Disparaging Comparisons Between Washington, D.C. and New York

16 September 2007, the Financial District from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway

Every visit I make to New York is a painful reminder what a grim and slender existence one leads living in Washington, D.C. For some time now two large comparisons have been part of my usual refrain.

  • The people in New York are so much more interesting and varied than in D.C. In Washington, D.C. it seems as if there is one perfect model and everyone is judged according to how closely they can approximate that one right way to be. To be fashionable in D.C. is about conformity. In New York everyone is struggling to differentiate themselves and people are judged by how unique they are. Every aspect of personae and identity is part of the pallet (though beyond one’s creative control, most unusual or inscrutable combination of ethnic background is in play).

  • People talk about a New York minute: everything in New York is so fast paced. But when I’m in New York I feel like I may as well be in Paris. New Yorkers understand joie de vivre. They do it in enough ways that it would be difficult to catalog. People take time to enjoy themselves. Everywhere you go there are little cafés where people are having a leisurely meal and talking with a friend or watching the crowds pass. Kitchens are small so food is most commonly very basic, focusing on quality of ingredients rather than labor in preparation. People lavish a lot of attention on their animals and are almost universally excited about the pets of others. The city may be gigantic, but the neighborhoods are small and everywhere you go there are meetings, planned and accidental and people talking. Everyone has an avocation to which they are very devoted.

A few other observations about New York and D.C.:

  • New York is a city with a staggering number of restaurants. On Saturday night S. and I were out wandering and decided that we wanted some Italian food. We simply wandered, confident that in a short time we would stumble upon exactly what we wanted. And in a few blocks we came to a tiny Italian place with tile floors, dark walls, little tables, a cramped bar half-way back surrounded by about a dozen older male waiters in white shirts and black ties running in every direction. The food was unpretentious, but quality. There are probably so many restaurants like that in New York than one couldn’t locate them all without the aid of technology. In Washington, D.C. there are maybe three or four such restaurants and they may be a dying breed (I’m thinking Giovanni’s Trattu on Jefferson Place or Trattoria Italiano in Woodly Park). Probably just the number of new restaurants that open and old restaurants that go out of business in New York exceeds the total number or restaurants in the entire District of Columbia.

  • While I was away for the weekend, Matthew Yglesias made an exuberant post about a new place in town serving late night breakfast (“Late Night Late Night Breakfast Blogging,” 16 September 2007). This is indeed a very big deal in D.C. To date, just about the only place in the city where breakfast was available at any time other than breakfast time was The Dinner. In fact, just about the only place that anything was available late — or at least later than the post-last-call places on bar rows — was again, The Dinner. This is unbelievable in a major city. In New York, as is well known, the opening or closing of such a place is a nonevent, so common are such places. And in New York they all deliver with a $5.00 minimum order. In D.C. the standard minimum for delivery is $20.00.

  • Both New York and Washington, D.C. are noisy cities. I find that increasingly I like the noise of New York. It is the noise of life and work: delivery trucks dropping things off, garbage trucks taking things away, crowds of people. In Washington, D.C. the noise is that of the delusions of the national security state: police sirens, emergency vehicles rushing around from one nonevent to the next, convoys for VIPs.

  • It’s amusing the degree to which New Yorkers match their city. New York is crumbling and second hand. So are a surprising number of its residents.

  • For months now I have been wanting to get to Mark Israel’s Doughnut Plant. Their signature, the Tres Leche, is indeed one dope-ass doughnut! When I walked up, there was a “back in five minutes” sign up in the window and a small crowd gathered around outside waiting. The store is completely inauspicious, consisting of just a little counter and a window back to the kitchen and some storage overflow, but if you find yourself in the Lower East Side it is definitely worth a jaunt.