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Do We Need Another Place to Kvetch? More Than You Realize

07/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I learned that the HuffPo was planning a special New York City edition, my first reaction was that the last thing we need is more New York City voices thrusting their uninvited opinions upon us.

Bring us some new industry - particularly those that don't involve gift-wrapping financial dreck. Bring us some exciting new places to act like consumers - not more big-box clones and mall migrants. Bring us a cross-town trolley.

But yet another website? Isn't the Internet already bursting and bleating enough? And can't you hear the thrum of opinion everywhere, the New York City steam of racing minds gusting out of every manhole?

That was my first reaction. But when I gave it a bit more thought, I began to realize that we really don't have a thriving destination online for the messy buffet of the smartest, most informed, most frenzied and infuriating New York voices. It's a surprising shortage perhaps, but a deficit nonetheless.

Ironically, we had that urban rustle and bustle in the past. So what I hope this edition of the the HuffPo will eventually deliver is a contemporary whiff of what it was like to live in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Sanitary conditions and the woeful absence of arugula aside.) There wasn't any TV, and radio was just beginning its infant crackle, but at one point there were nearly 30 different daily newspapers fighting for minds and attention.

Behind this, of course, was a tumble of newly made Americans. Their ambition, and the tight quarters into which they were compressed physically, triggered a kind of intellectual release. Cultures crashed and collided, and a city was made in the new image and language of the modern age. The antic and creative energy of those years, the cosmic impatience and epic self-confidence still define the city in our minds and the rest of the world's.

And that riot of newspapers was everywhere, with multiple editions released multiple times during every day. Newsboys hawked their wares with a fierce urgency, newspapers hawked ideas, and everyone had them: Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, union organizers, advocates for social justice, nativists, poets, councilmen sent to City Hall to argue for some tiny but transcendent local issue.

I hope that the HuffPo NY will become the place where ideas come to be peddled and hawked. And even bought, if they can do a good enough job of selling themselves to the skeptical purchasing audience.

I'm rooting for it to become the center of the many debates that New York needs to have. A new hangout where we turn for regular doses of intelligent, angry, baffled, hawking from both usual and unusual subjects - all of it loosed into orbit with a distinctly New York point-of-view.

Because a New York point-of-view about health care or regulating the finance sector or the intellectual dishonesty of figurative art or the corporatization of baseball is going to be different than an LA perspective or a Seattle perspective. (If not, we're worse off than I thought.)

Where else, other than this simultaneously orderly and disorganized forum, is that coming from? Not from the online versions of old-media bastions like the New York Times, the New York Post or New York magazine. Their websites are essentially one-way channels, even today, and comment boxes aside. You don't go there to find out what's on the city's mind; you go there to find out what the editors think should be on the city's mind.

And we do have a mind, although I worry about it. Something that has bothered me for a long time - and others have a similar angst - is what I call New York's mental malling. That's different from the homogenized crawl of Rite-Aid and Gap and Starbucks, appalling as that is. I'm taking about a wholesale retreat into idea bunkers.

For a city that prides itself on being a refuge for the unconventional, we have become a home for strategic conformity. We flatter ourselves as being independent thinkers, but I have seen, increasingly, a rush to sameness, a dittoing of taste and style and values. I can dodge the strollers and walk into any coffee shop in Park Slope knowing exactly what everyone is thinking about everything, pre-conversation.

The HuffPo New York, I hope, will prove me wrong. Let's sit back and see who it attracts, what they have to say, and what kind of urban fire results. I know what would have happened back in the day, though. It's a great parlor game to think about which New Yorkers of the past would have loved and experimented with this new medium, and the audience connection it makes possible.

I can imagine Whitman at the end of his life posting furiously, orgiastically. Isaac Singer, who wrote for the Daily Forward, and who feels like a ur-blogger to me, would have loved its demotic immediacy. Dorothy Parker, A.J. Liebling and Damon Runyon would be putting up stuff that their myopic producers and editors wouldn't use. And publicly (and joyously) slamming them for it.

This medium would also have gotten more than writers, to write. Charlie Chaplin would have gotten into even deeper trouble with his politics. Pollack and de Kooning might have had something to say about what Robert Moses was up to. Olmstead would have had another grassy pulpit. What's your fantasy list of bloggers?

So let's welcome - in the language of the Internet - this new platform to New York. Who deserves it more? Because the city that doesn't sleep is also, and always will be, the city that doesn't shut up.