The Eastern Frontier

New York City is Western too

  • Shaun C. Gibson

When I lived in Wyoming, I used to drive across the plains for hours on my days off. I had a battered Toyota with a factory stereo, and I listened to stacks of cassette tapes purchased for 99 cents apiece at the record store in Cheyenne. One of them was Antonin Dvorak's Ninth Symphony, the one called the New World Symphony.

I was hooked on first listening, and when I learned that the Czech composer had written it after spending the summer of 1893 in the town of Spillville, Iowa, I began to hear it as a tonal epic of the American West. Its notes expressed the way the prairie unfurls in great empty yaws to the far horizon -- the way you can stand on a grassy swale and feel an urge to get lost in the waves of the land.

Four years later, I discovered I had misunderstood the dates: Dvorak actually composed the symphony several months before he went to Iowa -- or, for that matter, saw anything west of the Hudson River. In fact, he was living in an apartment near at the corner of 17th Street and Second  Avenue in New York City.

But I didn't feel cheated by this knowledge. It only helped erode a prejudice held too long by too many Westerners, those of us who grew up thinking of New York City as an effete or utterly hostile place, irrelevant to the healthy functioning of the respiratory system of the continent. Far from it: I have now come to think of New York as just about as Western a town as any in North America; more Western, in fact, than certain parts of the West itself.

Persuasive, but...
Nov 21, 2009 08:16 AM
A persuasively worded argument, but I can't buy it. New York is not, and never will be, the West, except in the minds of people who desperately need to imagine it as such. But onthe other hand, if it keeps more New Yorkers at home, I'm all for it.
New York the West?
Bob Michael
Bob Michael
Nov 24, 2009 04:12 PM
Very well-written, and I agree with the comment about the "New World" Symphony; the slow movement is, along with some of Copland's work, probably the most evocative description of the wide-open spaces ever written. But the premise "NYC = Laramie [albeit with bigger buildings]": UTTERLY RIDICULOUS!!
New York is West?
AE Medford, Oregon
AE Medford, Oregon
Nov 25, 2009 10:09 AM
In life-style, climate and population density, nope. But, to be fair, New Yorkers may be living the more ecologically sound lifestyle!

Contrast a small cabin on an ample acreage in Seldovia, Alaska The owner by fishing, clamming, hunting nearby, and by gathering and burning wood on his own acreage, fancies he's living a more "natural" existence. "The way things are supposed to be," says he. But it's a coonskin-cap anachronism sustained by subsidies. Vast Alaska hasn't enough slowly-growing woods for all its residents to burn on a daily basis. Yet, he relies upon resources from the city dwellers of Anchorage. As for game, "living off the land" would be a short-lived fantasy for a half-million people. Native density was nowhere near so high, and we know pre-contact peoples already were fighting over food. Further, no native community ever settled above 2,000 feet, so the illusion of vast spaces open for "natural" living is just that. In fact, this man's cabin usurped one of the most livable pre-contact sites in the state, and yet is subsidized by scores of Lower 48 tourists, flying into Anchorage from 3,000-8,000 miles away. That about as energy intensive as they come!

At his fireside, I began a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation on the typical NYC high-rise apartment dweller who occupies square-feet not acres, never needs a car, and maximizes efficiency in countless ways by his or her commitment to a denser, communal life that cherishes rather than eschews the cultural riches that spring only from masses of humanity. Yes, resources are brought in, but the scale of their import maximizes the most energy efficient transports of all: trains and ships, not putt-putting outboards. Yes, there are great gains in efficiency to be made in urban infrastructure, but they are ALL low-hanging fruit at these densities. There are NO gains to be made in caribou- and salmon-based economies––nature maximized these long ago––and we've hardly improved them in the past two centuries. Clearly, even the quarter-acre lot occupied by the average 2.5 residents, which typifies most Western cities, can't begin to hold a candle to those thrifty, environmental New Yorkers! How much more land would be available for farming, forestry, wildlife and recreation in the unlikely scenario that everyone not actively working on the land emulated their gregariousness? Our penchant for the urban quarter-acre lots and 10-20 acre toy ranchette has consumed vast areas of the West. By staying put–––even sometimes not leaving the city for years at a time--it might be said that millions of NY'ers have subsidized OUR land-hungry lifestyle. After all, if all 8 million cashed in, turned "anti-industrial" like the Unabomber, and holed up in Montana cabins, there'd be no room for them all on 20-acre ranchettes. Not even with Wyoming thrown in for the bargain and both state's current residents evicted. Yet, as Americans, they've as much right as we do to live where they like.

So you could say that New Yorkers are what make the West possible! We laughed about that, and agreed that if we hope to hang onto them, for most of us, the "wide open spaces" should remain a nice place to VISIT.
Good essay, but logic is flawed
Ed Quillen
Ed Quillen
Nov 25, 2009 12:44 PM
    "The Eastern Frontier" is a provocative and interesting essay, even for a life-long Western hick whose sole visit to Gotham, to date, has been a layover at JFK Airport.

    But if I understand its premise correctly, then the logic is flawed. The premise is that New York City (mostly Manhattan) does what Western cities do, and thus it's a Western city.

    What do Western cities do? I have spent a lot of time looking at Denver. In the rail days, it was an entrepot for the Southern Rockies; goods arrived in bulk from the East and the carloads were broken up in Denver for distribution to stores in its hinterland. The produce of the hinterland, be it pinto beans or silver, was shipped to Denver for processing and export. The city soon did some of its own processing (smelters, meat-packing plants) and manufacturing.

    But is there anything specifically Western about that? Anything that didn't happen in similar ways with Atlanta or St. Louis or New Orleans?

    To be fair, New York owns much of its eminence to its early connection with the West of that day. The Erie Canal, which opened in 1825, allowed cheap water transport from the Great Lakes, hundreds of miles inland, to the Port of New York. That gave New York a big "western" hinterland, and a big leg up on competitors like Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore -- but it didn't make New York a Western City, any more than its seaport made it an English, Dutch or French city.

    And it was its connection with New York that made Chicago the dominant interior city for generations, according to William Cronon's fine book, "Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West." Chicago offered both rail and water routes to New York; the carriers competed and so shipping was cheaper from Chicago than from St. Louis. Plus, as a large city, New York was a worthwhile market for the wheat and wool produced in the West. But we could export wheat to the Soviet Union in the 1970s without turning Moscow into a Western city.

    Now to the cultural angle. About 20 years ago, my wife and I ghost-wrote Westerns for a New York publishing house. The tales were supposed to happen circa 1860 -- when the nation was on the brink of civil war. And yet, we were never supposed to mention it in our Westerns because, as the editor said, "these books sell best in the South, and we don't want to offend anybody there."

    So, the Western, supposedly a book about our part of the world, is actually contrived in New York to sell in the South. Thus New York is a Western city in what way? I could make just as good an argument that it's really a Southern city (extensive cotton factoring back in the day, its mayor wanted to secede with the South in 1861, and the anti-draft riots in 1863).

    But again, I must say I enjoyed this piece and I'm glad HCN published it, precisely because it got me to thinking about these matters.

Hudson River
Dec 01, 2009 05:27 PM
Estuary brimming with Canadian snowmelt? That would be the Saint Lawrence River. The Hudson River's source is the south slope of the Adirondacks. There is no Canadian snowmelt flowing into the Atlantic out of New York Harbor.