They’re Here!

Photo: Tomer Hanuka

For sublet, August 30 through September 2, New York City, 300 square miles, easy access to sporting events, Big Apple bus tours, and Broadway. Great views, fully furnished. GOP members welcome, protesters considered, certain foreigners subject to background checks. Will waive damage deposit, but please, no smoking.

Welcome, visitors! Come in and make yourselves at home. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of room, because half of New York has already hightailed it out of town. Did we mention that the real New York won’t be available during your stay? Did your tour guide happen to tell you that the city you’re about to experience—a giddy carnival of the far right and even farther left—is about as reflective of the real soul of this city as the New York–New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas? (Now that we think of it, Vegas, with its 130,000 rooms and cheap drinks, might have been a better choice—is it too late?)

It’s hard to remember now, but just three years ago, in the sad, smoky haze of 9/11, a GOP convention in New York didn’t seem like such a dumb idea. Back then, New York had fallen in love all over again with its Republican mayor, while bestowing record-high approval ratings on a Republican president. For a moment, New York seemed like a part of America. Even the tattooed hipsters who catalogue books at the Strand were earnestly sporting stars-and-stripes pins. In the end, this unprecedented planetary alignment lasted about as long as it takes to watch all five seasons of Sex and the City back to back (and just long enough for New York to elect another Republican mayor).

Giddy with its early victories, the Bush administration cleverly pounced upon the temporary affordability of New York’s ideological real estate, claiming the city, if not as its own, then at least as the kind of friend to whom it would pay regular hospital visits. But that was before the invasion of Iraq and a national bifurcation of proportions not seen since Vietnam. That was before New York endured terror threat after terror threat and reclaimed its true-blueness so forcefully that even its Republican politicians developed a Smurf-like pallor. By then, the GOP had made its bed—but it didn’t expect to sleep in it with thousands of angry, sweaty protesters from around the globe (which explains why the president may not even spend the night).

In a sense, we brought this invasion on ourselves. Had the city not spent much of the last decade developing its ready-for-prime-time sheen, it’s doubtful that certain red-staters would have let their kids come here on a class trip, much less make New York the site of the Republican convention. But since the first days of Rudy, the city has been manicuring and grooming itself into the raving metrosexual playground epitomized by Friends. Along with his post-attack heroics, this new civic fastidiousness will be remembered as the mayor’s most enduring legacy. “New York is a role model for the Republican Party; it’s a role model for America,” said Bush campaign chief Ken Mehlman at a press conference in July. Fifteen years ago, when New York felt more like a glorious asylum run by its own lively inmates, the rest of the country was decidedly less eager to claim it. The feeling was mutual. For all the pride New Yorkers took in living at the center of the universe, they took an even greater pride in not having anything to do with the rest of the country. They came here explicitly to evade the smiling Rotarians and PTA presidents now streaming into JFK, eager to clutch New York’s shell-shocked residents in a tight, familial embrace.

Faced with this impending onslaught, many New Yorkers have lately turned nostalgic for the city that the GOP would never have dreamed of seizing. It was a place where the most glamorous jobs paid the least and being a good neighbor meant avoiding eye contact in the elevator. It was a place where the highs were high enough to make up for those quintessential New York summer days when the D train stalls and the temperature tops 102 degrees and someone gives you the finger because you mistakenly entered through the exit at Duane Reade.

Back in those days, before Brooklyn had become a bourgeois playground and the name Alphabet City sounded more like a threat than a destination, being a New Yorker meant that your day-to-day humanity played itself out on a nearly inhuman scale. New Yorkers took a perverse pride in this. It meant you had a special understanding of what it was to be alive. It meant you got it.

Faced with this impendingonslaught, New Yorkers have suddenly turned nostalgic forthe city that the GOP would never have dreamed of seizing.

Now the whole world thinks they get it. Now that the peep shows in Times Square have been replaced by Olive Gardens and Red Lobsters, the world is masticating and digesting the city as though it were an all-you-can-eat buffet.

September 11, of course, had a lot to do with this. “We are all New Yorkers today,” went the global rallying cry immediately after the towers fell. But as soothing as this rhetoric sounded then, it now smacks of the same brand of presumptuous arrogance that we are always accused of.

“Who says you’re all New Yorkers?” the real New Yorkers want to know. Do we see you fanning your armpits on the subway platforms every morning? Have you thrown up out the window of a cab? Did you do your time in two-bedroom apartments you shared with three actors, two magazine fact-checkers, and a crystal-meth-addled pastry chef? Have you scrambled to get your child onto the Dalton waiting list while he’s still in utero? Do you know that there’s a c in Bleecker Street? Do you own at least four Lou Reed records? Do you? Do you?

We thought not. But here come the folks anyway, with cameras swinging from their necks, ushered in by New York’s own Republican politicos, a few of whom may look around the room at this family reunion and think, Am I really related to these people? Many liberals are awaiting the imminent arrival of the protesters with similar exasperation. The specter of violence looms large. And as much as many New Yorkers disdain Bush, in the end most of them hate violence even more.

But the spirit of New York’s new American-ness prevails, raising the question of just how much street cred is left in a city that’s become the poster child for the very nation to which it once stood in cultural opposition. “The safest big city in the country, surprisingly affordable, family fun for all ages,” decrees a promotional video on the official GOP Website. (Affordable? That is a surprise!) As delegate after delegate featured on the RNC’s Website expresses a preternatural desire to see The Lion King, the politicians make grasping efforts to drive home the message that New York City, despite appearances, is a GOP-friendly town. “We have elephants,” insists Mayor Bloomberg. “Not just at Madison Square Garden, but at the Bronx Zoo.” (Ever practical, he has been equally solicitous of the activists, offering them discounts at Applebee’s.)

Governor Pataki, for his part, ticks off a list of local Republican trivia—Lincoln’s “Right Makes Might” speech at Cooper Union, the fact that Teddy Roosevelt was born here—apparently in an effort to quell delegates’ fears that they will be spit on while in line at Sbarro. “On behalf of all New Yorkers,” intones the governor, “we look forward to seeing you this August and to having one of the most exciting and successful conventions ever.”

New Yorkers have never liked being spoken for. But now that thousands of conventioneers are beating a path to the Garden to renominate a president largely derided by New Yorkers, many of us are facing up to the reality of what the city has become, and what we’ve given up to get here. The truth is, New York was already dramatically transforming itself before September 11 turned it into Everyman’s land. The convention, for all its potential perils and payoffs, is just another reminder of the things that got swept away when the streets were cleaned.

So we’ll do what we always do when the city threatens to wear us down. Those who can afford it will leave town. Those who can’t will grit their teeth and muddle through. And everyone, regardless of age or race or Hamptons access, will lend his voice to the closest thing New York has to an all-city choir: the chorus of complaint. For those who get it, there is no sweeter harmony.

But for all the doom surrounding this event, the city has survived much bigger ordeals, and it is these moments that bring out its best. So come in, Republicans, and put your feet up. Activists, your table is ready, too. It’s by the kitchen and there’s not much of a view, but we did what we could. Everyone else should try to remember that the sublet lasts less than a week.

They’re Here!