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In Praise of New York

- Abstract

DIFFERENT cities acquire great symbolic significance at different moments in human history. Paris was significant in this way in the 18th and 19th centuries, as was London (though perhaps to a lesser degree), and Rome, over and beyond anything that was actually going on there, has retained its powerful symbolic character over many centuries. New York City undoubtedly has a comparable symbolic significance today. It is perceived as a symbol of modernity, of Western civilization, and (despite the often-repeated statement that “New York is not America”) of the civilization of the United States. The curious thing is that it is very widely perceived as a negative symbol-that is, as a metaphor of everything that has gone wrong with our society.

Much of the rest of the country sees New York as one gigantic agglomeration of social ills: crime, poverty, racial hatred, mismanaged and corrupt government-not to mention dirt, pollution, and traffic congestion of virtually metaphysical dimensions. The same perceptions have been widely diffused abroad, and foreign tourists come here with the piquant ambivalence of apprehension and fascination that used to go with dangerous expeditions into the jungles of central Africa. Interestingly, New York City has negative symbolic value right across the political spectrum.

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