Space Politics


Years ago, when I interviewed with a New York law firm, one of the partners told me he’d always thought New Yorkers and Texans were quite similar. Both were arrogant, convinced they lived in the center of the universe, and unpopular with the rest of the world. (This was the same guy who complimented me on my “great” personality after he’d spent the entire time talking while I listened. But, hey: You take your nuggets of wisdom wherever you find them.) Now, after living in Manhattan for eight months, I have to admit the guy had a point about Texans and New Yorkers. Coming from the self-infatuated Lone Star State, I find it endearing how proud New Yorkers are of their city and how much they love it.  After all, why not live in a place you’re crazy about?

So it’s true: New Yorkers and Texans have some similarities. But, once you move past the arrogance and unpopularity contests, I think they couldn’t be more different. To me, many of these differences are rooted in the abundance or lack of physical space and how our immediate worlds shape us.

Even in Texas’ large cities, people still live in houses with fenced yards. We travel in our own cars, usually alone, listening to our own music, isolated in the climate control we’ve chosen. We might live in urban areas, we might receive government subsidies for our farms, we might work in white-collar offices, but this isn’t how we imagine ourselves. We’re Texans, rugged individualists—living on the last frontier. We have bootstraps, we have pride, we rely on ourselves. Hell, we can secede if we want and we’d probably be better off.

So what if it isn’t true?

Mythology is powerful. In Texas, it elects leaders with more boots than brains. It rewards charlatans who tell us what we want to hear—that we don’t need much government, that taxes are stolen from hard workers, that we take care of our own.

Living in a densely populated area like New York—with a history of dense population, not a frontier—shapes you differently. People live on top of one another. They meld into others like a thick human pudding on the subways. They thread their way along sidewalks crammed with strollers, pedestrians, bicyclists, dogs, kids on scooters. They sit inches away from other tables at restaurants, they wait in queues at grocery stores, movies, theaters. They listen to a constant garble of strangers’ conversations—intimate secrets, casual commentary, bitter arguments.

People are everywhere, no matter what time it is or what the weather’s like. You only escape them when you retreat to your own turf—and I won’t bore you by reciting how tiny and expensive that turf is or how loud our next door neighbors are.

But somehow, it all seems to work. In New York, you get the sense you’re part of a whole, part of a complex and teeming urban organism. If this ridiculously crowded island is going to function, you have to do your part. Keep moving, stay reasonably good-humored, don’t step on kids or dogs or potholes, wait your turn, and don’t take the occasional pushing and human sandwiching too personally, because it isn’t just about you.

God knows I’m loath to say Texans could learn something from New Yorkers, but what the hell, I’m going to say it anyway. I think there’s a more immediate and pressing sense of the common good here, simply because of the lack of space. You’re interdependent with the guy next to you on the sidewalk, with the woman on the subway, with the family on the other side of your joint wall. You see so much diversity and downright strangeness that you learn to be tolerant of it. If you get affronted by others’ strangeness too easily, then maybe you should stop being so damned sensitive. Again, it’s not all about you; you’re part of a whole.

You know what? Any Texan with half a brain could tell you we’re part of something bigger, too—so why don’t we start acting like it? It may have been rugged individualism and the frontier that shaped our history and myths, but it’s greater-good issues like education, the environment and health care that promise a better future.

Your neighbor’s still your neighbor, whether he’s a few feet or several miles away. Rugged individualism was a nice myth in its day, but I kind of like the sound of being your brother’s keeper, too. I could have sworn I learned that growing up in Texas.