My company relocated recently from the stately silver canyons of Sixth Avenue to the pulsating, luminous walls of Times Square. This two-block shift might not seem like a big deal, but as any resident of the five boroughs knows, it is, indeed a very big deal.
Despite the fact Times Square is billed as the quintessential New York City experience and the heart of the center of the universe, New Yorkers avoid it like the plague. Even by Manhattan’s standards, it’s remarkably dirty, traffic-choked and crowded with pedestrians, filled with oppressive lights and noise and herds of slow-moving humanity. In my two years as a resident of the city, the dichotomy of Times Square has always interested me: To everyone outside of New York, its flashing lights and outsized scope defines America’s biggest, brightest city. To everyone working and living in New York, Times Square is something very foreign.
New York City is different from the rest of the country. New York City’s cultural movement takes the form of fast-moving replacement and reshuffling of people and ideas. The majority of America, with some exceptions, has also undergone rapid change, but instead of different ethnic groups and economic subsets moving from neighborhood to neighborhood with the ebb and flow of gentrification and real estate values, the rest of the country has moved quickly to consolidate into an ocean of sameness. The same stores, same restaurants, same sprawl, same malls.
While the city churns and roils around the island of same that is Times Square. In Williamsburg and Astoria and Bushwick, middle- and upper-class kids from the Midwest and Northeast are busy trying to recreate what they think their hometowns were like before Walmart and the like. In Sunset Park, Flushing and Jackson Heights, first- and second-generation immigrants are recreating their native countries across entire zip codes. Even in the tony East and West Villages, local businesses survive on the support of their community.
Red Lobster, American Eagle Outfitters, Olive Garden, T.G.I.Friday’s and their kin — the large-scale winners of America’s capitalistic crowdsourcing — line Broadway and Seventh Avenue between 42nd and 48th streets, selling the same dishes and stonewashed jeans they do in Oklahoma City and Orlando and Houston. These businesses can afford the extraordinarily expensive rents of Times Square because people come from around the nation to eat and drink at a flashier version of their own Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill, to choose either Nike or Adidas at a Foot Locker twice the size of the Foot Locker at their hometown mall.
There’s something to be said for the transplants creating their own version of rustic Americana in the gentrified restaurants and loft spaces of Brooklyn. The city’s immigrant neighborhoods are vibrant, bright and beautiful. If you can afford it, spending an extra dollar at a local coffee shop isn’t a bad way to spend that extra dollar. This is New York City.
Times Square is not New York City. Times Square is America now, not what it used to be or what it might become. It’s what most of the 300 million see and do and eat, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. In fact, I’m getting a little bit more re-acclimated to life in America every day.