New York vs. Northern California

This is the time of year when I realize anew why I am here. I’m not having a spiritual experience. “Here” is the Bay Area, and as we approach the shortest day of the year and face some of the coldest days as well, I renew my delight in my home for the past two decades and more.

Over on Twitter Anil Dash wrote the following yesterday:

As we landed at JFK, the woman in front of me offered, “Northern California is nice, but there’s no sense of urgency. It’s nice to be home.

I can’t tell from the Twitter-speed typing, which annihilates niceties of punctuation, whether the “it’s nice to be home” was overheard, or Anil’s own sentiment. Either way, I share the feeling, but in the opposite direction, each time I return home from an East Coast trip.

When I left my native New York in the 1980s for San Francisco, people told me similar things. “You’ll never really work hard again.” “Enjoy your long vacation.” I never saw or experienced this ostensible Northern Californian slack. I feel plenty of “urgency” here, but it is a pressure I have chosen myself. I worked harder than ever before in my life once I moved here, and continue to, partly because I’m inspired to do so, partly because I do not spend five months of the year in a state of physical misery and mental dejection brought on by extreme cold, light deprivation and aggressively desiccating indoor heating.

Having grown up in Queens and spent the first two decades of my life in the five boroughs, I have certain aspects of New York imprinted in my genes or upon my neurons, including a contempt for wimpy bagels, a disdain for outlandish pizza toppings and a fairly complete knowledge of the subway system rendered only slightly archaic by service changes (c’mon, what’s with this “Z” and “V” lines?). I *heart* NY as much as anyone. But, perhaps because it’s where I spent my youth, I’ve never felt a personal need to prove myself by taking it on as a challenge. I will be perfectly content without ever making it to Page Six (or even Gawker), and the city, of course, will do just fine without me.

One of my chief reasons for not regretting a move away from New York was my sense, in the mid-1980s, that it was a city where money loomed too large as a motivator, a totem and a measure of human value. I was hoping to plant myself in an environment that left at least the possibility of seeing my own life through other lenses. In the ’80s I thought that the ambient greed of New York might be merely a Reagan-era aberration. But subsequent years and decades only accentuated this aspect of the city’s place in the world. New York had long ago stopped making much of anything except money, but it thrived as the epicenter for America’s financial-engineering prowess.

2008 put a definitive end to that. With the collapse of Wall Street’s investment banks, the implosion of the markets and now the revelation of outright fraud on almost inconceivable levels ($50 billion? isn’t that more like a state budget than an investment portfolio?), it seems that New York’s run as the world’s financial capital is at an end. For the foreseeable future, it appears that Washington will be calling the shots in the U.S. economy.

However inconsistent with capitalist doctrine this change may be, it’s hard to complain, given how poorly the New York financiers managed things. But it makes me wonder: what will New York focus on next? There’s too much brains, energy and determination in the city for it to sit on its hands. I think that, now that the dollar is no longer so almighty, a lot of people are going to need to find something else to drive their lives.

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  1. I share your love for Northern California, having spent several chunks of time there. However, although people do not seem to be motivated by money, it sure costs a lot to live there!

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