New York Is Not a Theme Park

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In Stacey’s Mistake—the 18th installation of that classic tristate area-based literary series, The Babysitters Club—the teenage entrepreneurs visit their temporarily relocated co-member Stacey in Manhattan. I won’t ruin the plot for you (although it does involve the welcome introduction of Stacey’s Dakota-inhabiting best friend, Laine, who—at just thirteen years of age—wears a strapless black cocktail dress and a silvery-squiggle pin), but it was clear that the impression of New York with which both the young babysitters—and the reader, presumably—were left could be summed up as follows: it’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there… and come to think of it, you might not even want to visit! The book was published in 1988 and while we know we’re about to state the obvious, my, how times have changed.

Back in 1988 after all, not only did people not particularly want to live here (a fact about which 7-year-old me was particularly indignant and defensive; there was nowhere else I’d rather have been living), but people didn’t even really want to visit! In fact, an article in the New York Times from 1990 spoke to the plummeting tourism numbers and how “tourists’ love for the city” had “grown chilly.” This relative lack of tourism (about 35 million people still came to visit the Big Apple in 1989, which sounds like a lot to us!) was due to a combination of factors, including the high crime rate, expensive hotel rooms, and faltering economy. Tourism continued to stutter throughout the 90s, and was derailed from a full recovery in the early 00s due to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But since 2002, tourism numbers have been steadily rising; last year, 54.3 million tourists visited the city, and that number is expected to be even higher for 2014. New York isn’t just a “nice” place to visit anymore; it’s become pretty much the only place to visit, a fact to which anyone who’s tried to walk through downtown Manhattan on a weekend can attest.

And so the abundance of tourists in New York City has now long been a fact of life, as has the city government’s ongoing campaign to attract more and more tourists coming, all the while paying lip service to the fact that tourism brings money to the local economy and creates jobs! Never mind the fact that most of the money does not help the city residents and businesses in the areas with the most economic hardship, and that the jobs that tourism creates tend to be incredibly low-paying. Never mind that! No, New York City has really hung its hat on the whole tourismisthebestthingEVER vibe, and the best that most New Yorkers can do is just accept it as a fact of life and express to out-of-town visitors that they would rather stick burning matches under their fingernails than go to SoHo on a Saturday.

But then there are the times that tourism can’t be ignored, and now is one of those times. A new ad campaign from NYC & Company (New York City’s tourism promotion agency) is trying to sell the city of New York to New Yorkers. The New York Times reports that using a campaign called “See Your City,” the agency is plans to “spotlight sections of all five boroughs that might appeal to adventurous local residents.” Because, you know, residents would have to be pretty adventurous to want to go to such far-flung places as DUMBO and Long Island City and Harlem, all neighborhoods highlighted in the campaign. The idea behind this attempt to lure locals into new locales is based on the fact that native New Yorkers add a certain “vibrancy” to neighborhoods that visitors just can’t get enough of.

But here’s the thing: these neighborhoods—which also include St. George, in Staten Island, and Van Cortlandt Park, in the Bronx—already have their share of native New Yorkers in them because native New Yorkers already live there. While it is true that New Yorkers can, in a sense, be among the most provincial people you’ll ever meet (my own grandmother used to advise me that everything I’d ever need could be found between 116th and 110th streets to the north and south, and Riverside Drive and Amsterdam Avenue, to the west and east, so I could just FORGET about hanging out with friends downtown), it’s also not the answer to start selling New York as a theme park to people who already live here. We get it. New York is pretty much as safe as Disneyworld, if nowhere near as clean. But that doesn’t mean we have to like it. That doesn’t mean that we need to be ok with DUMBO—a neighborhood that doesn’t seem to be wanting in tourists if the amount of photos taken on Washington Street is any indication—being reduced to its views of Manhattan, or the promotion of the Staten Island  ferry over the borough itself being the exemplification of how the journey is more important than the destination.

But the main reason we’re opposed to the theme park-ification of New York isn’t simply because this type of promotion feels facile and panderig, rather it’s because it makes it clear that the “exploration” of New York is really just code for “spending a lot of money” in New York. We don’t have problems with trying to get people to spend money in New York; we understand capitalism, we really do. But we do have a problem with making it seem like the spirit of New York can only be understood by those who can shell out the big bucks. And we do have a problem with a campaign that ignores the glaringly obvious fact that the reason many native New Yorkers don’t spend their time taking in shows at the Apollo or shopping in DUMBO is not because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t afford to because they’re struggling just to live here. New York, it seems, might now be a great place to visit and to live, but only if you can afford to. And not all of us can, not by a long shot.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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