9/11 was a tough hit on everyone, especially New Yorkers. But everyone, even people who hated this city, wanted to see the city come back from it. And so we did. It was often said then that a bunch of goddamned terrorists couldn’t kill New York.
And they were right. New York couldn’t be killed by a terrorist attack. It was perfectly capable, though, of killing itself.
And throughout the decade, that’s what it has been doing.
Before the planes even hit, New York was in the hole financially. Motivated by desperation, the city and incoming Mayor Bloomberg did what they had to do — including raising taxes, especially on the rich. (“That’s where the money is,” Bloomberg said at the time, in a pleasingly bald-faced reference to Willie Sutton. NYC FTW!)
And the city revived — at least financially. New York continued to host the glittering events for which it has always been famous, continued to star in TV shows, continued to draw tourists and even new citizens looking to be a part of it, New York, New York.
But just as Americans were trying to get a little New York for themselves, New York started trying to be more like America.
Remember when the smoking ban in bars and restaurants was passed in 2003? It seemed like an un-New York thing to do. But it passed, and took deep root. Now it is very New York — and very everywhere else, too. What’s next, we thought at the time, a smoking ban in Dublin pubs? And there it was.
As our smoking ban set a big precedent — if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere! — it may look innovative, another case of New York taking the lead. But it was of a piece with the health-conscious law-making that has been rising for years all over the country. We recall our surprise, ten years ago, at being told at a Maryland Chili’s that the restaurant was legally prohibited from serving us a rare burger. We’re not so surprised by that now. (Anyway, thanks to growing awareness of e. coli, we’re not sure that we even want a rare burger anymore.)
After the smoking ban came the trans-fat ban and a host of other civic prescriptions. The city council passed a ban on flavored smokes. A councilman is trying to create fast-food-free zones. Our health department is aggressively trying to scare us out of drinking soda. Our police arrest more pot-smokers than those of any other city. Construction workers get arrested for drinking on the job! And now Bloomberg is looking for a ban on smoking in parks.
We’re not the dirty, dangerous, who-wants-to-live-forever city we were even ten years ago. Maybe it’s terrific, but it certainly is different.
Interference in our citizens’ self-poisoning wasn’t the only American trend that New York adopted. We also became the stadium boondoggle capital of the nation.
Field of Schemes author Neil deMause has had plenty to say about the national rise of the sports-porkmeister complex, and the poor returns citizens generally get from it, but lately he is obliged to write an awful lot about the local situation. The new Yankees and Mets stadia (with their fancy eats), and the proposed Atlantic Yards Nets arena, have swallowed millions of civic dollars, mainly to enrich co-conspirators. Graft is one thing — a New York thing for sure — but this kind of mass sell-out just doesn’t seem like us. It’s as if the Big Apple were no more aware of its own self-interest in these matters than the easily-gulled aldermen of Podunk, U.S.A.
We tire of bemoaning, as has become our habit, the passing of old haunts and landmarks, and won’t get into that here. But we will say that while change is a constant in New York, we used to take care to hang onto our big equities. Coney Island has burned down before, but who knew its character and even its existence would be threatened by rapacious developers? And whatever you think of the Times Square pedestrian mall — we mainly like it — you have to admit it’s odd that the city would so easily implement such a dramatic change on one of its biggest landmarks, as if it were a town square in Kansas rather than the crossroads of America.
And now the city is offering to sell naming rights on some of its facilities. “Citi Field” may not be such a clangorously commercial name, but how about Bank of America Tennis Center? Doesn’t it sound like something you’d see out on the prairie rather than in Central Park?
We’ve noticed before the increasingly non-urban nature of New York nightlife, with spelling bees and lectures replacing the cocaine orgies of yore. We once thought it was just a new flavor for jaded palates, but we’re beginning to think it’s the wave of our future. Maybe cornhuskings and quilting circles will be next. They’re cheap, convivial, and pose no threat to our health.
But we’ve changed. We’re in another financial crisis, not terrorism-related this time; but while last time the Mayor soaked the rich to help pull the freight, he now says the rich shouldn’t be touched. The well-to-do have always had special privileges here in Mammon, but mostly on an unofficial basis, as with cops looking the other way when a swell got in trouble (another New York tradition that’s passing away) — now it’s pretty much an official policy. It’s as if we were run by the Kiwanis or the Rotary.
Plus, like America, we’re getting fat.
The Statue of Liberty, closed for security concerns after 9/11, has reopened, but visiting it has turned into a security ordeal. You have to undergo careful screening, and be fingerprinted. If Gene Kelly capered in front of it as he did in On The Town, he’d be detained indefinitely. Perhaps that’s just how it has to be, and perhaps everything we’re turning into is what we have to turn into. But how much of this can we take before we cease to be New York, and become a high-priced Duluth?
Assuming we’re not that already.