A few years ago, the aquarium in Newport, Kentucky decided to bring back their popular shark petting zoo exhibit. When the exhibit had been there several years before, they’d flooded the local media market with ads showing people how to pet sharks: with two fingers, always front to back. The shark petting zoo’s triumphant return was advertised with this incredibly ill-advised billboard:
At the time, I was still living in my hometown across the river from Newport, in Cincinnati, Ohio. I saw this billboard once before they hastily pulled it down, and because it’s a comedy goldmine, I tell the story behind it every chance I get.
One day, I finished telling the story to a friend, and after giving me a polite, placid-faced smile, she said, “I guess in really cut-off, provincial places, it’s easy to think the whole world remembers your ad campaign.”
The “Greatest City in the World” vs. the “Flyover States”
Now, before I go any further, let’s get one thing straight: The Greater Cincinnati metropolitan area has over two million people in it. We’re not some backwoods, podunk, hick town that calls people “city slickers” because they don’t tan their own leather. And we’re not cut off from anything. We have an airport. We have internet. We have roads. We’ve even got our own television sets.
There is, in fact, only one type of person who could think that Cincinnati is “cut off” and “provincial”: a New Yorker.
This isn’t an isolated phenomenon. It’s a regular occurrence. I had another New York friend tell me “it doesn’t count as a real city if there’s less than a million people in the actual downtown.” Which would mean there’s only nine cities in the United States. And those nine don’t include Boston, San Francisco, or Washington, DC. I’ve had other New Yorkers say, “I’m sorry,” when I say I’m from Ohio. And they have a tendency to call NYC “the Greatest City on Earth,” which sounds like a statement about New York to them, but to me it sounds like them saying “We’re better than you.”
Clearly, I have a New York complex. Clearly, I’ve been holding these petty grudges for years. Clearly, this isn’t about New York — it’s about me. And clearly, I’m not alone.
The fine, grand tradition of hating New York
The refrain of Midwesterners everywhere — which is to say the Midwesterners that haven’t already abandoned their hometowns and moved to New York — is, “Oh, New York is nice to visit, but I’d never want to live there.” Then they tell a story about a bum spitting on their 10-year-old child, or about a cab driver who called their elderly grandmother a “cunt” for not getting through the crosswalk quickly enough.
The stories are almost always exaggerated (for example, that bum only tried to spit on me when I was 10 and visiting Manhattan with my family), and some of them are patently untrue. But they are ubiquitous. Middle-American hate for New York is probably best expressed in the quintessentially middle-American show, The Simpsons, in the episode “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson.” As the Simpson family pulls into the Port Authority Bus Terminal on a ratty bus, Marge looks out the window at the city and says, “Wow, I feel like such a nobody!” The scene then pans down to a billboard that says, “Welcome to Manhattan: Home of the World Weary Poseur.”
David Simon, the famously cynical Baltimore native and creator of The Wire, was asked about New York and went on a long rant about the city, calling it “vain,” “indifferent to other realities,” “self-absorbed,” a “pile of money.” He then went on a tangent about how hard it is to live in New York’s long cultural shadow.
Insecurity and jealousy
“New York City to a Midwesterner,” my friend Jesse Steele says, “is what I imagine it must be like to be just a regular dude and have your older sibling be elected president. No matter what you do, even if you’re smarter, stronger, better, cooler, whatever, your older brother will still be the president, and you’ll still be not the president. Like the president, New York doesn’t have to do anything to be better than you.”
Most of the New York haters would have to admit there’s some pretty amazing stuff in New York. Broadway is awesome. The food and art scenes are bananas. And there are famous people everywhere. So yeah. A big element of New York hate is jealousy, and it can come out in ugly ways.
When Sarah Palin called the heartland the “Real America” during the 2008 campaign, she was playing on that nagging insecurity felt so strongly in not-New-York areas. She confirmed for them what they’d always hoped: that they were better than New Yorkers! Pop culture had been lying to them all along!
Anti-New York sentiment can also be coded anti-semitism or racism. As a city that’s perceived as heavily Jewish, heavily black, largely progressive, and incredibly diverse, The City is prone to the projections of latent bigots and hardcore conservatives. Thus, New York’s pros are turned into cons: Instead of a shining Metropolis, a beacon on the hill, it’s a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah.
Getting over it
I’ve resented New York for years now. But resentment belongs solely to the resenter and not to the resented. New York is indifferent to my insecurities. It isn’t interested in the chip on my shoulder. It’s busy being motherfucking New York.
I’ve noticed people from other great cities — Austin, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver — tend not to care that much about New York. Sure, it might not be their place, but they don’t stew in their hatred. They’re too busy building something awesome of their own. Which is perhaps what my New York-hating brethren and I should be doing as well.