If you’ve never visited New York City but its skylines and streetscapes still seem familiar, you’re not hallucinating. You’ve just been watching a lot of movies and tube.
NYC is the site of constant film and TV production. Being invaded by a cinema crew throws some towns into an uproar, but lighting rigs and dressing-room vans are so common on Manhattan streets that residents consider them routine, like sirens or trash trucks. The Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting reported 19,309 location shooting days in 2003; that’s nearly 53 separate shoots a day.
Like anything else represented on the big and small screens, NYC lives a double life: there’s the media’s city, and then there’s the real one. Get a few New Yorkers talking about the difference and you’re bound to see eyes roll. Here are a few of the more glaring misconceptions:
The “Friends”/”Seinfeld” Fallacy: Everybody in NYC has a spacious apartment and constantly drops by his or her friends’ spacious apartments, unannounced. Nobody but the wealthiest New Yorkers lives in an apartment like the ones on TV, where set designs make them look as big as non-New Yorkers’ homes (see Living Space, in this issue). Real Manhattan apartments are too small to film in, unless viewers wouldn’t mind a production style consisting entirely of close-ups. New Yorkers are right at home in rooms that might make out-of-towners claustrophobic: a 400-square-foot studio is big for one person, and many families regard a 1,000-square-foot two-bedroom apartment as the Holy Grail.
It’s different in the outer boroughs. Whatever stretches the limits of plausibility in “All in the Family” or “The King of Queens,” it’s not the rooms.
As for the Kramer-style drop-ins, that’s more Mayberry than Manhattan. New Yorkers socialize like crazy, but their timetables are tight enough that even best friends have to pencil each other in. We also spend a lot of time in public spaces; a visitor who just shows up is likely to find nobody home.
The “Sex and the City” Fallacy: New York women live a life of nonstop glamour, sex, and shopping. True in some cases, but not that many. NYC has plenty of boutiques, trendy dressers, and models (and ex-models and model wannabes). Fashion is all about attracting attention, and that’s exactly what fashionable people do, both on the street and on the screen. Look around for the likes of Carrie Bradshaw and her friends, particularly on the Upper East Side, and you’ll find them (and the hordes of guys pursuing them).
But the fashionistas’ conspicuousness exaggerates their prominence in the overall urban scene. Fashion victims are hard to count, but fashion employees aren’t: apparel-related firms employ just 0.02-0.04% of the local workforce (estimates vary). For everything glamorous here, there’s usually an anti-glam backlash (e.g., snarky T-shirts reading “Please don’t feed the models”). Many NYC women cultivate a funkier skepticism toward expensive style – Fluevogs, not Blahniks. Around the universities or many publishing houses, dressing down is the new dressing up.
The “Waiting for Guffman” Fallacy: Broadway is New York’s theatrical mainstream. Hardcore New Yorkers avoid the theater district like the plague, figuring it’s overrun with tourists and expense-account types. Broadway musicals still have their adherents here, but the combination of steep prices, a shortage of challenging new playwriting, and rather cobwebby music (pre-rock, not quite jazz, often elegant but oddly resistant to the avant-garde) leaves your average black-clad Manhattanite stone cold.
If you’d like to blend in well here, ditch the Lloyd Webberish spectacles for the classics at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, or the edgier experiments found Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway (the distinction reflects theatre sizes – 100 to 500 seats is conventionally Off; below 100 is Off-Off). An Off-Off-Off category also exists, implying that for at least some of the city’s performers and audiences, the further away from the Great White Way, the better.
The Woody Allen Fallacy: Everyone in NYC is in psychoanalysis. In 2000 the Health Resources and Services Administration listed NY State with 26.7 psychiatrists, 46 psychologists, and 211.5 social workers per 100,000 citizens; we’re second among states in psychiatrists, 10th in both psychologists and social workers. We do have more shrinks than most places, though Massachusetts out-shrinks us (Washington, DC, to no one’s surprise, leads everybody in lunacy, treated and un-).
Life gets stressful here. Some of us find a pro to talk about it. It isn’t always our bartender.
But as with most stats, the part that matters is the denominator: a higher relative rate of use doesn’t mean a high absolute rate, i.e., a whole city on the couch. And the nationwide shift away from the talking cures that keep Woody’s characters interminably talking, toward biological psychiatry (pills) and shorter-term cognitive-behavioral treatments, affects NYC as well. Most New Yorkers at any moment aren’t using mental-health services; for most who are, Oedipus has left the consulting room and returned to the theater.
The “Law and Order” Fallacy: NYC is overrun by criminals. As recently as 1990 this was true, and in the 1970s it was worse. But changing demographics, economics, and police strategies (plus the waning popularity of crack) combined to cut violent crime dramatically in the 1990s. Among cities with over a million residents, NYC is regularly the nation’s safest in the annual FBI Uniform Crime Report. It’s even safer than far smaller places, with a crime rate ranked 203rd among 217 cities above 100,000 – between Ann Arbor, Mich., and Alexandria, Va. – in December 2004.
This is not to say that we’ve become Disneyworld North. Any place where poverty and desperation bump up against privilege, crime happens. Smart visitors and residents avoid pedestrian paranoia but also avoid isolated spaces and ominous strangers. And the FBI’s report emphasizes violence over harder-to-tabulate white-collar crimes like financial fraud and ecological damage – hardly unknown in a major corporate center.
The dark sides of NYC, as Dick Wolf’s shows illustrate, will always be with us. In one respect, though, “Law and Order” is a bright light for the city: it supports so many location shoots that it’s often called the Full Employment Act for NYC Actors. That’s one of the ways our city works: converting menace into information, entertainment, and opportunity.
Writer/editor/musician Bill Millard is editor-in-chief of a new publication, The Guide to NYC’s East Village. His articles on culture, architecture, and politics have appeared in Content, Icon, and other magazines; he also plays, sings, and writes with rock band Shanghai Love Motel.