The Independent Republic of New York

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 Clintoncould 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.

Photo Illustration by Mirko Ilic

Unlike most great cultures and civilizations, which have defined themselves by their cities—Athens, Rome—the United States has long viewed its cities with suspicion. With the exceptions of Boston, Austin, and Santa Fe, American capitals are seldom located in the most interesting cities in any given state, and the United States may be the only industrialized nation in the world whose capital is not its finest city. (“Well, you have Canberra and Sydney,” says Gelb, trying to be helpful. “But so what?”) Three years ago, New York City residents were made painfully aware of the consequences of this schism. “If 9/11 had happened in Paris,” asks Larian Angelo, director of the finance division of the New York City Council, “do you think the city would have had to cut its budget and raise taxes?”

George Wallace was always decrying New York liberals who wanted to meddle in the affairs of the South. In 1969, when outrage over the Vietnam War was starting to peak, Spiro Agnew gave a famous speech in Des Moines denouncing the liberal bias of the New York and Washington media; Nixon obsessively complained in private of a “terrible liberal Jewish clique” that ran the news. In 1975, when a near-bankrupt New York City limped to Washington, hat in hand, it was bluntly rebuffed, prompting the famous Daily News headline: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. “Back then, there was a debate about whether the U.S. should walk away from its cities,” recalls Judy Chesser, Mayor Bloomberg’s lobbyist in Washington. “No one suggests that today.”

It’s true: They do not. Back in those days, hostility to cities was driven by resentment toward minorities and the poor. Today, with the slow erosion of the welfare state, that anger has been redirected at tastemakers, intellectuals, the cosmopolitan elite—somehow, in the GOP imagination, city dwellers have become pointless self-loathers who eat takeout Thai and watch Lars von Trier films. Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas?, argues that this impression has its roots in the populist movements of the 1890s, when New Yorkers were regarded as twee, good-for-nothing parasites. The difference, though, is that this cultural disdain was merely a by-product of class anger; it wasn’t central to it. “Today,” says Frank, “the people who speak this language the most bluntly don’t have a problem with capitalism. They just have a problem with the culture and intellectuals. It’s gone from being a legitimate protest movement to where the ugly side is all that’s left.”

In many practical ways, secession is nowhere near as crazy as it sounds. New York already buys much of its power from outside the state, and the city can, if necessary, generate 80 percent of its own electricity, because it’s required by law to have the capacity to do so. Since the closing of Fresh Kills, we’ve shipped all of our garbage out anyway, and the city owns the 120,000 acres of land upstate containing our reservoirs, plus the pipelines; the trick would be protecting them (though the city has its own police force up there, about 220 officers) and making agreements with the authorities that control the Delaware River.

But, as any New Yorker can appreciate, space would be an issue. We’d need to build prisons, for instance, and it’s hard enough to find transfer stations for our sanitation. The city would be more reliant on tourism than ever, which might mean subordinating the needs of its resident population to those of its transient guests, as in (ulp) Las Vegas. Because islands depend heavily on the places that supply them with goods, we’d be vulnerable in times of crisis, and as it is, we probably wouldn’t have enough shipping capacity or container space.

Then there are the diplomatic and trade questions to sort out. Would NAFTA apply? Would extradition? Do all Wall Street trades involve a tariff? “You’d need new treaties relating to commerce,” says Jeffrey Leeds, the principal of Leeds Weld & Co., a private-equity firm. “Our Wall Street salesman would no longer automatically just pick up the phone and cold-call Nebraskans. If you think NAFTA was controversial, can you imagine the fights over WAFTA—the Wall Street Free Trade Agreement?”

There is the small matter of writing a constitution (gay marriage would be legal, of course, and shrieking car alarms would command a stiffer penalty than drug possession). We’d also have to establish a more substantial government (headquartered, with snarling defiance, in Libeskind’s new building). And New York would be a Jewish nation, a Jerusalem-on-the-sea, which would doubtless make us extra-vulnerable. But even given the corkscrew politics of New York Jewry, would we really produce a president who outflanked Bush in his support of Ariel Sharon? And who, like Bush, wouldn’t make the slightest effort to broker a new peace?

If New Yorkers didn’t support the rest of the country with their tax dollars, perhaps they’d feel less insulted by outsiders’ contempt. But at the moment, depending on whose figures you choose to believe, the city sends between $6.5 billion (City Council estimate) and $11.4 billion (the mayor’s office) more to the federal government than it receives in services, making the snubs we regularly get from Congress feel uncomfortably reminiscent of taxation without representation, a condition that has had ominous consequences before. (How gratifying it would have been if New York’s senators, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, had taken the opportunity to make this point last week by throwing a few crates of tea into Boston Harbor.)

According to the Government Accountability Office, an agency that tallies all manner of policy-related facts and figures, the federal formula for allocating Medicaid payments is particularly punishing to New York, matching the state’s load with only 50 percent of the money it needs. This may be how a federal system is supposed to work—the rich states give more, the poor states give less—but it’s a harder system to tolerate if you have no faith in the president and congressmen who are redistributing your income, if you believe this money is in fact being spent on the very worst kinds of priorities (most New Yorkers had grave reservations about the Iraq War), and if, worst of all, you realize one day that your home state will never, no matter how dire the circumstance, be on the receiving end of the same largesse it provides the rest of the nation.

After September 11, New York badly needed money. Our leaders extracted a promise, ultimately, for $20 billion, and Bush has earned himself plaudits for more or less producing it. But the city got it slowly, imperfectly, and it has really had to beg, and in fact it could have used a lot more (initial estimates from the state comptroller’s office ran toward $105 billion). If some Republicans had had their way, the city would not have received even $20 billion. Shortly after the attack, Don Nickles, the then–assistant majority leader of the Senate, quietly tried to stop this single emergency appropriation, complaining to colleagues that his home state, Oklahoma, never received such generous assistance after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Today, New York still surfaces in intelligence chatter with ritualistic eeriness, but on a per capita basis, it receives a mere pittance for its first-responders—$5.47 for each resident, as opposed to $38.31 for each person in Wyoming. (As a result of this homeland-security-funding formula, Grand Forks, North Dakota, now has more biochemical suits than there are cops to wear them, according to a story in the Daily News this winter; meanwhile, the FDNY has only one “fully deployable” hazardous-materials unit for the whole city.) Just over a month ago, the House of Representatives voted down an amendment, proposed by the upstate Republican John Sweeney, that would have given New York and other urban areas an extra infusion of cash. Shortly after, David Hobson, an Ohio Republican, explained to one of the Capitol’s newspapers, The Hill, “Some people feel that there’s never enough money for New York. No matter what we’d have put in, a lot of people think, New York would ask for more.”

Before that vote, when the bill was still languishing in the House Appropriations Committee, Jose Serrano, our congressman from the Bronx, tried to make an impassioned case for it. But the subcommittee chairman, Harold Rogers, was prepared for Serrano’s charges. He responded with a series of statistics specifically compiled by his staff to show that mile for square mile, New York City comes out quite well. Serrano answered that, well, sure, but his whole district (more than half a million people, same as all the others in Congress) could pretty nearly fit into a square mile—he could walk across it in an hour. And I’d like to add: If Mr. Rogers, who comes from rural Kentucky, wants to calculate our homeland-security funding per square mile, I hope he recommends to colleagues that they calculate our taxes that way, too.

One could very reasonably point out, at this juncture, that New Yorkers hardly understand the rest of the United States any better than the rest of the United States understands New Yorkers. But if New Yorkers wanted to secede, it would not be for the same reasons that, say, people from the San Francisco Bay Area or other liberal enclaves would want to secede. New Yorkers may live in isolation from the rest of the United States, but not the world. We would never think, for example, to refer to multinational corporations as “greedy motherfuckers” (this city loves and lionizes no one if not its greedy motherfuckers); we’re resolutely nonprotectionist, passionately for free trade. Because so many of us are rich and crime-fearing, or immigrants craving unconstrained capitalism, we also have a much finer appreciation of Republican politics than do other liberal enclaves. Thirty-seven percent of us supported our Republican governor in the last election, and in 1993, we chose a Republican mayor who helped transform this city from a jungle into a manicured suburb—and then showed us what real leaders are made of at a time it counted most. New Yorkers also have an appreciation of Realpolitik. After September 11, there were few people in this city who didn’t seem to believe, at least for a time, in the fundamental trade-offs of the Patriot Act—privacy for personal security, civil liberties for public safety—and who weren’t desperately, hungrily eager to bomb the Taliban to high hell.

The question of New York secession first came up in 1861, under circumstances that showed just this kind of ruthless pragmatism, when Mayor Fernando Wood hoped to preserve the right to trade with both the North and the South. Most other New York City secession proposals have focused on becoming a separate state. In 1788, Alexander Hamilton warned that the city’s secession was “inevitable” if the state failed to ratify the Constitution. In 1969, Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin ran on a mayoral platform arguing that the city, needing local control of its services and finances, should become the 51st state. The most inspired part of their proposal contended that the city had dibs on the name “New York.” The rest of the state, they suggested, should be renamed “Buffalo.”

Times haven’t changed much. Queens councilman Peter Vallone Jr., son of the former City Council speaker, has revived the 51st-state movement—a gesture that, while quixotic, isn’t entirely insane. The city’s relationship with the state is as galling as its relationship with the country, if not more so. Of course, subordination to the state is a fundamental part of the urban condition, an inherent structural flaw—“The word ‘city’ does not once appear in the Constitution,” notes Thomas Bender, author of The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea—but New York is especially challenged in this way. Other than messing with property-tax rates, there’s almost nothing the city can do to control or reorganize its own finances. It’s a supplicant, one that must beg permission from Albany to do everything.

Which brings us back to Vallone. According to his office, Albany shortchanges the city by $3.5 billion every year. He contends that our schools get $900 less per pupil than schools upstate, that we receive only 63 percent of transit money while moving 84 percent of riders, that only a fraction of funds from the Environmental Bond Act go to the city, even though nearly half its revenue comes from here. Most egregiously, though, the state makes cities pay 25 percent of their Medicaid costs, a crushing burden, one without parallel anywhere else.

Nor did this state respond with particular generosity in the aftermath of September 11. When California had its huge earthquake in 1989, the legislature in Sacramento immediately raised the state sales tax by a quarter percent, in order to provide $800,000 of emergency funding to San Francisco and the surrounding areas. “And what did Albany give us?” asks Vallone. “Nothing.”

But if the city seceded, Vallone believes it’d be springtime for technocrats. “We could roll back the entire property tax,” he says. “We could cut back the personal income tax and still have a billion-dollar surplus. And there’d be no love lost. Upstate, they think they’re supporting us.”

Vallone’s plan, for now, is simply to put the question of secession to voters in the form of a ballot initiative, asking whether they’d like to form a commission to study the issue. But even if city residents vote overwhelmingly in favor of it, it’s hard to imagine the plan going much further. If the city genuinely wanted to part ways with the state, the State Legislature would have to approve it, and then Congress. If the Legislature knows what’s good for it, the plan would never leave Albany. “All we have upstate,” says Mitchell Moss, the urban-planning-and-policy expert at NYU, “is penitentiaries and college campuses. In twenty years, the remake of Deliverance can be filmed up there.”

Now is a wonderful time in New York’s history, in spite of orange alerts, million-dollar co-ops, and $2 subway rides. It’s clean, it’s safe; there’s a real swing to the city’s stride. The food’s probably never been better, our bars are smoke-free, and the mayor, for the first time in decades, has a shot at turning around our public schools. Every kid who watched Friends wants to go to college here. Every foreign somebody who’s anybody wants an apartment here. Why secede?

That’s exactly why. The city is no longer the land of Taxi Driver; it’s the land of the Today show and You’ve Got Mail. We no longer fear other New Yorkers. What we fear are more attacks from terrorists, and it’s hard to escape the suspicion that our prolonged association with the United States, at least this United States, does not make us safer. From a political perspective, it seems legitimate to ask whether this city still shares the DNA of its parent country, or whether, at this point, we’ve mutated into something else—something closer to Europe in values and aesthetics and philosophy, or perhaps something entirely different. With globalization, our physical place is becoming incidental. The whole world over seems to be fragmenting as it’s connecting: In Italy, the Northern League is contemplating breaking away; Scotland again has its own Parliament; Paris seems to be moving in a different direction from the rest of France, perhaps because it’s diversifying; and the same appears to be true of London.

Following September 11, the conventional wisdom was that New York officially became a part of America. The nation swept us in: We got fire trucks from Louisiana and rescue workers from Texas; visitors from around the country opened their wallets, their minds, their hearts. But we’ll never be a red state. New York is the spiritual home and cash machine of the modern Democratic Party, the party that believes in nuance and nation-building. It’s the city of the United Nations. (From diplomats, one often hears that whenever a discussion about moving the U.N. arises, the same objection always comes up: No one wants to leave New York.) Most New Yorkers wouldn’t own guns even if they were allowed, and tens of thousands of them protested the Iraq War. We’re from Venus. It’s the rest of the country that’s from Mars.

“I knew I couldn’t live in America and I wasn’t ready to move to Europe, so I moved to an island off the coast of America—New York City,” said the late Spalding Gray, the quintessential New Yorker. “It was a place that tolerated differences and could incorporate them and embrace them, which was what America was supposed to be about and wasn’t. So it was the melting pot that was a purée rather than individual vegetables. I think of New York as a purée and the rest of the United States as vegetable soup.”

In the ideal secession fantasy, New York would keep the extra billions it sends to Washington and Albany and instead spend it on the things that are dearest to us: education, housing, health care, more cops, inspections of our ports. But since we’re losing the economies of scale, we’d have to scale back our own demands somewhat: health care, yes, but single-payer. Social Security, but it might have to be privatized. It’d be both liberal and libertarian. Sweden crossed with Argentina, with a shot of Bermuda (do your offshore banking here!). Vermont crossed with Texas, with a shot of Delaware (make us your out-of-state corporate headquarters!). Part red, part blue: not a bad flag.

The financial snubs the city regularly gets from Congress feel uncomfortably like taxation without representation—a condition that has had ominous consequences before.

But let’s face it: Secession is pretty much impossible, and any clear-thinking semi-sentient person who knows anything about New York would say so. It’s how civil wars get started, for one thing. Even the comparatively benign custody battles involving the Port Authority are enough to put anyone off the task—Who gets control of the GW and the Goethals, and who gets the toll booty? Are we supposed to establish border patrols at the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, when truckers already bitch about how hard it is to get into Manhattan? Is JFK now a white elephant on the sea?But still, let’s say we try. Elizabeth Economy, the C.V. Starr senior fellow in Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is an expert on Singapore, one of the world’s few city-states, and therefore a potential model for an independent New York (minus the authoritarianism, of course, and minus the caning). Its primary challenges, she says, are creating an economic niche in a global economy and protecting itself.

Certainly, this city already has an economic niche: Wall Street. The problem is that we depend rather heavily on it. As Wall Street’s fortunes go, so go the city’s. Would an independent New York be enough to survive a downturn in the global economy? Worse, if New York City seceded, would the financial center of the United States find its way elsewhere?

Defending ourselves would be even harder. It’s true that on September 11, New York’s first-responders were its own army. But New York did (eventually) get plenty of national assistance. FEMA came in, as did the National Guard, as did the Army Corps of Engineers and the Fire Department from the Department of the Interior. Washington sent stockpiles of drugs. It also retaliated against Afghanistan for harboring Osama bin Laden. But if New York, the independent nation, were attacked again, it’s highly likely that we’d depend on international assistance—not just from the United States but perhaps even from Old Europe, the same way small countries get aid from large ones now. (“What are we going to do?” asks Mitchell Moss. “Contract the Israeli Army to respond?”)

One possible way around this issue would be for New York to become a territory or commonwealth, like Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands or Guam or Samoa. We’d be extended American military protection; we wouldn’t need new passports to visit our friends in the suburbs; we’d collect Social Security; our commerce could continue, uninterrupted and duty-free. But of course, the United States would need to agree to this arrangement. “Most territories and commonwealths,” notes Felix Mathos Rodriguez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, “are totally ad hoc. They’re a marriage of convenience in history.”

At any rate, defending New York wouldn’t be impossible. “The NYPD’s intelligence unit is better than the FBI by far,” says Gelb. Presumably, we’d get intelligence from our allies. And as we recently learned, the State Department’s intelligence bureau, which has barely any infrastructure or budget, read the tea leaves on Iraq better than anyone else.Perhaps, in the end, what we New Yorkers would have to do is redefine our conception of defense. Our primary mission would be to defend ourselves and only ourselves, just like the Swiss: There’d be no training to fight in deserts or the Arctic, no heavy equipment devoted to razing jungles and boring into caves. Install a couple of surface-to-air missiles under the Brooklyn Heights promenade and call it a day. Or better yet, let Donald Trump build a fortress on the West Side, paint it gold, and crown it with his name in four-story neon lights. That would scare off any barbarians at the gate, sure as a Scud.

All that’d be left would be normalizing relations with the United States. It’d be ugly at first, but eventually we’d find that special someone, that perfect ambassador who both speaks the red-state language but still unambiguously represents New York. Again, I’m thinking the Donald. I have two words for you, Mr. Trump: You’re hired.

The Independent Republic of New York