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The Independent Republic of New York

As New York—a city that often has more in common with Europe than with the United States—prepares to be invaded by the red-state hordes during an election that has much of the city fearing the prospect of four more years, a persistent fantasy resurfaces—should New York secede?

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Photo Illustration by Mirko Ilic  

“Don’t you see? The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.” —Woody Allen, Annie Hall

With the Republican Convention a mere three weeks away, it’s hard not to contemplate how different we New Yorkers must seem, and what the delegates will be thinking as they pull into town. Their cabs will be driven by “Pakis,” as Bush once accidentally referred to Pakistanis at a news conference, and the reception desks at their hotels will be piled high with stacks of the New York Times, a paper that the party faithful often refer to as “Pravda.” They’ll be politely shown to their suites by bellhops, likely gay. Then they’ll shower, have a meal, and begin a four-day cocktail surf that Tom DeLay once suggested be confined to a luxury ship on the Hudson. One can only hope that these men and women will be spared an encounter with the secular, pro-choice mayor of this city, a loyal Republican if an unconvincing one, whom, in spite of the millions he has raised, in spite of the hospitality he has shown, the party has managed, with smiling consistency, to financially screw.

New York has always felt like a nation apart. In a country that grows ever redder, it is the bluest of blue cities in one of the bluest of blue states, with the eccentrics to match. Eric Bogosian, with those three cubic feet of curls and black-leather car coat; Harvey Weinstein, with his public tantrums and highfalutin taste; Ed Koch; Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson; the Black Israelites preaching in Times Square; Mexican kitchen workers preparing sushi in Korean delis—could any of them find a home anywhere but New York? Even the New York Post: Where else could a right-wing Australian media mogul win over a left-wing, multiethnic cosmopolis with a toothsome rag of boldface names, sports scores, political scandals, tearjerkers, hectoring editorials, and front-page oopsie-daisies announcing the anointment of Dick Gephardt as John Kerry’s running mate? Only in New York, kids. Only in New York.

Psychically, then, New York already seems headed out of the union—so why not go all the way? If we’re so blue, perhaps it’s time to choose another color entirely. (Maybe black.)

How cool our currency, the york, would be. Vera Wang could design our flags. Groucho Marx would be on our stamps. Bill Clinton could be president again.

Consider: If New York were its own country, its army, the New York City Police Department, would be the twentieth-best-funded army in the world, just behind Greece and just ahead of North Korea. Its GDP, $413.9 billion, would be the seventeenth largest, just behind the Russian Federation and just ahead of Switzerland. With more than 8 million residents, it would be more populous than Ireland, Switzerland, or New Zealand; roughly half the countries in the Middle East (including Israel); most of the former republics of the Soviet Union; and all the Scandinavian countries besides Sweden.

New York is already an island off the coast of the United States. And its mayors already act like heads of state. When terrorists first tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993, David Dinkins was in Osaka. When Rudolph Giuliani was in Gracie Mansion, he entertained Tony Blair and threw Yasser Arafat out of Avery Fisher Hall. “Every time a leader came to City Hall,” says Jerome Hauer, the former director of the Office of Emergency Management, “people at the State Department started taking Maalox.”

The idea of secession has been suggested before, and it has always been dismissed as patently inane. (So now we need passports to go to the Hamptons? How would we get our water, our electricity, our Social Security? Are we supposed to form a navy?) What is interesting, though, is how persistent the fantasy of secession remains in the New York imagination—how intuitively logical it seems, how tantalizing and how real, and how quickly everyone grasps the concept. “It’s impossible, but it’s not crazy to think about,” says Leslie H. Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, “especially given that the city is chronically shortchanged by Washington and Albany and yet still retains financial strength and the great creativity of its citizens.”

After contemptuously dismissing the idea, even the crustiest, crankiest city officials will say that, yes, the Democratic Republic of New York is a very interesting place to contemplate. How fabulous our national anthem would be. How cool our currency, the york, would look. Vera Wang could design our flags, Groucho Marx would be on our stamps; we’d all agree not to have a national bird (sorry, pigeon). Bill Clinton could be president again—assuming, after eight years of presiding over the Free World, he has the patience to worry about potholes—though Ed Koch jokes he’d volunteer for the job, adding he’d name an international airport after himself and call it EIK.

We’d be a great trading hub, the city Hong Kong was before it was handed back to China; an international capital of media and entertainment where news, books, and watchable films were peddled and made; and a diplomatic outpost, mediating between that lone superpower the United States and the rest of the globe. But best of all, we’d be able to define ourselves. Gone would be the days as a neglected appendage to an indifferent nation; instead, we’d be “an antenna to the world,” as Shashi Tharoor, an undersecretary-general at the United Nations, once gorgeously described us. And New York City—home to 600,000 Muslims, cauldron of more than 160 foreign languages, birthplace of Jonas Salk, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the brothers Gershwin, the telegraph machine, the hot dog—would no longer be identified with a country the rest of the planet hates, fears, and cannot understand.


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