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Classiness tarnishes when cities push for it

sandra thompson
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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001

Last week we were in New York, and it was everything I had expected and more. Dirt, noise, exhaust fumes on crowded streets, teeming subway cars where you have to stand and hold onto a pole with three other passengers whose eyes you avoid.

Our hotel, the Morgans, is on lower Madison Avenue, where the street is virtually a tunnel lined with buildings built before the city's demand that new construction include open space. Literally, for most of the day the sun does not shine here.

Yet Park Avenue is only a block away, the wide boulevard full of cherry blossom trees and tulips in bloom -- a stunning urban thoroughfare, and for New York, just one more thing in a city that even can't count the ways it's fabulous.

It's not going unnoticed. There are so many tourists in New York that hotel rooms are 90 percent booked, even at their usurious rates. People all over the streets are carrying those little fold-out maps. We were asked for directions over and over. The last thing the city needs is more tourists.

Yet, like Tampa, that's what they want. And, like Tampa, and other lesser cites -- Fort Worth, Charlotte, Atlanta -- New York is now a city on the make.

It's planning something called the "Tour de Manhattan," a 100-kilometer bicycle race to be held through the canyons of Wall Street and above a week after the Tour de France. This is the dimwit sort of thing lesser cities, desperate to appear World Class, bring in to attract attention. (Think motor races in St. Petersburg. Think Olympics.)

A New York Times article last week headlined "Those Little Town Blues, in old New York? Giuliani's Capital of the World, Insisting It's Greater than Fort Worth," took particular offense.

"We're imitating the tawdry events of second- and third-class cities," New York University professor Marshall Blonsky was quoted as saying. "They're putting on events to show they're world class, when they're not, and we're imitating second-rate cities pretending to be first rate. It's really quite curious."

When I lived in New York, nobody cared what anyone in the rest of the country, or the world for that matter, thought of it, and as for those people, we didn't want them there.

Where is the arrogance?

Maybe it's the economy-that-was; maybe the drive for bigger-and-more-of-it has taken hold of every city in the country. I hate to see it happen in New York, as much as I hated seeing the first McDonald's.

Why must cities strive to impress on the same terms? Why can't they just be themselves? That goes for Fort Worth and Tampa and New York, which is not only a world-class city but the greatest city in the world.

Yet this time, the trip made me look at Tampa in a different light.

On the trip, I went to see my first apartment in New York, on Perry Street around the corner from the Whitehorse Tavern, famous because the poet Dylan Thomas drank himself to death there. The super, a tattooed guy in a muscle shirt, was there, sweeping, and told me it was for rent. Did I want it?

No, because it is the smallest apartment known to man, too tiny even for a city-struck 23-year-old with no money. I asked him how much.


That's more than my mortgage.

World class doesn't come cheap. Young girls like I was, artists, writers can no longer afford to live in the city, not without a trust fund, and that has taken away some verve.

We were traipsing through Chelsea galleries where there was not much worth seeing this time, drab work with no sense of celebration. We entered the last gallery, the Gagosian, and a painting about one city block long exploded in color.

The Stowaway Peers Out at the Speed of Sound is the odd title, and it is by James Rosenquist. He painted it here, in Aripeka.

World class.

- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at City Life appears on Saturday.

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