Stop Spreading the News: The Case for a New York Without Tourists
Any city famous enough to have a brand is always performing that brand in the public imagination. Thom Andersen’s film-essay “Los Angeles Plays Itself” made this point back in 2003. When people think of L.A., Andersen argued, they see a snarl of cars in the sun, a moody shot of Jack Nicholson, a city that looks more like “Dragnet” and “Blade Runner” than a shaggy, living place. “Los Angeles is where the relation between reality and representation gets muddled,” he observes; landmarks become movie locations, and movie locations become landmarks. New York’s public image is only slightly less self-consuming. When we think of New York, we see the Empire State Building, the Rockefeller Christmas tree — features with no functional relationship to New Yorkers’ daily lives — and Broadway, which plays itself every night.
A part-time copy editor once told me he was in New York “for the energy.” He was living in a shared basement in Queens. In the years since, I’ve thought about “for the energy” as a kind of Zen koan for whatever it is that makes us put up with New York. Lately businesses have lobbied hard for their own vision of “the energy”; they argue that remote workers will miss out on whatever creative magic a shared Keurig provides, invite us back to brunch and shopping with the girls, warn that our callousness will be the death of midtown. Underneath rhetoric about workplace synergy and the lunch-hour rush is a terrified attachment to the Old Normal. Like tourism ads, these arguments push New York’s timeworn brand of hustle and bustle, lights and crowds. But it is baffling how infrequently they refer to anything else actual New Yorkers feel affection for: dive bars and public pools, Ravi Coltrane at the Blue Note and Korean ceramics at the Met, the dollar racks at the Strand and vendors selling bagged mango at Broadway Junction. Some of those things rely on visitors, who help sustain our nightlife and great institutions. But others don’t, or don’t have to. What could we be if we let go of Vessel selfies, “The Phantom of the Opera,” meetings that could have been emails?
You can imagine a future for New York as just a city, no longer relentlessly performing itself, free from expectation. Or you can imagine it as all performance, a depopulated theme park, with tourists foraging Central Park for familiar images while locals collect in whatever affordable pockets they let us keep. Post-9/11, post-Covid, you wonder if New York might feel like America’s haunted house, where everything is somehow sad and tinged with death. Reading climate reports, I dream of a half-submerged Atlantis of subway geysers, the closing bell chiming groggily from the depths of the Hudson. In a hundred years, we could be an attractive environment for a colony of giant squid. They’ll love the energy.