Ambassadors to and from the rest of the world.
Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev
I grew up in a tourist town. My friends and I laughed at the benighted foreigners, who spoke loud, grating English and sounded out street signs with all the comical awkwardness of first-graders. Also like children, they were distracted by inconsequential details (the flimsy paper tickets on public buses) and oblivious to deeper glories. They walked slowly, dressed appallingly, ate abysmally, spent lavishly, and treated our great, vibrant city like a walk-in diorama. And then I became an adult, traveled to other countries, and metamorphosed into one of those ignorant interlopers, marveling at the obvious and misunderstanding much else. At various points, I have returned to my hometown, as a tourist this time, and had the dislocating experience of seeing the adult me through the eyes of my former self — the eyes of a mocking local teen.
Now I live in a different tourist town. The annual tally of visitors to New York blew past 65 million last year, and half spent the night in the city’s 119,000 hotel rooms. We notice these out-of-towners most when they walk slowly, dress appallingly, eat abysmally, spend lavishly, and treat the place we live as a walk-in diorama. But we should be glad they keep wanting to come.
The New York I visited as a child attracted only the hardiest visitors, the kind who weren’t put off by a charred scent in the air. In 1975, when a broke and broken city was preparing to lay off 10,000 cops and firefighters, the unions fought back by publishing a pamphlet intended to scatter tourists. Welcome to Fear City: A Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York advised out-of-towners to stay close to their hotel rooms and avoid the subway at all costs. “If you remain in midtown areas and restrict your travel to daylight hours, emergency service personnel are best able to provide protection.” Though the booklet wasn’t widely distributed, the sense of New York as an urban wilderness seeped into the public imagination. This was an all-out propaganda war.
New York State retaliated by hiring the legendary designer (and New York co-founder) Milton Glaser, who produced the “I ♥ NY” logo that launched a million T-shirts. That declaration turned the city into a destination and tourism increased, impervious to the fact that crime did, too. So completely had the city’s image changed that even the crack era’s body count, which peaked in 1990, didn’t dissuade foreign visitors.
Mass tourism is a worldwide phenomenon, a kind of plenty that is unevenly distributed and can choke the life out of fragile places. Residents of the most Instagrammable destinations have tried erecting various kinds of levees to control the floods, scrawling angry graffiti, installing pedestrian turnstiles, and capping the number of tickets sold. The archaeologist and art historian Salvatore Settis’s 2016 jeremiad If Venice Dies, about the ways in which casual love was menacing the seat of an ancient empire, seemed prescient last month, when a colossal cruise ship drifted out of control and rammed a quay. Mass tourism has taken on a political dimension, too, with scholars and activists examining its impact on inequality, gentrification, and the environment.
New York is not easily overwhelmed, but even so, hating tourists long ago became a marker of snobbish authenticity. I recognize my old adolescent scorn in Fran Lebowitz’s 2014 anti-tourist tirade: “I object to living in a place for people who don’t live here,” she said. Glaser’s logo was so successful that, three decades after he came up with it, he was ready to pull up the drawbridge: “We should do something to discourage tourism,” he said in 2007. (Perhaps Glaser, who just turned 90 and still goes to the office daily, could design a sequel: “I ♥ NY. Stay the Hell Away.”)
Fortunately, curmudgeonliness is not the norm. New Yorkers fan out all over the world, and the people we encounter usually forgive us our numbers and cultural clumsiness. We generally do the same for them. New Yorkers long ago outgrew our reputation for dead-eyed hostility. We are, on the contrary, inveterate givers of advice.
A few years ago on a downtown 1 train, I watched an evidently flummoxed father and his two young daughters study the subway map. He finally gave up and asked me how to get to the Statue of Liberty. You don’t really want to do that, I thought, but I told him to get off at South Ferry. “You don’t really want to do that,” the woman sitting next to him interrupted. “You’ll wait forever, pay too much, and it’ll be sold out anyway. Take the Staten Island Ferry.” And then, in the time it took to cover five more stops, she jotted down a lower Manhattan itinerary perfect for two young girls, complete with the name of — and directions to — her favorite Chinatown noodle shop. The man was speechless with gratitude and relief.
Visitors are like New Yorkers: The only thing that unites them is the fact that they are here. They come from every part of the world, and for every reason: to visit family, attend a meeting, take a selfie, have an operation, scout out a new life, flee oppression — whatever. And, yes, in good weather it can seem as though every one of those privileged and desperate passers-through is walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. But tourists do more for New York than just spend money and support jobs for hotel housekeepers; they also help shape the city’s culture. A 2018 report by the Center for an Urban Future outlines the effects that a constant infusion of new audiences has on everything Lebowitz claims to cherish. If arts institutions had to survive on locals’ loyalty alone, MoMA wouldn’t be adding yet another new wing, the Metropolitan Museum of Art wouldn’t be open seven days a week, theaters would go dark, and opera would cease to exist. That cute antiques store on your block that you hope won’t get gentrified out of existence? Chances are a quarter of its clientele lives abroad.
Tourism doesn’t just spawn museum blockbusters and glitzy spectacles; it also gives cultural institutions the leeway they need to carry out the less glamorous parts of their missions. Carnegie Hall peppers the boroughs with neighborhood concerts; the Met mounts quiet shows on rarefied topics; Central Park distributes horticultural wisdom and management advice through its Institute for Urban Parks — and all this activity is fueled by the same people who drive us crazy shuffling in groups along midtown sidewalks without even leaving a passing lane. Many smaller organizations get few out-of-town ticket buyers, but New York’s cultural world is a vast interlinked ecosystem. If the Department of Cultural Affairs can distribute $44 million to nearly 1,000 organizations in all five boroughs — many of them tiny, local, and perpetually struggling — it’s partly because tourists are taking care of the city’s expensive behemoths.
Visitors bring word back home, and the city they describe is the virtual opposite of the snarling, fearful, and battened-down America that the current administration advertises abroad. Television viewers all over the world can stay at home and see that the U.S. government packs asylum seekers into camps and cages children; visitors to New York see a place where half a dozen languages mingle easily on a single block, without threatening social breakdown. The president can say that the largest cities are suddenly so full of “filth” that “police officers are getting sick just by walking the beat,” but 65 million tourists a year go home to tell their friends and neighbors it’s not true.
(Tourism can be an unflattering mirror, too, and a prod for the city to up its game. Homelessness is a badge of shame. Our transit system is creaky. Crossing the street can be lethal. Even if state and city government tried to fix these deficiencies only out of embarrassment rather than a genuine sense of injustice, we would all be better off.)
All over the world, visitors tend to cluster—in Piazza San Marco, at Old Faithful, or in Times Square. But as the city has evolved, so have patterns of tourism, and the more curious and venturesome can help us get to know our city better. I have never felt so connected to New York as when I approach it like a visitor, ambling, gawping, wondering why it is the way it is and how it got that way. (I even wrote a book about the experience.) Locals tend to stick to their own cow paths, trudging from home to work and back, on weekends ranging a little farther for a party or a drink. So there’s an invigorating joy in striking out for a neighborhood you think you know but haven’t actually been to in years, or stopping by a house museum whose existence you were only dimly aware of. These expeditions remind us that we are guests here too, temporary residents in a city that doesn’t much care where we came from or how long we stay. We are here because it’s where we were born, or because we never got around to leaving, or because it’s the sort of place where we can live however we like, in the company of others who are doing the same. But that doesn’t give us a monopoly on what New York means. The character of a great city is defined as much by the people who pass through as by its fixtures. The urban spectacle needs a fresh audience every night.