The New York area is fiercely divided over baseball loyalties, but in the closing days of 1999, even Yankees fans were pulling for the Mets. That was when Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker called Mets fans “degenerates” and said of New York, “It’s the most hectic, nerve-racking city.” After comparing a ride on the 7 train to a trip through war-torn Beirut, “next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS,” he went on to note that his least favorite thing about New York was “the foreigners” and asked, “How the hell did they get in this country?”
Fast-forward to 2016, and once again New York has found itself in the crosshairs of a right-wing bigot. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz avoided saying he didn’t care for foreigners during last week’s Republican presidential debate in South Carolina, and who can blame him, considering he was born in Canada? But his message that “the values in New York City are socially liberal and pro-abortion and pro–gay marriage” — aimed at GOP front-runner Donald Trump, a native of the New York borough of Queens — prompted outrage from many New Yorkers. Faced with the insinuation that their city is a den of chaos, vice and immigrants with strange customs, New Yorkers had the same response to Cruz that they had to Rocker: “Yeah, and?”
What are “New York values”? On its best days, the city’s overriding ethos is one of tolerance and diversity. But New York has failed to live up to this ideal many times in its history. “New York values” aren’t Cruz’s caricature of elite liberalism; they are the values of a cosmopolitan port city — accepting of chaos, vice and difference not out of any particular idealism but because all that really matters is the next deal.
Since it was founded as a Dutch trading post in 1624, New York has always been unusually diverse and unusually committed to commerce. In his book “American Nations,” the historian Colin Woodard divides the United States into 11 regions on the basis of culture, economy and social structure. “New Netherland” is by far the smallest of these “nations” — the only one that’s just a single metro area. Woodard writes that the region “has always been a global commercial culture — materialistic, with a profound tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity and an unflinching commitment to the freedom of inquiry and conscience.” From the beginning, the city was an oddity: a Dutch colony where Dutch colonists made up only half the population. In 1643, at least 18 languages were spoken among the city’s 500 inhabitants. (Today there are about 800 languages spoken among nearly 8.5 million people in its five boroughs.)
These roots give the city a combination of tolerance and mercantilism that is unique in the U.S. To conservatives, New York and Boston may seem like twin hotbeds of liberal elitism, but according to Woodard, the cities are fundamentally different. “Yankeedom,” as he calls New England, was settled by Calvinists as a quasi-theocracy. The leaders of Boston cultivated a highly educated elite and created the nation’s highest concentration of universities. New York’s elite, by contrast, has traditionally been “unconcerned with great moral questions.” The Netherlands of the 17th century was coming into its own as Europe’s first commercial maritime empire, and its capital, Amsterdam, hosted people of many nations and religions. New Amsterdam, as New York was originally named, had a massive protected harbor that made it an ideal foothold for this culture in the Americas.
It’s worth remembering that these “New York values” are the source of some of the most shameful episodes in the city’s history. The Dutch may have been tolerant, diverse and pragmatic by the standards of 17th century Europe, but they were also eager participants in the Atlantic slave trade. Throughout the American Revolution, the British held control of New York, and the city remained predominantly loyal to the crown until the very end, largely because independence would interrupt trade.
During the Civil War, New York’s sympathies were firmly with the slaveholding Confederacy, because much of the city’s wealth came from manufacturing textiles made with Southern-grown cotton. Fernando Wood, the mayor during the war and one of the first Tammany Hall politicians, proclaimed common cause with the South and proposed that New York secede to become a free city in order to preserve its lucrative trade. The abolitionist movement, which was dedicated to freeing slaves as a matter of human rights, was the product of Boston’s high-minded Yankee culture. By contrast, New Yorkers, many of them recent immigrants, rioted rather than be conscripted into the Union Army to help end slavery. During the 1863 draft riots, the city’s Colored Orphans’ Asylum was burned to the ground, and its large population of free black people was driven out of town, not to return for several decades.
New York has come a long way since then, but it is still a city where tolerance and commercialism coexist in uneasy ways. One popular theory states that the subway is the great democratizer of the city, bringing together people of all races, incomes and personalities and forcing New Yorkers to confront the messy realities of life. Another theory, favored by many urban economists, is that population density is the variable that most closely tracks tolerance; the closer together people live, the more cosmopolitan and progressive a city is likely to be. But liberal as New Yorkers may be, the city is not immune to the pathologies that affect almost every American city, including extreme income inequality, pervasive racial segregation and a police force that many minority communities justifiably regard as a hostile occupying force.
During the last GOP debate, Cruz made a quip about “money and the media” being priorities in New York. This is a well-worn trope: In the “real” America, so the narrative goes, people grow crops and make things with their hands. In New York, people talk fast and move money around. Of course, given New York’s large Jewish community, it’s also inescapably tied to anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Trump, while unmistakably a New Yorker, is a racist buffoon who is mocked more than respected in his native city. Cruz’s attempt to tie him to a vision of cosmopolitan urbanity may just work on a Republican electorate that’s getting whiter, older and more rural every day.
Are New York values worth defending? Most New Yorkers have already moved on from hollering insults at Cruz and gone back to the herculean task of trying to afford life in one of the world’s most expensive real estate markets. The city’s famous tolerance may be a coping mechanism and not a matter of principle, but it is still something to be proud of. “Do what you want, live how you want, be how you want, just let me make a living” isn’t the worst outlook to have on life. Just ask Pizza Rat.