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Is New York Really an American City Like No Other?

You can make the case that it is, and not just in size. Every city is distinctive in some way, but nothing comes close to New York in the breadth and depth of its demographics, neighborhoods and culture.

MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village
MacDougal Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. No other neighborhood in America has been a fountain of dissident culture for more than 100 continuous years.
The following may seem like a silly question at first, but I will ask it anyway: Are America’s big cities alike in the most important ways, or is each one an entity unto itself?

It takes only a few seconds to tick off the elements that give each city its own identity: climate, demographics and diversity, quality of governance, business history and business conditions. It’s rainy in Portland and dry in Phoenix; Houston is bewilderingly diverse and Minneapolis much less so; Seattle nurtured a highly lucrative tech economy in the last generation, while Cleveland remains stuck in the doldrums of industrial decline; Indianapolis has benefited from a string of competent and creative mayors, while Detroit suffered for decades (until recently) from corrupt or ineffective leadership. We could play this game a lot longer if we wanted to.

But at the risk of being heretical, I could also make a list of events and experiences that even the most different American cities have gone through in roughly similar fashion in the last half-century. They all have seen the center of town decline as the suburbs boomed, and they all experienced at least a modest central-city comeback early in this century. They all designed their physical environment for the convenience of automobiles, not for pedestrians or public transportation. They have all hemorrhaged well-paying factory jobs, even if some have done a better job of replacing them than others. None have made much of a dent in the poor performance of inner-city public schools, or the gap that exists between white and minority students. They are just about all governed by progressive Democrats, and are certain to remain that way well into the future. Local civic leaders have a habit of seeing their issues as unique to their hometowns, but a large number of them are modern urban universals.

Accepting all this, though, we still might ask if there is one city in America whose special characteristics set it apart from all the other ones, even if many of its experiences have been the same. I found myself asking this question as I read The Intimate City: Walking New York, Michael Kimmelman’s new book drawing a panoramic picture of nearly 20 New York City neighborhoods, their history and culture and the way each of them is, at least in a metaphorical sense, a world unto itself. Kimmelman does not set out to make the claim that his city is like no other. But as the reader follows him along on walking tours of each of these community enclaves, it is difficult to escape that question or to avoid pondering an answer to it. I learned long ago that residents of every American metropolis are proud to describe it as a city of neighborhoods. One finishes Kimmelman’s book asking whether that cliché applies to New York in ways it does not really apply anywhere else.

I realize there is a certain amount of competition for this prize of distinctiveness: Los Angeles, as the capital of film and television; San Francisco for its incomparable setting; New Orleans for — well, maybe for just being New Orleans. But when you add up the elements that make New York different, you still come up with a qualitatively much richer array of distinctions.

YOUR FIRST REACTION will probably be that New York is unique on the simple and obvious basis of its size: New York holds more than 8 million people within its city limits; Los Angeles, which ranks second, has only about half as many. But it isn’t just the number of residents — it’s the number of iconic neighborhoods that size makes possible. New York has three full-fledged and culturally different Chinatowns; even San Francisco can’t come close to matching that.

New York’s size is also the generator of a diversity so pervasive that it seems appropriate to call it hyper-diversity. In his chapter on the East Village in lower Manhattan, Kimmelman quotes a resident who describes her reaction on moving there some years ago: “You had hippie boutiques side by side with Ukrainian social clubs and Polish pork stores. … Two streams of people intersected with one another’s reality but didn’t really interact.” It would be foolish to argue that this sort of ethnic goulash couldn’t exist in pockets of other large cities. We all know it does. But it doesn’t exist elsewhere in as many different places as it does in New York, across five boroughs that each have a distinct culture of their own.

The demographic difference in New York extends beyond hyper-diversity. All major cities have attracted a significant Latino presence in the first two decades of the 21st century. Only New York City began to attract it in the 1950s, when it became convenient for residents of Puerto Rico to fly north and settle in America’s largest city. By 1957, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim had written a spectacularly successful play about them. By 1958 there was a Puerto Rican day parade in Manhattan. By 1960, there were more than 600,000 New Yorkers of Puerto Rican birth or descent. Although the city is now a magnet for a diverse array of Latino newcomers and the Puerto Rican share of the population has declined in the past few years, it is fair to say that New York’s experience differs from that of other cities not merely in degree, but in kind.
"The Intimate City" book cover

But the most powerful long-term difference in New York’s ethnic experience has been the presence of its Jewish population over the last century and a half. It may be the single most important factor setting the city apart from every other metropolis in America. By 1910, more than one million Jews comprised 25 percent of New York's population and made it the world's largest Jewish city. As of 2022, about 1.6 million residents of New York City, or about 18 percent of its residents, identify as Jewish. Nothing close to those numbers exists anywhere else in America. We are talking about many orders of magnitude. The impact on the city’s culture and economic life, and eventually its politics, were and are incalculable. Many books have been written about it; I won’t belabor a fact that readers will find obvious. I am just reminding them.

NEW YORK’S NEIGHBORHOODS aren’t merely enclaves of diversity or demographic distinctiveness: They are incubators. There are bohemian-style districts in all the big cities now, but there is only one Greenwich Village, as a stroll through it in Kimmelman’s book makes clear. No other neighborhood in America has been a fountain of dissident culture for more than 100 continuous years. The Stonewall protests that jump-started the gay rights revolution couldn’t have happened anywhere else. I don’t think that has much to do with New York’s size; it has to do with New York being New York, with a history that no other American city can match. Kimmelman grew up in Greenwich Village. He informs us that it was “a rather peculiar sort of neighborhood … but still, to natives, a small town.”

Some of New York’s uniqueness depends on places like Greenwich Village that retain their identity for decades; some of it is built on neighborhoods with a remarkable resilience and ability to change dramatically in a relatively short time. Twenty years ago, Wall Street and the Financial District were canyons of commerce with virtually no one living there; today they are almost as much a residential district as a financial one. Twenty years ago, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, shorn of its maritime traffic, was an abandoned wasteland; today it is a vibrant center for technological and creative enterprise. In 2000, South Bronx was a decrepit slum given up as permanently dead; in 2022 it is a reviving area whose residents worry more about gentrification than about urban decay.

Kimmelman tells the story of each of them. Could any one of them happened in another American city? Probably. Could all of them have happened in the same place at the same time? I doubt it. “The city is like poetry,” E.B. White wrote in 1949, as Kimmelman recalls. “It compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.” One might argue that it still does.

There is much more to add, some of it positive and some of it negative. There is no other big city where a majority of commuters use public transportation to get to work — no place is even close. No American city has seen its crime rate decline the way New York’s has in the last three decades. In 1990 there were 2,605 murders recorded in the city. In 2019, there were 558. On the other hand, there is no other city where pedestrians are forced to step over, around and through heaping piles of garbage bags every time they walk down the urban streets. That’s part of the deal as well.

I’m aware of how fragmentary this accounting will seem to anybody who really knows New York. But I think it’s enough to answer the question I started with. New York isn’t just another big American city with some special quirks. It’s a different world.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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