If You Can Make it Here...

What’s more difficult, surviving in a big city or a small one?


No less an authority than Frank Sinatra once said of New York City, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” (And he was the Chairman of the Board, so he ought to know.) In a sense, he was right: New York City is a big, tough place, and if you can rise to the top in what is essentially the center of the universe, you’ve got to be formidable. However, observing it from another perspective, I believe the Big Apple might be the easiest place to make it.

I’ve always said that our job here at Providence Monthly is, in a way, more diffcult than that of the editorial team at Time Out New York. (Probably our closest analogue in the New York media.) Why? Because we have to fill our magazine every month while drawing upon roughly 1/47th of NYC’s population. For us, population is everything. More people living and working in the city means more stories for us to tell. For our advertisers, it’s more people who might eat at their restaurants or shop at their stores. For you, the reader, it means more people making cool stuff happen all around you. A big population makes certain things easier in a city. (For a good read on the benefits of population density, check out Brian Hull’s “Rebuilding Rhode Island’s Economy, Part 3: Densifying Downtown”)

I once walked by a small bakery in Manhattan that wasn’t much bigger than a large walk-in closet, and sold nothing but tiny cupcakes. With the price of real estate in Manhattan, even a place that small has to be selling quite a lot of tiny cupcakes to survive. In Providence, it would have been out of business in three weeks. Why the difference? Because New York City, bursting to the seams with millions of people, open all hours of the night, full of disposable income and aspirations, has an amazingly voracious appetite for the new, the novel and the oddly specific. With over 8,336,000 people within its five boroughs, the city can sustain almost any niche, cult or subculture. Want to start a radical feminist sock puppet theatre in the stockroom of a natural foods co-op? There will be 50 people to show up every Friday night – you’ll survive. Want to open a 10,000 square foot restaurant serving $500 gold leaf wrapped sushi rolls? There are enough American Express Black Cards in that town to keep your lights on.

Similarly, the giant, gaping maw that is the New York media market is insatiable enough to give rise to a certain kind of fetishism for anything new and different. Start a band of skinny, bearded white hipsters that sing old negro spirituals in black face over moody synthesizers. Open an after hours nightclub in a men’s bathroom stall in the Ikea in Red Hook that features Chinese acrobats and moonshine cocktails. Chances are you’ll eventually be the hottest shit in New York for at least a week. And if you can make it there…

Here in Providence, with our mere 178,000 people, the hunger for what’s new and next, the ennui of constantly being so over everything isn’t as strong. It’s a blessing and a curse. It can be difficult to find an audience, especially when something is truly new and different. People are reluctant to venture into the unknown. With that intransigence, a kind of mildly pleasant mediocrity can set in. You get every restaurant in town serving the same five pasta dishes because there’s not much incentive to try something unique or daring.

On the positive side, it keeps the city gritty and appreciative for what it has. Niche businesses can survive if they’re giving the city something it truly wants. My job is proof of that, in more ways than one: this magazine is a niche business that is sustained by readers interested in what we have to say, but also by the advertising dollars of other niche businesses. But the limitations of our size prevent niche for niche’s sake from taking hold in that overly precious New York way. We don’t fetishize the hyper-specific and ultra-weird just because we’re bored with everything else. There simply aren’t enough people to sustain anything too specific. You can’t just sell tiny cupcakes out of a broom closet in Downtown Providence and expect to survive… Although, who am I kidding? If somebody did it, we’d write about it.