When people at Yale talk about New York, I’m often confused as to what they’re actually talking about.
“New York” — often followed by “elites,” “urbanites” or “-ers,” and preceded by “arrogant,” “self-important” or “I heart” — has many meanings. But when people say “New York,” they’re usually thinking of The City. And by The City, they mean Manhattan. And, by Manhattan, they mean the Upper East Side — specifically, Carrie Bradshaw’s house.
The associative leaps go in the other direction, too. Manhattan becomes a proxy for NYC, NYC for New York, New York for Northeast, Northeast for East and East for “coastal.” Suddenly, Carrie Bradshaw is a stand-in for anyone who lives within 100 miles of an ocean.
A recent column in the News argued that Yale’s rural blind spot is evidence of the fact that America’s liberal, coastal, academic — the author uses the terms almost interchangeably — elite have never “clambered down the ivory tower, traded their tweed for a pair of overalls and dove into the heartland.”
To be clear, I don’t disagree at all with the author’s point that Yale needs to invest far more in its rural studies and students. But I’m not sure why “New York” — or even worse, “coastal” — is, without question, accepted as a proxy for urban, educated, wealthy and white. This blanket association is wrong for two primary reasons: a) It’s just untrue b) It’s indicative of a larger, more malicious trend in American society.
First, ‘East Coast urbanites’ include residents of Providence, Newark, Baltimore, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Miami and Atlanta, to name a few. But in the same way that it is reductive to group states by longitude — Maine is the most rural state, while New Jersey is the most urban — the cities within them are no different.
America is a deeply unequal place. By measure of income, race, gender — you name it. To illustrate, let’s look at two different places: Tribeca, USA, and Brownsville, USA. Median income in Tribeca: $186,000. In Brownsville: $30,000. Eighty-four percent of Tribeca adults have a college education. In Brownsville, 21 percent. And Tribeca residents live, on average, 10 years longer than Brownsville residents.
Tribeca and Brownsville are six miles from one another, both in New York City.
A common measure of economic inequality is the Gini coefficient, which scales from zero to one — zero being total equality and one being the opposite. New York City, if it were a country, would have the sixth-highest coefficient in the world, between Lesotho and the Central African Republic.
To put these averages in context, if you made a state out of just the population of NYC living near or below the poverty line, it would be the 29th largest state, bigger than Connecticut. “No other city is so spitefully incoherent,” James Baldwin wrote of New York. He was right.
But, New York — believe it or not — is a state, too! And while we’re on a roll with fun facts, here’s a few more: New York state has a rural population of over around 4 million people; the poorest town in America — with a poverty rate of 72.5 percent — is in New York state.
My point isn’t that New York (state or city) has it all bad (woe is us!), but rather that, looking at material conditions of life in rural versus urban America, the divisions are not as stark as we might think. New York is not an island insulated from the problems that plague “the heartland.” New York is the heartland — as are Michigan, Mississippi, D.C., Montana, Puerto Rico, California and any other piece of land home to someone with a heart.
After all, America’s favorite heartlander is from New York, the state that gave him 4 million votes in 2016. So, we might expect the Trump administration to have a soft spot for his old stomping grounds, right?
Not quite. Disdain for “urban” Americans is newly emboldened, though it’s nothing new. In the national conversation, “urban” is a sexy, two-syllable dog whistle that has stood as a proxy for black and brown folks, immigrants, people under the poverty line and anyone else our institutions have historically discriminated against.
Our country’s socioeconomic crimes play out on city streets and on the bodies of their residents. The structure of our republic allows for the complete disregard of its major cities (those not in swing states, of course). Whether it’s repealing state and local tax (SALT) deductions, gleefully refusing to invest in crucial infrastructure or calling them rat nests, our current administration has wasted no opportunity to show us how much they love America’s urban centers.
The “burning and crime-infested inner cities of the U.S.,” as Trump called them, have boasted near-historically low crime rates (and lower burning rates, by proxy) than they have in decades. But, as Yale professor Jason Stanley argues in his book “How Fascism Works,” “These messages … don’t need to appeal to urban dwellers.” Targeting cities, portraying them as Schrödinger’s dens of un-American wealth and poverty, is a classic move in the far-right playbook.
On “Tucker Carlson Tonight” last December, a guest remarked that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district, NY-14, which is home to over 700,000 Americans (79 percent of whom happen to be non-white) was one of the “least American districts in the country.” NY-14 is about five minutes from my home in Queens; I can personally testify that it is, in fact, America. Gee, I wonder what he could’ve meant by that!
But let’s not kid ourselves. New Yorkers do suck. They’re everywhere, too. I’m from New York, if you couldn’t tell. Both of the editors reading this piece are New Yorkers, too. At Yale, our state is overrepresented by a Yale-to-America population ratio of 2:1 — third only to New Englanders, at 2.8:1, and New Haveners, at 34:1.
But depicting — and disregarding — New Yorkers as a wealthy, dynastic monolith erases those who are neither of those things. Of course, Yale’s New Yorkers are disproportionately educated, wealthy and white, but that’s not unique to New York. Yalies from every state are disproportionately EWW.
Those who are truly New York’s elite can do better, too, at actually engaging with the experiences of those from their city, outside their circles. We can all do better.
No, being a New Yorker at Yale is not a cross to bear, but it’s not automatically easier than being anything else. While we’re here at this big intersection of experience, identity and trajectory, we all should critically examine the categories we take for granted. Geography is just one of them, as obfuscatory as it is explanatory.
True, being a New Yorker at Yale isn’t some sort of burden for me. Being this much of a curmudgeon, though — now, that’s a burden.
ERIC KREBS is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .