First, a fact: New York City is the most populous city in the country and the 17th most populous city in the world, between Bangalore, India and Dongguan, China. It is also the center of our nation’s media, be it The New York Times or all the cable news channels or some of the most popular websites. This became very evident when most of the city experienced a blackout during Hurricane Sandy. MSNBC, Fox, and CNN were on high alert during Sandy. Gawker and Mediaite were down most of Monday, and Buzzfeed was reduced to Twitter updates and measly Tumblr blogs. Thought Catalog itself ran a liveblog devoted primarily to the tribulations of Williamsburg residents who were forced to get drunk on a weekday at home (oh, the humanity).
The media seems to be the eternal winner of history, writing it as it happens. However, as the venerable Oscar Wilde once put it, “journalism is unreadable and literature is unread.” If NYC is the center of journalism both old and new, the rest of the country is unread. I live in a suburb of Harrisburg, the ninth largest city in Pennsylvania. Certainly not any mega-metropolis, but it does have a surrounding population of roughly 500,000 people, equal to the entire population of Montana. We also experienced Sandy as, contrary to media reports, the hurricane was not directly aimed at New York City in an effort to squash all culture, class, and hashtags. Hurricane Sandy is a widespread disaster, affecting people as far south as the Carolinas and as far North as Toronto. But where has the focus been? My god, the East Village has no power! Where the hell will I get my $10 cocktails and $1.50 falafel?
I was actually in NYC this past weekend to take in a Louis CK show at the City Center on Sunday night. The event was postponed to March 2nd by CK himself out of concern for his fans. On the day before, however, my girlfriend and I spent the day with her biological father (identity discovered when she was 20) wandering around Brooklyn, drinking Guinness, and debating the merits of both John Cage and the color blue. I loved the time we spent there and have nothing but fond memories of past times I’ve visited the land of Lou Reed, Lena Dunham, and the Naked Cowboy. It is a city of people tired and objectified by both higher powers and their own neighbors but which shrugs and marches on anyway. However, when observing NYC from the outside, it is impossible to miss the inescapable sense of self-importance. New Yorkers are persistently patting themselves on the back for existing in what is admittedly a very hard city to exist. New York breeds suffering and suffering breeds creativity. It’s what encourages writers and musicians and whatever the fuck performance artists are supposed to be (actors? Dancers? Douchebags?) to move there from across the country. That and the inescapable fact the media, in all its power to determine perception based not on truth but the treachery of images, has dug its rancid, nicotine-stained claws into Midtown Manhattan like one of those fish that attach themselves to bloodthirsty sharks. Very few things in NYC, from the Empire State building shooter to Occupy Wall Street to Sully Sullenberger’s miracle landing on the Hudson, would have been nearly the news story they were if they had happened elsewhere. Hell, news stations get to skip the troublesome hobby of throwing affiliates a bone and instead can send Erin Burnett in her Geraldo costume three subway stops downtown and pretend it affects everyone.
My favorite Twitter feed of the past few months has been @Argus911, a constant feed of 911 calls made in the Sioux Falls, South Dakota area. “A grass fire near a structure was reported at the 700 block of S. 4th avenue,” it alerts me. “Crews have now downgraded the stabbing on E 13th St. to a code 1 (least serious). A male reportedly was stabbed in the back area.” Alright, Argus! Stabbing downgraded from a Code 2 to a Code 1 is the best news we have all night! Obviously, comparing any area of South Dakota to New York is a tad unfair. But the reason the feed strikes me so deeply is it treats its humble area of importance as seriously as the nation seems to treat New York. This is not to say, in a Palin-esque manner, that smaller towns have a more authentic experience than the East Coast elites. But the opposite is not true either: A nanny stabbing and killing two children is not more important because it happened in NYC.
Not that New York is a trash-heap and all its residents greedy rats sniffing their own shit for pleasure. Sandy is a real, bonafide disaster for the largest city in the country and I wish everyone there good luck and safety. The flooded Alphabet City or Battery Park or subway lines are heartbreaking and yes, even a bit easier to romanticize in my own mind than a hurricane in Miami. Of the 26 American deaths (at time of this writing) caused by Sandy, 15 of them were in New York. So this is no molehill transformed into a mountain. Last year, however, when Hurricane Irene became much ado about nothing for NYC, the coverage stopped there. I had the Susquehanna River driving myself and friends across two counties out of their homes –forced blackouts, boiling alerts, multiple dead — but Lower Manhattan is okay, so let’s talk about Michele Bachmann’s migraines. There does still exist this concept of “local news,” but as the media has become so centralized within one area of the country the rest are tossed aside. Could you imagine if the Joplin, Missouri F5 tornado from last year had dropped in Bushwick instead? We’d still be looking at a thousand GIFs of flying homemade chairs and Etsy disaster relief sales (are their such things as knit galoshes?). And I also can’t help but notice the focus not just on New York, but the media culture’s navel-gazing is actually so specific as to only really mention Lower Manhattan and North Brooklyn, two of the whitest areas in the whole city. Harlem’s subway lines may be down for weeks of repairs from saltwater damage and a fire in Queens may have destroyed 80 homes, but look at these amazing photos of a dark Bedford-Stuyvesant! So while I wish you all well, perhaps toss a pittance toward us lowly creatures who enjoy things like driving faster than 20 MPH and paying a hair less than $900 for a three bedroom in a good neighborhood. In the meantime, realize that New York is a self-fulfilling prophecy of importance. It’s the opposite of the old Yogi Berra line that nobody goes there because it’s too crowded. People move to NYC because everything is there, but because people have done so for generations everything actually is there. It is merely this myth that keeps NYC atop all else.