Tony Judt, a
British historian, essayist, and university professor who specialized in European history very intelligent man you should talk about when in the company of your one sophisticated annoying friend, died in August, but left us with a collection of essays that includes the following elaboration on thedailyblerg’s beloved New York City:
The intellectual gangs of New York have folded their knives and gone home to the suburbs — or else they fight it out in academic departments to the utter indifference of the rest of humanity. The same, of course, is true of the self-referential squabbles of the cultural elites of Russia or Argentina. But that is one reason neither Moscow nor Buenos Aires matters on the world stage. New York intellectuals once did, but most of them have gone the way of Viennese cafe society: they have become a parody of themselves, their institutions and controversies of predominantly local concern.
And yet, New York remains a world city. It is not the great American city — that will always be Chicago. New York sits at the edge: like Istanbul or Mumbai, it has a distinctive appeal that lies precisely in its cantankerous relationship to the metropolitan territory beyond. It looks outward, and is thus attractive to people who would not feel comfortable further inland. It has never been American in the way that Paris is French: New York has always been about something else as well.
Today I drop my cleaning off with Joseph the tailor and we exchange Yiddishisms and reminiscences (his) of Jewish Russia. Two blocks south I lunch at a place whose Florentine owner disdains credit cards and prepares the best Tuscan food in New York. In a hurry, I can opt instead for a falafel from the Israelis on the next block; I might do even better with the sizzling lamb from the Arab at the corner.
Fifty yards away are my barbers: Giuseppe, Franco and Salvatore, all from Sicily — their “English” echoing Chico Marx. They have been in Greenwich Village forever but never really settled: how should they? They shout at one another all day in Sicilian dialect, drowning out their main source of entertainment and information: a 24-hour Italian-language radio station. On my way home, I enjoy a mille-feuille from a surly Breton pâtissier who has put his daughter through the London School of Economics, one exquisite éclair at a time.
All this within two square blocks of my apartment — and I am neglecting the Sikh newsstand, the Hungarian bakery and the Greek diner (actually Albanian but we pretend otherwise). Three streets east and I have Little Hapsburgia: Ukrainian restaurant, Uniate church, Polish grocery and, of course, the long-established Jewish deli serving Eastern European staples under kosher labels. All that is missing is a Viennese cafe — for this, symptomatically, you must go uptown to the wealthy quarters of the city.
Such variety is doubtless available in London. But the cultures of contemporary London are balkanized by district and income — Canary Wharf, the financial hub, keeps its distance from the ethnic enclaves at the center. Contrast Wall Street, within easy walking distance of my neighborhood. As for Paris, it has its sequestered quarters where the grandchildren of Algerian guest workers rub shoulders with Senegalese street vendors, while Amsterdam has its Surinamese and Indonesian districts: but these are the backwash of empire, what Europeans now refer to as the “immigrant question.”
One must not romanticize. I am sure that most of my neighborhood traders and artisans have never met and would have little to say to one another: at night they return home to Queens or New Jersey. If I told Joseph and Sal they had the good fortune to live in a “world city,” they would probably snort. But they do — just as the barrow boys of early 20th-century Hoxton were citizens of the same cosmopolitan London that Keynes memorialized in “The Economic Consequences of the Peace,” even though they would have had no idea what he was talking about.
We are experiencing the decline of the American age. But how does national or imperial decay influence the lifecycle of a world city? Modern-day Berlin is a cultural metropolis on the make, despite being the capital of a medium-sized and rather self-absorbed nation. Meanwhile, Paris retained its allure for nearly two centuries after the onset of French national decline.
New York — a city more at home in the world than in its home country — may do better still. As a European, I feel more myself in New York than in the European Union’s semi-detached British satellite, and I have Brazilian and Arab friends here who share the sentiment.
To be sure, we all have our complaints. And while there is no other city where I could imagine living, there are many places that, for different purposes, I would rather be. But this too is a very New York sentiment. Chance made me an American, but I chose to be a New Yorker. I probably always was.
Phew! We know that was long, but don’t you feel just a tiny bit
better than other people smarter for having read it?