I’m always curious to know what fellow Parisians think of their visits to my beloved United States. Often they have been to America, and usually, they have been to New York. Now, when most people tell me they’ve visited New York, I tend to ask, “where” because I don’t assume they mean NYC. And I certainly don’t mean what Parisians mean, which is Midtown Manhattan.
While Midtown has its own striking features, it’s hardly “New York” and worse, it’s hardly worthy of the answer to my follow up question of “Why do you like it?” which is “Because it’s the most European city in America.”
The one time I was eating when someone said this to me I almost choked. That statement is so untrue on a number of levels, and I usually have to ask a number of follow-up questions to clarify why my acquaintance or friend has come to such a strange point-of-view. Some commonalities:
1. NYC is the only American city he/she has visited
2. While there, he/she never visited Brooklyn, Queens, or the other boroughs.
3. He/she was there for a week or less
These circumstances, combined with an ignorance about what other American cities have to offer, or worse, an ignorance about European cities, inevitably lead some of these Parisians to an idolization of NYC which is unwarranted.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Cloisters. And the High Line. And Brooklyn. The Park. Washington Square. The MET and all the things that make NYC great. But it’s not our finest city. That title firmly belongs in the hands of San Francisco (but that article is for another time). For now I’ll confine my remarks to NYC.
The cityscape itself
NYC is part of an elite group of skyscraper cities, which includes Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, and the like. There is nothing European about streetscapes and cityscapes of massively tall buildings that create wind tunnels. Indeed, in Paris all such buildings are clustered outside the city limits, at La Defense, as if to say – build these if you must, but please don’t invade our living space.
I’m not arguing that skylines need to look like Florence’s, where the majestic Duomo and the competing Medici Tower dominate and all other buildings rise to about the same level, significantly below both those buildings. But NYC’s cityscape matches none in Europe.
The melting pot
On this point it’s important to note that London and Paris, like NYC, fall into the category of “international cities.” Surely you will learn about England and France, respectively, upon visiting those cities, but if you want to really know Britain, you need to go out into the shires. Or to neighboring countries within the United Kingdom, like Wales. If you would know France you should visit Bordeaux. Or Bayeux. Or Grenoble. Or Strasbourg. Those are all “European cities.” But they are not multi-cultural melting pots.
London and Paris are playgrounds for those of us who love to learn about other cultures, but as “European cities” they are outliers. Most European cities have a dominant language, ethnic majority, cuisine, and culture. And at least, at the end of the day, London and Paris can claim their own culture too. But what is NYC, but the cathedral of change and the bastion of commercialism and the consumer culture? NYC is in its own way, a celebration of no identity and no heritage and no culture because of the mistaken belief that since all cultures are “equal” (whatever that means) that a melange of all is a culture in and of itself. It’s not, and the banal and ubiquitous “I love NY” shirts is perhaps representative of what NYC can be at times: tourist hype.
The cost of living
One of the magical things about Wimbledon is that it’s still one of the major sporting events that you can buy tickets for the day of, at face value. You’ve got to queue, but that’s really a minor inconvenience. 🙂 It allows the groundlings to mix with the elite who never needed to queue to have an assured place.
A European city still has a place for the least affluent in our society (and I’m not talking about the homeless here: they manage to find spots all over the world). Paris is on the margins of affordability, but NYC is in another solar system by comparison.
This is all to say that my fellow Parisians might look for some treasures off the beaten path the next time they decide to visit the US. This HuffPo list might be the place to start.
NYC: hardly the most European city in America. It’s not even the most American city in America. 🙂