In a powerful long-form piece, the New York Times directs much-needed attention to the crumbling infrastructure of its city’s subway. Highlighting the governmental neglect the city has endured over the years, the paper invokes necessary reparations as an opportunity to preserve New York’s self-absorbed legacy as the world’s greatest city. I still vividly remember among my first visits in 2013, marveling at the tall buildings, enraptured by the bustle and feeling as if I were at the center of the world. While I didn’t grow up there, I sometimes joked — perhaps because of that formative vacation — that I was a “spiritual New Yorker.” What partly compelled me to attend college in the northeastern USA, moving all the way from Sydney, is that I found the latter too “Californian,” or languid. And, as someone passionate about both the financial markets and the entertainment industry as a teenager, New York seemed like the only place to be.
However, in the years since, my love for New York City has regrettably withered. After having spent a summer interning in the city, and this most recent winter too, I begin to wonder why the international imagination continues to place New York at the apex of global metropolises. Admittedly, it’s technically safer today than it has ever been since the mid-20th century, but as the Times piece details, the infrastructure upon which the city’s former greatness was built is decaying, leaving in its wake frustrated passengers, frequent delays and disastrous accidents. But even worse, the diverse populations that contributed to the city’s vibrancy are being displaced to its fringes, increasingly priced out by wealthy people in peripheral boroughs who were themselves priced out by the even wealthier who have colonized Manhattan. And just looking at the prices of goods and services on the island, one can’t help but feel as if they’re trudging through the world’s largest gated community. The gates may not be literal, but considering the growing private reclamation of public space, one simply has little reason to visit Manhattan unless they’ve readied their wallet to become noticeably thinner.
Despite this, it’s still undeniable the city remains a cultural and economic hegemon. New York continues to hold sway as a place to be, at least for work, evident at least in the exodus of Cornellians following Wall Street’s siren call southeastwards. However, what once struck me as an attractive quality about New York — that many young, ambitious people congregate there, seeking to become exceptional in their field — has since devolved into something deeply-saddening. The exceptionalism, definitionally, means that very, very few people get to be exceptional. No other city in the world therefore hosts a population burdened by as broad an existential rift between who they are and who they want to be. And while this rift is, according to many philosophers, intrinsic to our humanity, there comes a point when the impossibility of bridging it results in frustrated unfulfillment. Riding on the subway and overhearing another young person, in a Columbia sweater, boast to his friend — loud enough for me, in my Cornell sweater and Bloomberg cap, to overhear — about his forthcoming Bloomberg internship at first made me think: “What a piece of shit.” But quickly, as he continued, my disdain transformed into profound pity, as I imagined him pursuing, over the course of his one lifetime, the ornaments of career success as feeble placations of his deep insecurity.
New Yorkers from lower socioeconomic strata suffer more than just disenchantment. An older Australian friend who visited New York in 2012 told me that right before Hurricane Sandy hit, he and his then-girlfriend decided to stroll through the deserted streets, either out of bravery or naive curiosity. While the rest of the city was comfortably bunkered in their dwellings, he saw a line of over 30 homeless people with their backs pressed against a wall, huddling from the howling wind. To this day, it remains among the most striking images from his travels. And indeed, as heartbreaking as it is, it wasn’t long before I stopped extending dollars to the homeless asking for money, for while my heart hadn’t yet hollowed I worried that my wallet eventually would. And then, the fear that some of them would use them on drugs took hold, prompting my further reluctance; indeed, something about this city breeds mutual distrust.
So, why continue glamorizing New York, a city famous for the “I’m walking here!”-hostility of its residents — almost all of whom will never meet the heights of their ambition, and hence manifest their emotional burden by elbowing past others like them in a Darwinian struggle to be the exceptional one? Why romanticize target number-one for both terrorists and Kim Jong-Un as the cost-of-living looms large and starving people literally beg for their next meal on creaking subway cars (for which more fortunate New Yorkers consistently resist subsidizing much-needed repair)? As these same cars become lined with messages warning of how to prevent a loved-one’s heroin overdose and New Yorkers able to afford it blissfully gawk at Hamilton, one can’t help but have their pleasant stroll through Central Park interrupted by a sense that this could be the “Brave New World” Huxley imagined. At his second inauguration, Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke of how his re-election would mark the beginning of a “new progressive era” in the city’s history. One hopes for more than fossil fuel divestment, as the decline in New York’s mystique that that Times piece warns of isn’t a distant possibility, but happening right now.
Lorenzo Benitez is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Not a Cop appears alternate Mondays this semester.