Why we love New York
In his new book, JEFFREY SIMPSON talks to Canadians
drawn to the Big Apple and finds them simultaneously
star-struck and torn
Saturday, October 21, 2000
Every morning, Audrey Regan awakes to the thrill of New York City.
"New York is Frank Sinatra. It's Ava Gardner. It's Kim Novak. I know where they lived. It's like a total charge. I wake up every day and think I'm on vacation. . . . I've met the most fascinating people."
More fascinating, in all probability, than the ones she met in Hornpayne, Blind River, and Algoma Mills, the Northern Ontario communities where Regan grew up.
The allure of New York that touched Audrey Regan as a girl in Northern Ontario also reached across the border and attracted Graydon Carter, today the editor of Vanity Fair magazine.
Carter grew up in Ottawa, edited the University of Ottawa magazine, started another called The Canadian Review and itched all the time to get to New York.
"I knew from about the age of 10 that I wanted to live in New York City. . . . I read everything about New York. I had great affinity for New York movies. It was a black-and-white city, and I wanted to live here," Carter recalled one day in his Vanity Fair offices.
Carter came to New York on an editing program at Sarah Lawrence College and through a serendipitous break met someone who introduced him to Henry Grunwald, the legendary editor of Time magazine. It was the last day of Carter's program, after which he would have had to return to Canada, but Grunwald offered him a job. "I went home, picked up some worldly goods, came back down, and never looked back," he said, chuckling.
If Carter had stayed in Canada, "I'd probably be miserable because I'd be thinking about being in New York every day. . . . My parents couldn't understand it. For the first 10 years, they always thought I'd move back."
As editor of Vanity Fair, Carter is where he dreamed of being as a kid: close to the epicentre of North America's most vibrant, exciting, chaotic city rather than in what he considered to be dull, parochial Canada.
Carter's parents were not the only ones who expected their offspring to return. Sparkle Hayter, an author of mysteries, got a taste of New York on her first trip from Edmonton and resolved to return.
"My father would put out tabloid stories about anything bad that was happening in New York so I'd see it in the morning," she said.
We spoke in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, where for five years Hayter has rented an apartment. A New York landmark, the Chelsea was the city's tallest building a century ago.
It later became one of New York's first co-operative apartments and has long been a haunt for artists, some of whose works adorn the walls or hang from the lobby ceiling. Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Jack Kerouac, Arthur Clarke . . . the list of famous writers, painters, sculptors, and musicians who frequented the hotel runs on and on. It includes Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen, who wrote about his sexual encounter with Janis Joplin there in the song Chelsea Hotel.
Hayter, a long way from her birthplace of Pouce Coupe, B.C., and Edmonton, where she grew up, loves the ambiance of the Chelsea and the pulsating energy of New York. "I fell in love with New York, which I don't think of as a city of America but as a city of the world," she said.
Cliché though it has become, the old line from Frank Sinatra's New York, New York nonetheless explains some of what lures Canadians to New York: testing yourself against the city's challenges.
"It's the major leagues. When you work in New York as compared to Toronto, it seems to me not just that the sums are bigger and people are more aggressive, it's also that this is New York," said Douglas Smee, a long-time officer of the Bank of Canada and the federal Department of Finance, now a senior vice-president with Citibank.
"Everybody is looking at you. You're dealing in the U.S. dollar. I'm working for an institution that has more than $700-billion in assets, and that's bigger than the Canadian economy. There's a certain personal satisfaction."
The city calls itself the Big Apple, but for thousands of Canadians in a dizzying variety of walks of life, New York is the Big Sponge, soaking up their energies, talents, ambitions, and dreams.
The Statue of Liberty symbolizes the dream of freedom that lured millions of immigrants to and through New York; today, thousands of immigrants still arrive yearly in New York, many of them at or near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.
But not the Canadian immigrants. They usually arrive at least in the middle, with impressive academic credentials and marketable sets of skills. New Yorkers think of them as apple-pie Americans until they are identified as Canadians, after which they may be thought of as wayward Minnesotans. They melt into the city, as they do into the broader United States, hidden immigrants seeking the New York version of the American Dream.
No one knows how many Canadians live in New York. Many of them, such as real-estate tycoon and owner of U.S. News and World Report Mortimer Zuckerman have long since abandoned any links with Canada. As Zuckerman told Maclean's in 1972: "What's to come back to? What's to leave? I mean, I created my own life here."
But some Canadians do not leave their home country entirely. Marcus Leatherdale, 46, sits in a converted loft that doubles as apartment and studio, and explains why he has to be in New York City.
"There are a lot of art and photo fairs, and for that moment that's [the place to be].
"But for an ongoing, 365-day-a-year thing, nothing beats New York. . . . I need to show in New York so I can continue to sell so that I can continue my work."
He specializes in portraits of Indian people, and his latest ambition is to photograph the aboriginals of India. "I have a log cabin on the edge of Algonquin Park where I spend two or three months. All my creative work is done in India, all my marketing work in New York, all my battery-charging is done in Canada.
"Canada is what stabilizes me. It's what keeps me clear. It's home base."
Melda Bur, a Torontonian who graduated from Columbia, found her niche working for a small architectural firm that designs upscale retail stores especially for Armani.
She hooked into a network of other young Canadians, mostly from Toronto. Her descriptions of the group demonstrate a mixture of excitement about being in New York and certain ambivalent attitudes towards home, as well as an underlying sense of Canadian identity that somehow survives the attractions of the United States.
"I've met a lot of young Americans who have so much energy, so much drive. Really, really young people doing incredible things. Not just big talkers, but talented people who don't seem to think there's a limit or a ceiling. . . .
"Still, there's something about being Canadian; the mentality and attitude and history. . . . I miss the Canadian perspective on the world. . . . I don't think I appreciated being Canadian until I was outside of Canada, and then I became much, much more patriotic."
Like Melda Bur, Johnathan Hausman completed graduate work at Columbia. Upon graduation, Hausman had job offers from two Toronto firms and an interview from a New York investment firm. After many interviews, the New York firm hired him.
At 31, he deals in "sovereign risk management," advising clients about political conditions and investment opportunities in 25 countries, including Canada.
Hausman is ambitious, smart, a Type-A personality, a young man who loves his work, adores public policy ("There's more public policy done in my office in Wall Street than there is in Ottawa"), cherishes the opportunities afforded by his firm, yet remains ambivalent, even worried, about what living in New York is doing to him.
"Do I feel I've been made hard? Yes. Do I feel that, when I go home, I'm constantly honking at people who don't deserve to be honked at? Yes. I walk too fast. Essentially, I was like that anyway, but you hit a wall and you realize that you are essentially different. I will never be American, and that's why I will never be a citizen here."
Seated in his Central Park West apartment, Bruce McCall, humourist and illustrator at The New Yorker, marvelled at how all his stereotypes about the American Dream seemed to be true.
"It's one of those things that I'm still rather boggled by -- everything went just as I hoped it would. The minute I got to the United States, I walked into a much-better-paying job in a much-more-go-ahead climate with more interesting people."
A few blocks away, at his writing studio on Central Park West, Robert MacNeil, broadcaster and author, echoed McCall's memory of arriving in the United States from the stultifying Canada of the 1950s.
"The contrast was so much more dramatic then. In Canada, everything interesting seemed to be happening somewhere else."
And yet, successful as McCall and MacNeil have been in the city that so captivated them, they remained, through it all, Canadian citizens.
Says MacNeil, who bought a summer home in Nova Scotia in the early 1990s: "I've seen it said in the past that people who are most Canadian are the people who don't live there any more."
Adapted from Star-Spangled Canadians: Canadians Living the American Dream by Jeffrey Simpson. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright © 2000 by Jeffrey C. Simpson Publications Inc. A television documentary based on the book will air on CBC Television on Nov. 1 at 8 p.m.