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The Resilient City-Dwellers of New York

I would like to expand on the point that John Steele Gordon, my fellow resident of Westchester County, made in this post about the toughness of New Yorkers. It is a point I could not agree with more–and it is demonstrated not only by the response to superstorm Sandy but, even more magnificently, by the response to 9/11 which was far more devastating in terms of lives lost. Yet New Yorkers did not panic, at least not for long, and they did not flee the city in droves, as some had predicted would happen after the worst attack ever on American soil. Instead, more than a decade after 9/11 the city is more vibrant than ever–and there is no doubt that we will come back, and come back quickly, from the damage caused by this week’s storm.

All of this is, on some level, to state the obvious. But it actually runs counter to a long and important strain of American thought. From Thomas Jefferson in the eighteenth century to country and Western musicians in the present day, there has been a long line of people extolling the virtues of rural life and damning big cities, especially big Northeastern cities, as the cesspool of humanity. Many conservatives, especially in the South, Midwest, and mountain West, are especially prone to adopt the argument that small towns are the repositories of American strength, virtue, and piety while cities are dens of quasi-communism, free love, drugs, atheism, and everything else that’s wrong with humanity.

This argument has a shred of truth to it, because there is no doubt that cities have generally been more tolerant of a variety of what would today be called alternative lifestyles, facilitating not only great artistic development but also brothels, drug dens, saloons, and other not-so-virtuous establishments. Those exist in small towns, too, but not in such great abundance. There is no doubt that there is a lot more sinning, if I may use that anachronistic term, in cities–but then there is a lot more of everything else too, including working out in gyms and working long hours in offices. 

Yet there is no evidence–at least none that I have found–that big city dwellers are any less virtuous on the whole, less patriotic, or less resilient than those who live on farms or in smaller communities. Indeed, just to get through their day, residents of New York have to weather all sorts of annoyances that would be unthinkable to those who live in rural areas–from having to shlep groceries home by cart or taxi to having to deal with aggressive panhandlers in the subways to having to deal with vast throngs on Fifth Avenue. Admittedly in the case of New York all those annoyances have decreased over the years, ever since Rudolph Giuliani sent crime plummeting to historic lows, and now new services like Freshdirect (for groceries) and Seamless (for restaurant delivery) have made apartment living exceedingly convenient.

Nevertheless, every day tourists are overwhelmed by the sheer scale of New York, by the number of people moving in all directions, by the endless day-and-night buzz of activity–and though most of them no doubt enjoy their New York vacations, many are also happy to go back to the less hectic pace of their lives elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with preferring to liver in a smaller community–but let’s banish the mistaken idea that those who reside in a mega-city like New York are wimps or degenerates. The kind of toughness that New Yorkers need simply to get through daily life comes shining through in a crisis, whether 9/11 or Sandy.


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