New York: Triumph of the Swarm

Perhaps the secret of why New York will eventually recover and continue to be the greatest city in the world is the secret of the swarm. The New York swarm is like the hordes of bees or ants who, lacking central direction and operating by instinct, move by the hundreds of thousands in all directions and engage in a marvel of functional activity that ensures their survival and growth.

An example is lunch. Tom Wolfe once said, “New York is about lunch.” It works this way: Every day, a kind of invisible Dow Jones status chart measures those with power and influence by where they sit and who is at their table in restaurants like the Four Seasons and other gastronomical showplaces. But since midday traffic in New York is so dense, making it almost impossible to grab a cab, even important people often walk to lunch. The result is more casual face-to-face meetings than in any other big city in America, both before and after lunch. In other places in America, people eat in company dining rooms or drive to a meal, isolated from chance encounters. But in Manhattan, the swarm is always out there, moving in its mysterious but purposeful way.

William H. Whyte, a student of New York, documented by film a typical street encounter. It usually occurs at a crowded corner, clogging easy passage, so others also stop to schmooze. Soon, a swarm of people is exchanging bits and pieces of information, making contacts and setting up other spontaneous meetings, which spreads the word of the day and subtly shifts attitudes about what is going on. What’s new is then spread throughout the city and even the nation with unbelievable speed, relayed by hand-helds, e-mail and phones.

The rapid transmission of information and ideas-of the kind only gathered by face-to-face contact on the street or over a meal-is the essence of why New York will thrive. Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg understood this and made billions by setting up one of the world’s largest rapid-communications empires. His empire also depends on the character of the people who hive and thrive in the swarm. These are New Yorkers-a special breed.

The culture of the city is its real treasure. The culture of New York is made up of a brilliant and brutal meritocracy which requires competence and fierce enterprise, but which is always open to newcomers-provided they can take the heat and stand the pace in the city that never sleeps. These are the kinds of people drawn to New York.

Since New York is no longer a major industrial city, its population consists largely of knowledge workers who need the stimulation of its competitive spirit. That spirit is constantly regenerated by the ideas and inspiration of its unique institutions. These include the mass transportation infrastructure, with its web of subways and airports; the most intensive hive of theater, dance, music and live entertainment in the country; the city’s collection of art museums and art dealers; the unmatched quality and variety of its restaurants; the nerve center of American media-and, of course, the Yankees. All this is combined with the critical mass of the best and brightest talents drawn from the world at large.

Founded as a seaport, with the central idea of making money, the city was nursed to preeminence by the Erie Canal, which opened the hinterlands of America’s markets to New York. Add to that New York’s pivotal role in building and financing the railroads that finally connected the whole country. All this activity spawned the support services that created the great banks and resulted in making New York the money center, serviced by specialized and innovative law and accounting firms. Finally, New York developed the marketing skills to reach the mass market of a post-industrial middle class.

The people who come to New York will continue to be ambitious, looking for more than just work, looking for advancement and the possibility of realizing their dreams. The city thrives on the young, the marginalized and the outcasts-people who live on the edge, driven by necessity to creativity.

Once more, New York now faces the dangerous opportunity of creative destruction. For people accustomed to living on the edge, out of the terrible tragedy can come the spark of creativity that will give rise to something new: a new belle époque , such as those in the late 40′s and 50′s, and again in the 90′s. It will take a while. But a new city will grow out of the shell of the old. The fact of New York’s history of constant change is proof of this prophecy. The ambitious, striving, swarming culture of this wounded place is what will recreate New York City, once again, as the world’s greatest.

Clay Felker was a founder of New York magazine.