If you listen closely to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, you can hear the strains of a familiar refrain beginning, the same one that starts when anything happens in the self-proclaimed center of the universe: the cheers that New York City is the greatest city in the world and that the aftermath of Sandy only proves it. (Never mind that Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic were hit equally hard and don’t have the same financial or governmental mechanisms to help them recover. America!) Inherent in this message is that there’s that there’s something that makes the people there better, that the heroic feats carried out by people in the wake of Sandy would not – nay, could not – be carried out by anyone anywhere else, ever. So before we all give in to that temptation, let’s call out what this sort of thing is – it’s bullshit.
Yes, nurses carrying sick babies down nine flights of stairs and manually ventilating them heroic, amazing people. But nurses do heroic things every single day regardless of if we watch or not, because it is their job to save lives and be amazing. The same is true of the first responders and coast guards and electrical repair teams. They’re doing the jobs they signed up to do every day, and there’s nothing particularly New York about it. Behind this idea that what we’re seeing now is somehow extra-special is the exact same sort of jingoistic, narcissistic, ridiculousness people used after September 11. (You’d be forgiven for forgetting that planes crashed in Pennsylvania and DC. Apparently, everyone else has.) It’s the same reason people grit their teeth when a politician rhapsodizes about how the rose-tinted world of small towns and their values. It’s a cheap rhetorical device that is the basis of all “you know you’re from [place] when…” jokes, and, unless you’re from that place, it’s pretty obviously a crappy one too.
What people are recognizing – and what, I feel, is in danger of getting lost in locational pandering – is that people are amazing. For the most part, we go around as a society being jaded and cynical about our fellow human beings. We focus every night on news of people acting badly and doing bad things to each other. We dismiss kindnesses as our due and instead remember the asshole that cut us off in traffic, the barista that messed up our coffee order, the crazy person in front of us in the checkout line at the grocery store. Everyone’s guilty of it. And, I think, the closer you pack people together, the worse they tend to get about it, the more they tend to itch against dealing with the emotional taxation of other people and their idiosyncrasies. But what we forget in all that is that people are actually pretty great. We focus so much on petty, passing slights that we forget that people spend more of their day trying to be nice and follow rules than they do pissing someone else off.
The truth is, there’s nothing inherently romantic about a place. Places are just holders of human geography, locations for gatherings of people with common thoughts or goals. There isn’t a place that’s objectively the best any more than there’s food or music that’s objectively the best. Your favorite might feel like the best to you, you might have a million reasons and stories why your people and places and things are the very best people and places and things, but that doesn’t make them better.
Disasters like storms shouldn’t remind us that one thing or one person or one place is good, it should remind us that people and the world we live in are good. It should remind us that the next person you think of as an asshole might not really be an irredeemable asshole. It should make us think, the next time someone annoys us, that instead of assuming that one bad action makes them a bad person, that people are really a complicated mixture of good and bad and deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt.
So no, New York isn’t the greatest city in the world. The people who live there are not the greatest people. But they are pretty damn awesome, and they should feel good about that.