By David Briggs
When I moved to Brooklyn in 1988, I noticed something strange – when telling my neighbors that I had a position at a firm in Manhattan, the inevitable response would be along the lines of, “Oh, so you work in the city?” I was confused since it implied that I was living outside of the city and the urban credentials that I was cultivating were not completely authentic. Little did I know that when I lived on the Upper West Side in 1983-84, and later on the Lower East Side, I had occupied a privileged position. Manhattan was the star attraction and the other four boroughs were its supporting players.
Our city is still culturally defined as Manhattan both in Hollywood and closer to home. In this past summer’s advertising for the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a verdant Manhattan was depicted framing the glittering Oz of our fantasies perched in Central Park. Small sections of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and New Jersey were rendered as an inconsequential backdrop in muted shades of brown; hovering over this image were the words “RETHINK NYC.” My Brooklyn neighbors had unintentionally acknowledged a cultural mindset – we did not live in “the city.”
Almost nobody who lives in Manhattan refers to it directly; all one has to do is mention a street or neighborhood and the association is implicit. Those of us from the other four boroughs are compelled to distinguish ourselves either by naming our home borough or referencing a neighborhood long associated with it (Park Slope, Forest Hills, etc.). A city divided into districts is hardly unusual, but the hierarchical distinctions of our boroughs reinforce a cultural mindset that there are four fiefdoms with Manhattan as the lord on the hill.
Given the city’s challenges, the lingering cultural bias towards Manhattan is outdated. Climate change is agnostic towards political and social identities, and does not confine itself to specific geographic formations. As we move forward through the 21st century trying to right the wrongs of the previous century, we must have a broader, less hierarchical urban identity that defines us as a human settlement with a fluid set of boundaries. Managing climate change is an incredibly difficult task, but as responsible citizens of an expanding urban center we can design a better metropolis that is part of the global environmental system and rest assured that we are still New Yorkers.