Capital,” had the same unintended effect. “In a time when information, culture and the fear of what might come next are what bind Americans together,” the subhead elaborated, “New York is the real national seat—and Washington is an island off the coast of America.” What might this bizarre and uncharacteristically provincial plea for recognition tell us about New York City’s current state of mind?

Rich’s basic point is that Sept. 11 revealed New York to be far more beloved by, and representative of, the rest of America than is usually recognized. The “beloved” part is easily dispensed with. Of course Americans were outraged and saddened by the attacks on the World Trade Center. That sympathy aside, though, Americans continue to dislike N.Y.C., just as they dislike D.C. How could they not? It’s the city that tells them what to wear, what to think, and what to do with their money. Americans feel intimidated by New York, whereas they feel superior to Washington, the city that relentlessly asks them what they want. Because they think about culture and finance more than they think about politics, Americans think more about New York than they do about D.C. But this disproportionate attention mustn’t be mistaken for affection.

Much of Rich’s piece is given over to the undeniable (and, one would think, unnecessary) argument that Washington is a much more boring place than New York and also more boring than Boston, San Francisco, or Seattle. But its very blandness is what makes Washington so much more representative of America than any of those places. Outside of its art museums, Washington has very little to offer in the way of culture. But the dreary touring companies bringing second-rate opera and dance to the Kennedy Center, home of the laughably me-tooish Kennedy Center Honors, are much more typical of what Americans experience as culture than anything you’ll find at the Met. The pricier D.C. suburbs, Rich writes, are choked with hideous McMansions. But where in the rest of America will you find new money that’s heard of Rem Koolhaas? Only in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, and perhaps a handful of other big cities. The loathing that Americans feel for Washington is a kind of self-loathing because Washington—at least the part of it that constitutes a democratically elected government—is a creature of their own making. (Their refusal to acknowledge this is one of the great frustrations of living here.) The loathing that Americans feel for New York is more in the nature of resentment and awe.

New York City is a capital all right, but it’s the capital of something much bigger than America. It’s the capital of the world because American culture, fashion, media, and finance exert enormous influence all over the world. People in London and Paris and Tokyo are intimidated by New York, too! (If Henry James were to rise from the grave, he’d be flabbergasted to see the Old World crave the approval of the New.) New York is also the capital of international relations. The United Nations, the closest thing we have to a world government, is located in … New York.

Rich argues that New York is more representative than D.C. of the United States because it has many more immigrants. But being a city of immigrants helps make New York the world’s capital, not America’s. Even today, when the United States is more diverse than ever before, its national character still tends to reflect mainly the quirks of its native-born. (With globalization, this will likely change over time, and New York’s claim to being the national capital will improve.) We are less a nation of immigrants than a nation descended from immigrants who have assimilated into a majority culture. For all the carping about multiculturalism, that white-bread majority culture remains amazingly resilient. Only about one-tenth of the U.S. population is foreign-born. Washington is much more expressive than New York of the other 90 percent—and most New Yorkers of Chatterbox’s acquaintance wouldn’t have it any other way. Case in point: In Washington, you’ll have hardly more difficulty than in Birmingham, Ala., finding people who regularly attend Bible study groups. You’ll even find a lot of these people within Washington’s ruling class. Good luck, though, finding an evangelical Baptist on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Being capital of the world is so obviously better than being capital of the United States that Chatterbox can only wonder at Rich’s lunge for second prize. The only explanation Chatterbox can come up with is that New York is going through a bout of tremendous anxiety brought on by the declining stock market. The ripple effects of a collapse in stock values are always profound in New York, and these were probably exacerbated, for the short term, by the World Trade Center attacks. Financial services provide nearly 9 percent of all employment in New York state, and of course those jobs are concentrated very heavily in New York City. Furthermore, hard times for the financial services industry translate almost immediately into hard times for the advertising, newspaper, and magazine industries, and also for the arts, which are dependent on charitable donations. New York’s slow recovery from the recession, and the prospect of a second recession, are especially rattling, Chatterbox is told, given the ever-rising value of real estate. That discrepancy exists everywhere, but nowhere is the search for a place to live quite so debilitating as it is in New York City.

On Sept. 11, Chatterbox predicted the terrorist attacks would stimulate the economy because money would flow from the federal government. That appears to have happened, but the stimulus has had little lasting effect. Perhaps it’s been culturally demoralizing for New York City to live off handouts from Washington, D.C.—and perhaps Rich’s piece is an unconscious backlash against that. All Chatterbox can say for certain is that the rest of America will emit a huge sigh of relief when New Yorkers resume quietly thinking themselves superior to, and not at all like, the rest of America. It will mean the economy has bounced back.