Just got back from a quick trip to London. I’ve always loved London, but this time I was overwhelmed. Not from the bookstores one stumbles upon, although those were fantastic as usual. Not because I look out of my hotel window and think I see where the Beatles held their rooftop concert. Not because of the glories of clotted cream. No, there was something else this time.
There’s a passage somewhere in which an English author (Martin Amis?) attempts to convey the vastness of America to a U.K. audience.* He starts by saying that you could match up London with New York well enough, but after that you’d quickly start running out of reasonable comparisons. Boston would be the equivalent of Edinburgh. Chicago would be Manchester. Detroit would be Glasgow. But what would be comparable to Los Angeles? And you’d still have San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, Dallas, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Houston – the list goes on. If I remember correctly he ticked through several of these, each comparison getting more ludicrous, before delivering the clincher: “New Orleans would be Hull.”
That’s right. New Orleans is not Hull. And although I adored London, the jingo in me thought, “Jeez, you probably can’t even give them London.”
New York just seemed to rule everything, in those days. It was the engine that powered the world’s economy and its culture. Bigger, better, smarter, tougher. More excitement, more energy than anywhere else in the world.
That’s what I thought twenty years ago when I was traveling around the world, engaging in conversations with fellow backpackers in youth hostels:
“What’s the best city in the world?”
“Do you mean best or my favorite?”
“Well, let’s hear both – we have time!”
Rome was always my favorite, with London usually coming in second. A soft spot for Chicago. But I had to credit New York as the best, and so did everyone else, and we didn’t take arguments to the contrary very seriously. If there was a championship belt worn by cities, New York had claimed it – probably sometime in the 1940s, if not before. Since then there had not even been any serious contenders. New York reigned as the Greatest City in the World, fighting only with historical Rome and Athens and Paris and London for a position as Greatest City of All-Time.
I didn’t think that during this trip. And what saddened me is why.
I thought London had at least as much energy as New York currently does. It made me think there are other cities in the world that can probably say the same. China probably has a half-dozen who are nearly there.
Look, New York’s still undeniably a great city. And it’s very possible, even likely, that my attitude toward both cities reflects more about me than anything else. I’m older now, in a different place in life, with an appreciation for different types of things. These kinds of evaluations are impossibly subjective.
But here’s my fear of what’s happening now: New York is attached to America, and America has for a long time now been dragged down by negative forces. The mentality that looks for the rich to get richer and the government to get out of the way. The attitude that views greatness as something you assert rather than something you demonstrate by doing awesome things.
What happens after you go through more than a decade of fighting intellectual arguments over basic concepts like torture is bad and science is good? We don’t attempt to build anything new or ambitious. No new airports or museums or parks or buildings or bullet trains. The people carp at one another over trivialities. Everyone’s sick and getting sicker. The federal government shuts down.
What’s the last inspiring thing we’ve produced in America? What’s the last great solution to a major problem we’ve solved? I’m not sure what I would even point to. Maybe the iPad? If that’s not the last gasp of an empire, I don’t know what is.
Take all this with a grain of salt: I was only in London for two days and I was busy most of the time with work. But I felt excited and energized there, and I felt a kind of positive spirit that I haven’t felt in New York for a long time. Londoners felt free of all the negativity that’s dragging down America. It seemed like they thought things could improve. A striking thought in 2013.
This is what saddened me: New York isn’t as great as it used to be because it no longer has a vibrant America behind it. London lost its title of Greatest City in the World when its empire collapsed. Here in America we’ve narrowed our sense of possibility, and it was only a matter of time before that extended to our greatest city too. New York may still be the champ, but it’s not as clear as it once was. The champ looks old. The champ looks tired.
I hope I’m wrong about this – but how much is that worth when you no longer trust hope?
*I cannot find this passage on the Internet. My searches unfortunately take me to a satirical article that compares Amis’s face to a series of sandwiches, which I would link to except I didn’t find it particularly funny.