by Ashley Prather –
“Well, kill me now ’cause I let you down/I swear one day I’m gonna leave this town”
‘New York City Cops’ by The Strokes (2001)
If I hadn’t left New York, I don’t think I would have taken kindly to the characterization of urban dwellers as blasé (Simmel 1903). But, if I hadn’t left, then I am not sure what kind of person I’d have become, or if I’d even “be” at all.
Undoubtedly, things in New York have worsened since I was a kid, which is perhaps why I feel both seen and read to filth by Simmel’s 1903 depiction of urban life. The subway is indefinitely delayed, and the platforms flood every other rainstorm. There is a NYPD robot now, rent is sky-high, and locals are fleeing.
As a kid, I didn’t understand why people thought of New Yorkers as stoic, and unkind. I knew I wasn’t a blasé urban dweller. I’d never been able to look away from the unhoused person sleeping on the subway platform, or not feel my heart break when I saw a family-owned brownstone turned into chichi apartments. But what I hadn’t realized was that I didn’t need to be unfeeling to be blasé, I just had to be unsurprised by it. I just needed to hold the twisted and romanticized image of a pizza rat close to my heart and not question why I was suddenly crying on the subway.
The urban dweller adopts a blasé attitude to protect themselves from the overwhelming sensory stimuli around them, according to Simmel in 1903. In 2018, I learned this to be true. My ability to put up a wall between myself and the trauma of the city was being tested every day. It was as if I woke up one day feeling and seeing too much. I didn’t have the language to describe my feelings, but I now realize I was becoming aware that I was held hostage by the city. I’d always said I would never leave. I could never leave because there was nowhere else to go. For the longest time, I couldn’t hear how toxic that sounded.
I’d never subscribed to the idea of an inevitable succession of the soulless corporate city over the soulful and wild parts of Brooklyn on the periphery (Burgess 1925). I didn’t believe until I was ten that Manhattan was where people lived. In my mind, we all lived in the outer boroughs and commuted into Manhattan to work. I was positive the toxic growth machine of Manhattan wouldn’t ever be able to stretch its tentacles across the Brooklyn Bridge and capture its soul (Logan and Molotch 1987).
While I still reject the inevitability of this idea, I now concede that it has indeed happened. Did Brooklyn have to become just as commercial, capital-hungry, and impersonal as Manhattan? No. But it has. Or maybe it always was?
Scott (1998) writes about the citizens of Brasilia getting lost in their city, as landmarks are erased and replaced by homogenous right-angled structures. Though High Modernism may not be in vogue any longer, I can’t help but think that New York’s real estate developers are also creating a Corbusier-style anywhere through their lack of imagination and care for people and culture. Every high rise looks the same. Individuality is now bad for property values. It’s not about where you live, but how much it is worth (Logan and Molotch 1987).
Since I moved to Amsterdam, I’ve been jokingly telling anyone who asks me why I left New York that “we got divorced”. It broke my heart. It betrayed me. But what I’ve begun to wonder is if my belief in a living, feeling city was a mirage. Were urban places machines or un-dead zombies all along? Did New York betray me if it never knew that I existed and loved it? Or was it just that I finally woke up to the toxic relationship I’d been in and let go of my ability to remain unsurprised and unmoving? Perhaps, New York had always been like this to some extent: impersonal, corporate, chaotic. Maybe, I had just discovered the limits to being unfeeling.
Ashley Prather is a second-year bachelor’s student in anthropology.