Friday, November 03, 2006

Is New York Another Country?

“He’s not American, he’s from New York.”

So says a character in a new BBC TV movie based on the popular 90s crime series Cracker, starring Robbie Coltrane. The quote was noted by both New York Magazine and the New York Times.

What does this mean? Are New Yorkers really that different from everyone else in the country? Do Brits think so anyway?

In the New York Magazine Q&A Mr. Coltrane said "That’s a line me and Jimmy [show creator Jimmy McGovern] agreed on, and well, you know perfectly well what it means." When asked to explain it anyway, he said:
"I’ve driven all through America and I know there are a lot of clever people between the coasts. But they have a slightly old-fashioned view of the world. Whereas New York is one of the most multicultural, multiracial, tolerant places on Earth."
A little context. The show, Cracker (the title refers to the protagonist's ability to "crack" cases), ran from 1993 to 1996 in the U.K. American television tried (as it does with nearly every British hit) to remake Cracker in 1997 with Robert Pastorelli (best known as Murphy Brown's painter) in the Contrane role.

The BBC movie, aired recently on BBC America, is called "Cracker: A New Terror." It's about "terror" in an indirect way -- a comedian who compares the IRA terrorism to Islamic terrorism, saying that the latter is much worse, gets killed by a disgruntled British soldier who lost comrades to IRA violence.

Anita Gates, writing in the Times, sets up the "New York" quote this way:
"One review suggested that since everyone in London sits around at dinner parties expressing anti-Americanism all the time, there was no good reason to repeat all those sentiments in a murder mystery.

"That sort of thing plays a little differently here. First, there is a sense of relief that characters on television are talking about the events openly and irreverently. Then there is the punch of confirmation that much of the rest of the world may indeed despise the United States for what the Bush administration calls the war on terror. And for local viewers, there is a hint of vindication when the mother of the movie’s first victim tells a Manchester police officer: 'My son wasn’t American. Not in that way. He was a New Yorker.'"
To deal with a sentiment like this, we'll have to first define what it means to be a New Yorker. Do people in Staten Island count? How about people who live in Hoboken? Is Philadelphia so different? How about San Francisco?

When I moved here last year I read that just over 50% of New Yorkers weren't born here. People come and go fast enough that most newcomers are spared accusations of being outsiders after even a year of living here. The City welcomes people because it always has; in that melting pot sort of sense, New York is the most American of American cities. But as the character on Cracker articulated so simply, New Yorkers are the most un-American of Americans, too.

The cover of Time Out New York asks this week: Are you a real New Yorker? Prove it. Inside is a very difficult quiz. New York Public Radio's talk show host Brian Lehrer said this morning that he didn't do so well on the quiz. I didn't either.

Maybe one of the most un-American things about New York City is its density. The city deals with space in a more European way -- there's a premium on it, so people have to learn to get along. That mentality isn't as urgent in a sprawling city like Atlanta. I think it's this density and the constant churn of people that makes New York different. Robbie Coltrane is right -- the population here is more diverse and more tolerant. But where does New York begin and end? And what other places are different like this?


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