There is always something exciting about leaving your comfort zone and moving on to a new place — into an unknown situation. I never thought that this would happen with such exhilarating city as New York. And yet, after more than five years of life in “the city that never sleeps,” the proposal to move came my way, and I said “yes” immediately. The things I have fallen in love with in New York started to fade away.
I wrote a column on New York a few months after I landed in the city. It was dedicated to Tony Judt, who had passed away a few months before, and whose declared love for New York has become my own love for the city. This in spite of the fact that the New York from the times of Woody Allen and other intellectuals no longer exists. But no matter how much it’s been diluted, as Tony Judt wrote from his deathbed, the city still kept its endless charm and liveliness:
The intellectual gangs of New York have folded their knives and gone home to the suburbs — or else they fight it out in academic departments to the utter indifference of the rest of humanity. The same, of course, is true of the self-referential squabbles of the cultural elites of Russia or Argentina. But that is one reason neither Moscow nor Buenos Aires matters on the world stage. New York intellectuals once did, but most of them have gone the way of Viennese cafe society: they have become a parody of themselves, their institutions and controversies of predominantly local concern.
And yet, New York remains a world city. It is not the great American city — that will always be Chicago. New York sits at the edge: like Istanbul or Mumbai, it has a distinctive appeal that lies precisely in its cantankerous relationship to the metropolitan territory beyond. It looks outward, and is thus attractive to people who would not feel comfortable further inland. It has never been American in the way that Paris is French: New York has always been about something else as well.
Today I drop my cleaning off with Joseph the tailor and we exchange Yiddishisms and reminiscences (his) of Jewish Russia. Two blocks south I lunch at a place whose Florentine owner disdains credit cards and prepares the best Tuscan food in New York. In a hurry, I can opt instead for a falafel from the Israelis on the next block; I might do even better with the sizzling lamb from the Arab at the corner.
All this variety of cultures and languages that can be seen in your German butchers, Korean cleaners, Italian restaurants, local bar — oh, my local 1020 bar that helped me get to know New York so well — becomes your community, the comfort zone that we always build around us. It allows us, as Judt said, to look outward and feel like New Yorkers, but not Americans.
It would be great to re-discuss these notions with Professor Judt, who — when still alive — was one of the attractions of the city.
Washington is a move in the opposite direction. It is about getting to know America.
In 2010, Judt had already written about the decline of the American age. “But how does national or imperial decay influence the lifecycle of a world city?” Judt asked himself, claiming that New York — a city more at home in the world than in its own home country — would do better than other world metropolises.
This was six years ago. New York, like London, has become a primary target of international real estate capital. Both cities are radically changing, and I would dare to say that this time, London got the better deal. Yet when you approach Manhattan from Long Island, JFK or New Jersey, there is no better skyline in the world. It creates in you an immediate impulse to be part of that landscape, part of that image reproduced in almost every Hollywood movie. Have you ever asked yourself how much of its popularity New York owes to Hollywood? It is not only us non-Americans who are pulled to New York — even Californians are attracted to the city for the same reasons as most Europeans. I have Californian friends who moved into the city and became New Yorkers for exactly this reason. It is hard to leave them — all of them.
And yet, when I need to justify the move with an intellectual reason, this comes very easily. D.C. is where the nation’s political power lives. No matter whether it will be Trump or Clinton who steps into the Oval Office next year, this city will be changing its face, I was told in the first few days of my stay in Washington. Who would not like to observe this process? I have almost no interest in the domestic political bargaining or the overwhelming presence of lobbies in the city. I still look outward and want to see what will happen with the predicted end of the American age. That is, if it arrives in our lifetime.
In the meantime, Washington is here for me. I have not yet found a good spot from which I can see the face of this spread-out city that intentionally leaves its buildings low, giving a lot of space to its historical monuments. The city is a marvelous architectural mix of classicism and conservatism, with the Washington Monument being the highest construction in the city’s otherwise horizontal landscape. You can drive a car around the city, or ride a shared bike. We subscribed to the program the very first day we arrived. You get the feeling that you can ride a bike without worrying that you will get knocked down by an angry driver. It is easy enough to avoid the rush hours when you can find some frantic drivers on the roads — otherwise, the city seems to be safe for biking. Another advantage is that there are few policemen to be seen. That is, if you keep away from the Capitol Building, White House, or Supreme Court — the triangle of the power in this city. There is hardly any deafening noise coming from ambulances or fire trucks in the city. Nothing that compares with New York, where the permanent noise of sirens seems to be part of the cultural landscape. And yes, Washington — with its average age of a little over 30 — is an embarrassingly young city, where employment comes mostly from the federal government. Could the District of Columbia therefore be called socialist territory? I am really looking forward to playing with this idea. Have I landed back in a socialist country?
But even more significantly, this is the first time that I am living in a southern city in America. And I like it so far. It is a good, fertile land for a publication like Yonder. Stay tuned.