Monday, May 19, 2014

From the Imperial City to the Outskirts of Empire

New York is the meeting place of the peoples, the only city where you can hardly find a typical American.

-- Djuna Barnes, Author (1892-1982)

The Great Library of Alexandria, founded around 300BC, was the locus point of the ancient world for philosophers, mathematicians, and scholars. At its height, the Library held 750,000 scrolls, which flowed into its shelves from the great empires of Greece, Egypt, and Babylon, and burgeoning civilizations as far away as India.

Alexandria, positioned at the crossroads of the developed world, soon became the world's intellectual capital and those who came to study understood that the knowledge amassed there was only as useful as it was widely disseminated—not only to the power centers of the old world, but to the small cities and towns on the periphery.

Two thousand years later, the United States is the closest thing we have to a global empire and the center of that empire is New York City. Just as the learned of Alexandria gravitated to the great political and cultural centers of the ancient world, so today many Americans flock to New York and other metropolises to ply their trade.

There is something deeply inspiring about this continued migration. As E.B. White famously wrote in Here is New York, while many native New Yorkers “take[] the city for granted,” there is another New York—the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something...that accounts for New York's high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.”

And yet for all the romantic greatness of the immigrant/migrant story of New York, there is also an undercurrent of danger in its magnetism: the potential for a growing disconnect between the global power centers and the majority of the world’s population that lives in what a friend once described to me as “the outskirts of empire.”

As Thomas Edsall of the Times wrote last month in a column titled, “Will Liberal Cities Leave the Rest of America Behind?” many of the cities that are now on the leading edge of progressive politics in America have significant built-in advantages not available to most cities and towns on the “outskirts”:

[M]ajor research universities; financial and high-tech corporate centers; substantial and strong artistic and intellectual communities. Pittsburgh, for example, has Carnegie Mellon, metropolitan Boston has Harvard and M.I.T., Seattle has Microsoft and Amazon, and New York has its own varied, almost endless resources…These advantages are the exception, not the rule.

In the end, Edsall is left to ask, “whether the current left-leaning urban agenda is restricted to small elite of well-off municipalities with substantial resources.

It doesn’t help matters that the media is centered in and around these largely liberal metropolises. Indeed, for generations, the media has helped fuel more than a little navel-gazing in centers of empire; from the “New Yorker’s View of the World” to “Beltway Insiders” to Bostonians—whose very nickname for their City, “The Hub,” offers a glimpse into the psyche of the Gateway to New England.

This narcissistic tendency makes getting out of the bubbles and into the back roads of the empire all the more important. As Deborah Fallows, author of Dreaming in Chinese, wrote this weekend, “America is full of places with stories to tell, where generations had spent their lives building, losing and rebuilding, or where newcomers migrate, like pioneers, to strive toward their dreams.”

Of course, the need to assess the problems of the periphery need not blind us to the problems of the center of empire. Even Manhattan, which includes several of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, does not lack for significant social and economic ills. For all its wealth and power, the centers of the empire, like the outskirts, are not immune from poverty and suffering.

Nevertheless, just like the knowledge amassed and uncovered in Alexandria, New York’s progressive prosperity or Boston’s quest to become the City on a Hill mean little if their lessons are not spread beyond the walls of the metropolis to the rest of the country. For that to happen, people in cities and small towns have to focus more on what they have in common than by what separates them and avoid falling into the trap of believing that the future of American politics rural interests against urban needs.

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