City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

New York: Seoul Survivor?

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When I first visited New York, about a decade ago, I accidentally snapped the above image, in Midtown. Hardly distinguished, but I fondly thought that its colliding diagonals caught something of the city’s awe-inspiring density; a sense of vaulting ambition rendered in stone and steel like little else I’d seen before, despite having grown up in those early die-casts of later industrial cities, Sheffield and Manchester. New York was something else, as noted in the Australian poet Peter Nicholson’s recent eulogy as part of 3 Quarks Daily’s 9/11 series.

"New York is magnificent, and New Yorkers know it, though naturally there are some who can only whinge about their magnificence. Citizens of Sydney, used to newbie enthusiasm over the city’s physical attractions, and far from immune to aren’t-we-wonderful self-glorification, know the real thing when we see it. From the Time Warner Center atrium to the trickling fountains at the Frick collection; up at the Cloisters, sequestered from development; down to the colossal energies of Times Square; at tony Park Avenue; through the vast empty space where the World Trade Center once stood, now waiting, yearning, for its Freedom Tower—Manhattan, Gotham city, stands, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island boroughs surrounding, an epic of social integration (‘Give me your tired, your poor’), a dazzling, perplexing, overwhelming city. With very expensive real estate. And with taxi and bus drivers whose skill in getting through the city’s ceaseless traffic can only be compared to the technique of great ballet dancers. Some long-term residents bemoan the changing character of parts of the city, but for the visitor it’s a case of: there doesn’t go the neighbourhood. Surely New York was never greener, cleaner or more attractive than it is now."

Maybe so. And yet … Nicholson’s words have the bromide whiff of nostalgia about them; the delirious ferrous tang of the 20th century city, trapped in two dimensions of celluloid and photograph; the idealised city. It’s beautiful writing, and I find every moment of it tugs my heartstrings. But look at the nouns: John Lennon, Gotham, Bronx, Staten Island, Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Central Park, Egyptian temple, Frank Lloyd Wright, Guggenheim, Wagner, Met, Clifford Odets, Ben Gazzara, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brooklyn Bridge, Rockefeller, Swarovski, Bronte sisters, Edgar Allen Poe, Mahler, New York Public Library, jazz, Zabar’s, Nick’s, Broadway …

Nicholson sees New York "through the eyes of a discerning and appreciative visitor", as 3QD’s Abbas Raza puts it. That’s the way most see it. My most recent visit to New York was a few months ago and it was as spectacular as ever. However, it was the first time I came away from the city without thinking "Why I am leaving? I should be living here." This said a little about me, but also a little about New York. I knew that it still good enough to warrant being named twice. I knew it was the finest example of The City yet created, as articulated in every carefully measured beat of E. B. White’s ‘Here is New York’. But I also had the nagging feeling that it was The 20th Century City. As if the decapitated twin towers were really two giant exclamation marks at the end of century of un-rivalled dominance of the popular urban imagination. Inadvertent, horrific punctuation marks.

It’s been nagging since. It’s not so clear that New York is over, of course. What does that even mean? Cities generally don’t have a closing scene, followed by a frame declaring ‘FIN’. (Except Carthage maybe. Even there, Tunis persists.) Moreover, despite The Economist’s recent reports that the developing nations’ economies are now eclipsing those of ‘The West’, and despite the gigantic focus pull of Shanghai et al, we will remember similar pronouncements every decade since the second world war, and particularly the near panic about inevitable rise of Japan in the early 80s. Which didn’t really happen. It’s become a cliché the size of Yellow River that the cities of the middle and far east are where it’s at. And New York has picked itself up off the canvas enough times in the past to naysay any notion that it’s past it.

And yet. And yet. I’m struck by the juxtaposition of Nicholson’s piece with another I read recently. NYC resident Adam Greenfield posted something recently which, apart from being a cracking bit of writing, also suggested a shift in what cities were; what defines a defining city. It was ostensibly a piece on the shattering modernity of Seoul, yet also reflected bleakly on a diminished sense of what New York now stands for.

"Apologies to Shanghai, to Toronto, to Bangalore: I haven’t yet been introduced to you, I don’t know what kind of intensities you offer your residents and visitors. For the time being, though, I can’t imagine anything better than this churning, massively parallel engine of a place. To walk the streets of Seoul is to inhabit a culture that perceives itself as working, that conceives of itself (rightly or wrongly) as a machine capable of delivering the good life to the majority of the people who live in it. In short: a culture that believes it has a future. The contrast with the city in which I wake up most of the days of my life could not be more telling."

3 Quarks Daily: Whatever: A New York state of mind Seoul is the only real city


4 responses to “New York: Seoul Survivor?”

  1. NYC resident Avatar
    NYC resident

    New York is the most vital city in America. It is the brassy, tough, sophisticated exception to Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian America. It is the city of intellectuals, cab drivers, criminals, politics, writers, real estate. It was founded not by Puritan religious exiles but by Dutch merchant explorers. It is a non-Protestant, non-car driving outpost. Yet New York, the birthplace of hip-hop, of modern dance, of abstract expressionism, of jazz poetry, is nevertheless gloriously, multiculturally American, whatever the rest of the country says. And as such, it is of an empire passing into twilight. Just as we New Yorkers must grit our teeth and bear the follies of Texan leaders more than any Texan, we sense the coming end of empire while the rest of the country sleeps. A decline of New York is a decline of America. New York will always be the greatest city in America, but will America always be the greatest nation in the world?


  2. NYer Avatar

    Well, I invite this dude down to the bus stop on the corner of 79 and 1st at 7:45 in the morning.
    As long as New Yorkers live in New York, it will stand for what it has always stood for.


  3. Avatar

    My wife and I began to feel the draining of NYC’s vitality around 1998. I think it really began when Gulliani started cracking down on street magicians.
    New York is clean and safe now, but I’m reminded of the famous line from The Third Man said by Orson Wells’ character, “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed — they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”


  4. David Burns Avatar
    David Burns

    I taught English in Seoul for a year and I don’t agree with the comment about Seoul being a great city. It’s a big city that’s for sure but it’s an endless monolithic cement jungle. It feels a bit like living in an industrial park. The people in the city are very driven – overly so I’d say as children go to school for 8-12 hours a day. I don’t want to slam Seoul because I loved living there. I’ve never been to New York but I’d have a hard time believing that many people would describe Seoul as the greatest city in the world.


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