The mainstream media got itself into quite a lather over those High Line flyers from Anonymous last week--and it tells us something interesting, something critical, about the city and its changing face.
Shawn Chittle's TV
After I first posted the news, Fox 5 picked up the story with a video called "High Line Hater." One woman interviewed said, "Before they rented in this place, they knew this exists," referring to residents who live along the High Line. NY1 interviewed a young man on video who said, "It's the Meatpacking District, the nightlife here is crazy, so you should be kind of used to it. Live somewhere else if you don't like the noise."
CBS Channel 2 found someone to say, "This is New York City, if you want space, move to the country," while another called the flyer's rules "civility." The New York Post, with their take titled "High Line anxiety: Neighbor rips raucous rubes," also featured a video that is largely pro-High Line and pro-tourist, with one detractor who said that the High Line has changed the neighborhood for the worse. In the UK, the Daily Mail took offense, calling the flyer-maker a bossy, nasty, unfriendly whinger.
[*Update: The Atlantic Monthly Cities blog chimes in, recalling when "Many of New York’s neighborhoods weren’t tourist attractions. They were tourist repellents." TIME's blog does not approve of the "tourist hater." The Wall Street Journal looks at the negative impact of High Line tourism on Chelsea.]
In the comments to the original post, many people defended tourists (and many did not). One wrote, "I cannot stand when people hate on tourists." Another called the flyer writer "a flaming liberal...a bigot, a snob." Many of the commenters, here and elsewhere, said in essence: If you don't like tourists, you're an "elitist."
When did tourists become so protected in New York City? And when did local crankiness become elitism? However you feel about the High Line flyer, it has us talking about New York and its new relationship to tourists.
In the 1980s and '90s, the t-shirt "Welcome to New York. Now Go Home" (alternately, "Now Get Out") was popular, a New Yorker's message to tourists and rube newbies. Today, looking at the interviews and comments on the High Line story, the more popular slogan might be: "Welcome to New York. Leave If You Don't Like the Crowds of Tourists--You Knew It Was All One Big Tourist Attraction When You Moved Here."
New Yorkers, once proud of their crankiness, used to delight in maligning tourists. In the late 1990s, as the city was beginning its massive transformation into a tourist economy, Fran Lebowitz said, "What a nightmare! No one who isn't from New York knows how to be a pedestrian. Pedestrians don't mosey. And they don't walk five abreast. I'd like to make New York unsafe for tourists."
But by the 2000s, the "Now Go Home" t-shirt (and sentiment?) had vanished. Journalist Clyde Haberman tried to find it while writing a piece for the Times about the glut of tourists in town. ("We're Glad You Love Us, Don't Overdo It" was the gentle title.) Clyde carefully pleaded, "Really, is it asking too much to have our city back?"
At the time, Bloomberg aimed to bring 50 million tourists to New York by 2030--he surpassed that record-breaking number in 2011, two decades ahead of schedule.
Recently, I conducted my own search for the Now Go Home t-shirt, which used to be prominent in the shops along St. Mark's Place. No dice. The salesgirl in Search & Destroy agreed, "That one is hard to find." The closest thing I saw was the anachronistic, gun-toting "Duck Mother Fucker."
So what happened? Why has New York become so welcoming to tourists, so gently tolerant, even protective and defensive? Something shifted somewhere between 1999 and 2006, and it wasn't just the election of Bloomberg. I've written about this extensively before, but briefly: The events of 9/11 turned New York City into America instead of a city of, in Woody's words, "left-wing Communist, Jewish, homosexual, pornographers."
And that scolding word--elitist--it comes right out of the Tea Party playbook. It doesn't mean rich people, as Fran Lebowitz has reminded us, it means smart people. And I think it also means non-mainstream people.
Fleet Week visitors
This past weekend, I visited the USS Wasp, in town for Fleet Week. It was loaded with tourists and with New Yorkers acting like tourists. A gay couple strolled along, one of the men dressed in a trim mini-skirt and high-heeled, snakeskin, go-go boots. (It's no secret that gay men love Fleet Week.) Excited to see such a bold and beautiful human being on the flight deck of a U.S. Naval warship, I took a photo. At that moment, a touristy-looking woman turned to me and said, "That's New York," and I thought she would say something appreciative next, about the city's gutsy individualism, but she didn't. She said, "Scary, isn't it?" I turned and snapped her blonde head off.
As Fran Lebowitz said in an interview, "Present-day New York has been made to attract people who didn’t like New York. That’s how we get a zillion tourists here, especially American tourists, who never liked New York. Now they like New York. What does that mean? Does that mean they’ve suddenly become much more sophisticated? No. It means that New York has become more like the places they come from."