Why Us?

The economy is crap all over, but why does New York feel so much gloomier than the rest of the country? Escape the banking-crisis hothouse of New York for a spell and you discover something weird: People in the rest of the country, whatever their own problems might be, aren’t as perpetually freaked out as we are here.

In Los Angeles and San Francisco, life almost appears normal. This despite the fact that California suffers from double-digit unemployment and rampant foreclosures. In L.A., movie-production costs are being rigorously cut, the television industry is in upheaval, and stores are closing everywhere. Meanwhile, up north, tech giants are shedding workers at an unprecedented rate, and for rent signs festoon every block of downtown. So how do people maintain their composure?

Part of the difference, of course, has to do with New York’s human density, which makes us prone to epidemics of all sorts, especially emotional ones. For years now, we’ve become accustomed to a state of general euphoria: eruptions of wealth, lavish restaurants, ceaseless redevelopment. Everybody fed off the infectious optimism, whether we realized it or not. Whatever your view of bankers, their influence pervades the city. When their belief systems fail, few of us are left unaffected.

Then, of course, there is the media. In New York, we live and breathe it. The disintegration of the newspapers elsewhere doesn’t bother the citizenry as much. Drive through L.A. and notice how many bundled papers sit untouched at the ends of driveways, like little mummies. But who here doesn’t depend on the Times, or the Post or News, and who can claim to be immune to their daily gloom? The writers and editors are thunderstruck by the looming obsolescence of the thing they know how to do.

But probably most important, out West, failure isn’t such a big deal. Hundreds of TV pilots are produced to yield a handful of hits. The makers of the stinkiest box-office bombs land new gigs with ease. In the start-up culture of San Francisco, failure is a badge of honor. It demonstrates you have the courage of your convictions, and chances are, the V.C.’s will happily bankroll your next new thing. A friend who works in Berkeley says that this is nothing compared with the bursting of the dot-com bubble. “We went through then what New York is going through now. People seriously worried about whether the Internet might just be a joke.”

The problem is that here the model of professional success is climbing the ladder from one new job to the next. Falling off the ladder is a disgrace, and it can drive people underground, or into the dark corners of Starbucks. Perhaps this recession will spur a new culture of resilience.

For what it’s worth, Londoners seem to be handling all of this worse. An American friend reports seeing professionally clad people bursting into sobs on the Tube. “Other riders,” he says, “react in an un-Britishly empathetic way, including the provision of hankies.”

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.

Why Us?