“Welcome to New York.” I heard the phrase crackle over the speakers.
Contrary to popular belief, I was not listening to the catchy Taylor Swift tune from 1989—in fact, I was actually on a plane, touching down at JFK airport in none other than New York City.
As I glanced around at my fellow passengers who had joined me on the nearly three hour journey from southern Florida, I felt a tinge of excitement and—more surprising—mystery. Suddenly these regular people, with their smart phones and crying babies and travel magazines, were glamorous. Maybe that man wearing a hat was actually Matt Damon. Maybe the woman sitting next to me was a famous literary star.
We were in New York. Anything could happen.
But the attraction of the city was short-lived. Unfortunately for me, I have a much more complicated relationship with New York than my original vignette suggests—of late, the city brings to mind a question I feel like I’m hearing on repeat from Duke students.
“New York or D.C.?”
It shouldn’t surprise me. Those of us approaching graduation know that the aptly named “Duke Mafia”—loosely defined, of course, as hordes of Duke alumni ready to at once socialize and network with burgeoning career Dukies—persists in both of these cities.
But if both cities are equally desirable and equally accessible to young job-seekers, why does it seem that New York is always the place of choice?
Let’s start with the sheer numbers. The standard Duke joke goes that everyone is from either New Jersey or Florida. Looking at these assumptions using statistics from Duke’s class of 2017, it’s mostly true—New Jersey, New York, and Florida rate within the top five states of incoming Duke students. If you grew up in the Tristate area, chances are you want to go back.
Even for students not from the surrounding area, New York holds nearly all the most prominent jobs of any industry. Duke has taken note of that, offering programs such as “Duke in New York: Financial Markets and Institutions” and “Duke in New York: Arts and Media” that allow students to take advantage of the opportunities the city has to offer while enjoying the city itself.
But I ignore a facet of our eternal fascination with the city—the idea of New York as the center of the world. Cue the famous 1976 New Yorker cover and Saul Steinberg illustration, “View of the World from 9th Avenue.” Here is a map of New York City drawn grotesquely out of proportion to show New York as the heart of the country, New Jersey and the Hudson River as its barrier to the rest of the world, and the West Coast as its playground, with a slight nod to the Midwest by way of Kansas City and Chicago. The tradition of placing a city in the center of a map based on its importance hearkens back to the Middle Ages, when the “T-O map” featured Jerusalem at its center. Is New York the new Jerusalem? What does that say about us?
New York’s rise to fame is nothing if not ancient by our own standards. While perusing the books at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I found a tome called “New York Diaries” with stories ranging from 1609 to 2009. The book jacket offered a quote from Edward Ross Ellis dated May 22, 1947—“Today I arrived by train in New York City, which I’d never seen before, walked through the grandeur of Grand Central Terminal, stepped outside, got my first look at the city and instantly fell in love with it. Silently, inside myself, I yelled: I should have been born here!”
It is clear that the city holds some sort of mythological significance in our hearts. New York is not the birthplace of America, but it is the representation of everything we stand for. Dreams of success and excitement bring countless immigrants and new graduates here to the city every year. The bustling streets and Madison Avenue shops seem to hold a promise, a whisper that “one day, you too could live here.” Of course, don’t let the women of Park Avenue hear you.
So the next time you hear “Welcome to New York,” don’t think of Taylor Swift. Although she may say different, she is not the symbol of this city. We are—every one of us that tries to live out the American Dream, struggling to find something more.
New York, New York. It’s a hell of a town.
Elizabeth Djinis is a Trinity junior. This is her first column of the semester.
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