Life in the Big City

When a man is tired of London he is tired of life. Samuel Johnson said that in the late eighteenth century, coinciding with the somewhat new idea of the great city, as the industrial revolution was just beginning. The one great city was the place to be, and everyone wanted to be in the place to be – at least anyone with a sense of where the important stuff was happening. Rural life suddenly became quaint, or stultifying, and suburbs hadn’t been invented yet. So the new city did become the place to be – the center of commerce and finance and all the intellectual stuff – the arts of all forms – and entertainment and crime and luxury and squalor and all the rest. And unlike the moribund old cities of continental Europe, sagging under the weight of all that history, London was vital, always doubling and redoubling in size and importance. London was where things were happening, for better or worse. And the arch of that ran from maybe 1727 – the year John Gay’s Beggars Opera opened in London – through Johnson’s London of Beau Brummell, with James Boswell taking notes – through the Victorian London of Dickens and then Sherlock Holmes, with Doctor Watson taking notes – ending with the Swinging Sixties of Twiggy and Bond Street, and James Bond, and the cool bands like the Beatles and Stones.

And then it was over. The cool bands all left for America – that famous British Invasion of the sixties – America even embraced Herman’s Hermits. And then somehow Hollywood became the place to be. The Beatles even played the Hollywood Bowl – and then, soon enough, someone somewhere was singing California Dreamin’ and somewhere there were Good Vibrations – and London became just another place.

And yes, that two-hundred-fifty-year arch of history, with London at the center of everything, roughly coincides with the rise and then the slow unraveling of the British Empire – but the match isn’t exact. The idea of London, as the place to be, predated and then outlasted the empire by many decades. And this has nothing to do with political power, with empire and the imperial mindset – as it actually has to do with existential dread. No, really. You see, everyone fears, overtly or secretly, that life is rather meaningless, and you don’t want to be stuck in a nowhere place, where there’s nothing happening, until you die. You do know that in your bones. You do remember that exchange in the movie Groundhog Day – “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” The dismayed reply is classic – “That about sums it up for me.” You have to love existential comedy. But Punxsutawney is not the place to be, you see. Nor is London any longer.

And take it from someone who has lived in Hollywood for seventeen years now, and who, in the nineties, spent two weeks kicking around Paris alone once or twice each year, and who has smoked his pipe, thoughtfully, in a scholarly sort of way of course, under that big gold statue of Prince Albert across the street from Royal Albert Hall in London – Hollywood is not the place to be, nor is Paris or London – or Pittsburgh or Punxsutawney. If the point of life is to assuage existential dread – to pretend life is meaningful at all – you go to the current place to be. And now that seems to be the city that never sleeps, New York, New York. You know the song. Shed your little town blues. Wake up in the city that never sleeps, as, if you can make it there you can make it anywhere, and so on and so forth.

And maybe we all want to live in big cities – and Manhattan seems to be the place, as it has its mythology. There was Studio 54 – a silly place – but there was also Woody Allen’s Manhattan in 1979 – where Gordon Willis’ black-and-white cinematography made the city wondrous, and then the Gershwin tunes were the icing on that particular cake. And every guy who saw that movie wanted to sit with Diane Keaton in that little park in Sutton Place at the end of East Fifty-Seventh and watch the winter sun come up through the lacy grid of the Queensborough Bridge – perfect. Of course, back in the sixties, Simon and Garfunkel had sung about that particular bridge – feeling groovy and all that. And years earlier there had been that iconic shot of James Dean down in Greenwich Village (or maybe that was Times Square) and a bit later Bob Dylan too.

It seems that something had changed. This city, not London or Hollywood, was the place to be. That’s where things were happening. That’s where the energy was, and the idea was to tap that energy. And then by the end of the seventies everyone was watching that new show from Manhattan – Saturday Night Live. The opening montage was quick jump-shots of the city, vital and hip – and you weren’t there. But you knew you should be. To be alive is to be urban, and quite specifically urban, which may be what Samuel Johnson was getting at. He just had the wrong city. If the point of life is to assuage existential dread – to pretend life is meaningful at all – get your sorry ass to Manhattan. You’ll still be waiting for Godot – but it won’t feel like it.

But there are problems there. There’s Wall Street, where the masters of the universe – who push and pull the levers that keep the world’s economy functioning – pushed and pulled those levers in all sorts of new ways, to get even more absurdly rich, and pretty much crashed the world’s economy. Oops. And then we all had to bail them out, so we’d have an economy, and now they say we need to leave them alone, without regulations at all, and that they owe no one anything, and they will pay themselves massive bonuses once again, with a lot of that money we all tossed in to save the system from their miscalculations. Yes, that is absurd. But that too is the city, along with the growing Occupy Wall Street crowd, calling them out on their bullshit – not that the masters of the universe give a damn what that Occupy Wall Street crowd thinks about anything. Still this is the center of everything, for better or worse. Occupy Tulsa or Occupy Punxsutawney are fine, in their way, but they are not the real thing.

And then there’s the matter of the city having a mayor – DeWitt Clinton to James Walker to Fiorello La Guardia to Robert Wagner to John Lindsay to Abe Beame to Ed Koch to David Dinkins to Rudy Giuliani to Michael Bloomberg – colorful characters all. And in the background there were guys like Boss Tweed – perhaps the most corrupt politician in American history, who died in jail. At the center of everything you must accept a good deal of chaos and nonsense. That giant city – now the prime city of all cities, really – is hard to govern, or administer, or whatever it is a mayor does. And whose side is the mayor on in anything? You remember the tagline – “There are eight million stories in the Naked City.”

But Bloomberg is pretty cool – a billionaire in his own right who owes no one anything and generally tries to do the right thing. And in this item Steve Benen reminds us that in some circles, people consider New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is officially an Independent, to be a liberal. In fact, Ralph Nader has been advocating a Bloomberg presidential campaign – for what that’s worth. Nader is forever saying both parties are hopeless and entirely corrupt. That Nader thinks Bloomberg is pure and honest is not that surprising.

But Benen argues that it’s worth appreciating the limits of the Bloomberg’s ideology – he’s great on marriage equality, and he was even better during the Park51 nonsense – advocating tolerance and inclusiveness and calling out xenophobic bigots for what they were – but Bloomberg is not exactly a progressive champion. Bloomberg has spoken out against tax increases on the wealthy, and he has criticized Occupy Wall Street, and now he’s gone full super-right. You see, Bloomberg went so far as to absolve the financial industry of responsibility for the mortgage crisis that got us into this mess:

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said this morning that if there is anyone to blame for the mortgage crisis that led the collapse of the financial industry, it’s not the “big banks,” but Congress.

What? Well, if that is so, then of course he thinks the Occupy Wall Street Crowd is just foolish:

“I hear your complaints,” Bloomberg said. “Some of them are totally unfounded. It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis. It was – plain and simple – Congress who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp….

“They were the ones who pushed Fannie and Freddie to make a bunch of loans that were imprudent, if you will. They were the ones that pushed the banks to loan to everybody. And now we want to go vilify the banks because it’s one target. It’s easy to blame them and Congress certainly isn’t going to blame themselves.”

Then he added that it’s “cathartic” to point fingers at the moment, but he wants to focus on solutions to the problem. And that’s fine. But Media Matters points out that Bloomberg is just flat-out wrong:

These comments indicate Bloomberg is either ignorant of the facts of the mortgage meltdown or so eager to rid his city of Occupiers that he’ll discard the truth. The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 did not cause the meltdown of 2007, in no small part because that law didn’t apply to the private lenders who dominated the subprime market. The fraudulent practices of those lenders and the financial derivatives the private investment houses used to turn the subprime market into an elaborate game of hot potato were left unregulated by the federal government – but that’s not even the basis for Bloomberg’s criticism of Washington. He claims Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ‘made a bunch of loans’ even though they (1) do not make loans, and (2) were backing out of insuring subprime loans as private, unregulated firms rushed into the derivatives casino.

Those links are important – those are the facts which lead to this Media Matters comment:

If Bloomberg doesn’t know any of this, he hasn’t been paying attention to years of reporting on the subject. If he does, he is carrying water for the big banks and fraudsters who are doing everything they can to help Republicans repeal last year’s financial reforms and restore the casino culture that let many of them profit from the crisis they created.

And Benen adds this:

When it comes to the kind of rhetoric we heard from Bloomberg this morning, I expect it from Republicans, but the NYC mayor is supposed to know better. It’s been several years since the crisis began, and Bloomberg’s charges have been debunked enough times for him to know the truth.

And see Pat Garofalo with this:

While the mortgage giants were no angels, Federal Reserve data shows that it was private mortgage brokers who drove the subprime housing bubble: More than 84 percent of the subprime mortgages in 2006 were issued by private lending institutions…. Private firms made nearly 83 percent of the subprime loans to low- and moderate-income borrowers that year…. Wall Street firms divvied up the junk loans from subprime dealers and sold them all around the world, setting the state for the 2008 financial crisis. But Republicans … continue to cling to a story that the data doesn’t tell, in order to blame the government for the private sector’s sins.

What was Bloomberg thinking? And Digby reacts:

Yeah. Let’s not play the blame game. (Well, except we do need to teach the silly serfs – who took loans from people who were offering them – a lesson they won’t soon forget.)

What he said is just an outright lie (a zombie lie, in fact) and he knows it. The key is to ensure that the dizzy bimbos of the press, who worship his alleged “moderation,” don’t see his endorsement of this toxic rightwing propaganda as if it came down from Mt. Sinai.

I think this is a signal that the One Percenters are getting agitated for real (as opposed to the crocodile tears they shed everyday about being called “fat cats” by their friends in the White House.) Bloomberg has always been one of them, of course, but he’s been the designated moderate, put out there to pretend that they give a damn about the peasants. He’s joined the Limbaugh crowd with this one.

Well, he was the designated moderate – but so much for that. And maybe the best refutation of this nonsense comes from Jeff Madrick – if you have the patience for the actual details. But David Dayan puts it best:

Bloomberg wants to offload responsibility to Congress for the crisis so that nobody gets any funny ideas about holding banks accountable. But that ship has sailed. Banks are historically unpopular, and for good reason, since they contributed to an epic meltdown by committing crimes against the public, and instead of going to jail, they got bailed out and nursed back to prosperity. This, of course, doesn’t mean we’ll actually get accountability from them, but it does mean that emperors like Bloomberg have no clothes.

And Paul Krugman is simply unkind:

The fact is that for any public figure to go with the Congress-did-it argument at this stage is for him to reveal both that he is grossly ignorant about the central policy issue of the day and that he gets his “analysis” from right-wing flacks.

And Mike Konczal, in a long analysis of the actual facts, suggests that the actual problem is “that these are people who can’t accept that some markets, especially financial ones, are disasters when completely unregulated – and thus find any far-fetched excuse to blame the government.” Maybe it’s a Reagan thing. The government is always the problem.

But see this at Gawker:

But what’s the point of getting mad at Michael Bloomberg? He’s the mayor of New York City, and his prerogative is going to be to protect his city’s major industries from any sort of downsizing at the hands of federal regulators, even if it might put the nation on a more sustainable course. So just ignore him.

But can we ignore him? He is, after all, the head guy at the only place to be, if you’re going to avoid existential dread. Still, this is a minor point. What’s done is done. And you can make up all sorts of stories about why it happened, if that makes you happy. Bloomberg made up all sorts of stuff. It happens.

But here’s the thing. Let’s say the world is a mess, and your world, specifically, is a desperate mess. Think of Groundhog Day. What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered? Would you say, well, that about sums it up, or would you get off your ass and go to the very center of things – to the one place to be, Manhattan, and specifically Lower Manhattan, and specifically Wall Street – and plop yourself down and make a fuss?

When a man is tired of London he is tired of life – and now that applies to New York. And there is no point in being tired and stuck. Hey, otherwise all you face is existential dread. And anyway, while you’re there, note that the rest of the city is pretty damned cool. Woody Allen had it right.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Life in the Big City

  1. Katherine says:

    great post / well, i cant be there right now but i have lived in Manhattan and i remember how cold it can be so i am packing up a big box of warm clothing for the Occupiers / so there

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