I've just returned from a trip to Portland, Oregon, where my last good argument for why New York City is the best city on the continent failed me.
I sort of knew that this would happen before I went--oh, I'd heard the rumors--and it happened on the drive from the airport, which went past Powell's bookstore, its lights were blazing in the cold, damp dark. It was huge, much bigger than I'd imagined, it just kept going and going, and through the windows, I could see rows and rows of books. It looked like the most inviting university library ever. I restrained my urge to leap from the car and run to it--and I realized I was in trouble. The next day, I entered its color-coded rooms, with its wide, comfortable aisles, holding a cup of good coffee from its café, and found my suspicions confirmed: This was way better than the Strand , my long-time favorite bookstore at home.
Now the Strand is very fine bookstore indeed, and I still love it. But one of the central themes of being a New Yorker--and I have legitimate claim to this title as I was born at NYU Medical Center, raised in Manhattan and have chosen to return to make it my home after a decade of adult life elsewhere--is that New York is the best city on earth, or, possibly the known universe. Now I've never thought it was fair to extend the claim of "best city" beyond the North American continent--you get into issues of different forms of government, lack of breathable oxygen and so on.
Still, New York's status as the best on this part of the planet was an argument whose merit I was once so convinced of that I never questioned it. And then I began to doubt it. And now I have abandoned it. For if you break New York City down into its component parts--like for example, its bookstores--I contend that you can find just as good or better elsewhere. And if that's true, can the city credibly still claim "the best" title?
The question of "bestness" in cities is tackled all the time in magazines, which publish a parade of annual ranked lists of places on various measures--best place to live, healthiest cities, best places to travel and so on. I'm sure most people know that these lists are far from objective--I've helped to construct a few of them myself, and many editorial decisions shape the numbers. I'm not alleging any journalistic impropriety or hijinx. In fact, I think that subjectivity is basically impossible when you are talking about ranking degrees of a superlative. The sort of factors that are easy to quantify about a place--like crime rates, population density, air pollution, tax rates--are obviously important, but let's face it, statistics are hardly the stuff of the passion that underlies the arguments we make about which city is best and why. They're what we turn to to bolster a gut-level decision that we've already made.
The argument about the "bestness" of a place is emotional, based on a highly subjective assessment of highly subjective criteria. Many of these, in fact, are non-debatable in that they are entirely idiosyncratic. So while I often say that I won't leave New York again unless someone puts a gun to my head, that's largely a matter of how I define home: my friends, family and important memories are here, no place on earth can compete with that. But let's leave those aside, since these are the arguments anyone can make about a beloved place they call home, and consider the truths that I once held to be self-evident. When I was asked why New York City was the best city, I would make the following five points: New York had far and away the best: 1) bagels; 2) pizza; 3) ethnic cuisine; 4) museums; 5) bookstores.
It pains me to say that one by one, my arguments have fallen apart. It started with the bagels. I'd been hearing about the bagels in Montreal and that they were better than the bagels in New York. I didn't believe this was possible. But this past summer, when I bit into my first sesame bagel from St. Viateur's --its crust crunchy, its insides fluffy and not at all gummy--my world tilted and the universe started to reorder in my head. We have very good bagels in New York, but not the best.
This was what first created my best city doubt. Subsequent trips to California quickly and obviously dispatched the idea that New York was home to the best Asian food of any kind. Let's not even discuss Mexican. Or pizza. I had the most amazing pizza in Phoenix, at Pizzeria Bianco --not quite worth the three hour wait, but still--just as good or better than what we can get in New York. And speaking of Phoenix, I have not failed to notice that I have enjoyed coffee houses far more when they are not in New York. In Phoenix, there is Lux, and in Lafayette, Louisiana, CC's coffee houses are incredibly pleasant, free wi-fi, not hard to find a table, with bathrooms that don't require hazmat suits to use. We've got some good cafes in New York. There's better elsewhere.
And then there's museums. For big museums, you can make arguments about the offerings of Washington D.C. or Chicago. And for smaller, quirky or single-subject focused museums, other places have N.Y.C. well beat: off the top of my head, I give you the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, the Culinary Arts Museum in Providence...we have excellent museums in New York. There's at least just as good elsewhere.
The last tooth of my argument was the bookstores. And Powell's delivered the knock-out punch.
So where does this leave me? I'm still not packing my bags--not without that gun to my head. Because while I'm now convinced that you can find just-as-good-or-better in many other cities--that the pieces of "the best" puzzle are in fact scattered across North America and not centrally located, the truth is that the size and diversity of New York means that I've got almost-the-best on all of my criteria close at hand. Portland's got Powell's, but it doesn't have the museums. Montreal has the bagels but it doesn't have Powell's. New York's got very good bagels, very good pizza, very good restaurants, a very good bookstore, and very good museums. And I'll take a straight run of A-minuses over a single A-plus and a string of Bs and Cs any day.
New York City: The Best "Good Enough" City? It doesn't have quite the same ring to it as The Best City on Earth--but it works for me.