Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

02 Jul 2009, 14:48 p.m.

While Listening To Kraftwerk

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2009 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

The votes all request the New York As Religion hypothesis. So here goes some analogizing. Actual ethnographers, please correct the hell out of me.

The phenomena I wish to explain:

  1. New Yorkers feel at home when they can give directions.
  2. New Yorkers feel righteously angry when someone acts inefficiently.
  3. New Yorkers, upon visiting a less systematically coherent urban ecology, express condescension or angry bewilderment.
  4. New Yorkers feel numinous experiences of being at one with their city (yes, I know that happy residents of all places feel this as well).

What are the two things that specifically and disproportionately make New Yorkers angry?

  1. People moving slowly in public spaces and impeding others' efficient use of spaces and services (e.g., blocking escalators, getting to the front of a line and not knowing what one wants)
  2. Systems that have not been properly thought through (e.g., "It's just stupid that they don't have a sign up," "Don't waste my time doing x when you could just tell me y because you already know z")

New York is a city you can trust, the way you can trust certain rock-solid pieces of software. Millions of people have been using it to its limits every day; anything you want to do, someone else has tried. There is a blazed trail, a user interface, a well-known list of features and longstanding bugs and workarounds. Via intelligent design (grid of streets, subway system) and evolution (ruthless market forces for 400 years), this city creates an expectation in its users that things will make sense.

And New Yorkers grow to believe that systems should make sense, big systems like the subway and smaller systems like theatres or meetups or gardens. They live in a city where there is usually a reason why you are being inconvenienced, or why that restaurant has the following it does, or why that bit of infrastructure works the way it does. The explanation might refer to history, or to an arbitrage opportunity, or to the peculiar and customary crystallizations of our struggles with entropy. But, once you're thinking on the macro scale, things tend to make sense. It's unlikely we're on the efficient frontier, but we feel close to it.

Instead of feeling as though we're going it alone, in individual cars with routes we choose (ignoring the massive social structures embedded in car-based transit), we use openly social constructions. We depend on the subway and the line at the bodega. We do a hundred trust falls every day, delivering ourselves unto each other. No one New Yorker earned this trust, but we all gain from it. We have the smugness that comes with believing: the world makes sense and has a place for me.

So when someone or some organization does something that does not make sense, it's not just inconvenient, it's heresy. Inefficiencies go against the natural order of the world. It breaks the trust.

Visiting other cities, more "laid-back" places where people and organizations tolerate more inefficiency, we either pity the poor dears or get irritable and bewildered. We get angry, or we laugh, or we try to convert others, or we must consciously adapt to a new lifestyle. There is something in our preferences that we privilege above mere tendency, that ties into values and identity.

When others come to us, when tourists stand still on Manhattan street corners with maps, some pity the heathens, and some grumble that they're blocking the sidewalk. But some of us give directions. We get to show off our knowlege of the beautiful, elegant cosmos. We hope to convey the splendor of the grid, and its hospitality -- there is a path already laid out for you, and we made it for you before you ever thought to come here at all. We Witness.


02 Jul 2009, 15:50 p.m.

Sumana, this is as close as I have ever seen you come to a "New Yorkers are all walking like this, and California people are all walking like that..." piece.

That being said, I like this a lot. I live in a "laid back" place where inefficiency basically rules the day. And it's frustrating. But occasionally rewarding. But mostly frustrating.

Eric Fischer
02 Jul 2009, 18:54 p.m.

What a beautiful belief it is that the city is there to help you if you know how to let it.

I wonder if New Yorkers kept the faith through the bad old days of municipal bankruptcy and high crime rates or whether they lost and regained it.

03 Jul 2009, 15:58 p.m.

Very nice, and provides useful insights (for a suburban Californian like me) into a New Yorker's worldview.

Question: Are all evolutionary pressures (in a city or society or other system) toward things making sense? The idea appeals to me, but I wonder whether that's what the ruthless market forces have really selected for, in NYC and/or elsewhere.

Relatedly: How much of what you're describing here applies to other big cities? How much of it applies to any big and long-lasting system? What cultural forces result in (for example) San Francisco being laid-back instead of efficient? I have no point or answer in mind here; I'm just musing.

...I have a vague feeling we discussed Delany's Times Square Red/Times Square Blue at some point, but I don't remember whether you've read it.

04 Jul 2009, 13:47 p.m.

New York always reminds me of Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork -- it may be dirty, noisy, and chaotic, but it WORKS.

07 Jul 2009, 16:31 p.m.

"this city creates an expectation in its users that things will make sense ... We do a hundred trust falls every day, delivering ourselves unto each other."

Is it then a lapse of religious duty that you have not successfully extricated Wall St. from your sacred confines using rusty pitchforks?

That said, I truly appreciate your words about a city you grok and my hat is off to the gentle patriotism and understanding in this piece. Oddly, I feel the same way about New Orleans and Madison - exact opposites when it comes to efficiency and making sense.