Liberal New Yorkers welcome conservative Republicans - sort of
From false directions to sassy T-shirts, residents greet conventioneers in authentic and irreverent ways.
NEW YORK — When Peter Shankman was a smart-aleck teen carousing on the streets of Manhattan years ago, he and his buddies would sometimes make fun of the deer-in-the-headlight tourists gaping at maps, trying to find their way.
"Oh, you want to get to the Statue of Liberty?" they would snicker to themselves. "OK, easy. Get on the uptown No. 1 train, get off at 137th Street. Make sure you're wearing a lot of jewelry, then ask anyone there - and make sure you tell them you're a tourist!" (Hint: That's a stop in Harlem, a 40-minute subway ride from the Statue of Liberty.)
They never actually followed through, says Mr. Shankman, now a marketing executive in the city where he was born and raised. But as New Yorkers brace for an onslaught of Republican delegates this weekend, a handful are saying they just might take up such "disinformation campaigns" as the Republicans come to town. In fact, the former three-term mayor, Ed Koch, has been urging his notoriously liberal fellow citizens to "make nice" with their conservative GOP guests.
It's not just that 5 out of 6 registered voters here are Democrats. New York has long been a bastion of artistic libertines and avant-garde intellectuals, as well as workaday unionists, making it one of the most left-leaning regions in the country. Socialists still hand out pamphlets on college campuses - and are taken seriously - and anarchists aren't simply teens with body piercings and a fondness for punk.
Of course, such political eccentricity can make New Yorkers myopic and parochial, too. As film critic Pauline Kael said in bewilderment after Richard Nixon trounced George McGovern in 1972, "Nobody I knew voted for Nixon!"
Add to this political bent New Yorkers' infamous in-your-face demeanor, and some begin to worry. Philadelphia votes almost as Democratic as New York City, after all - as do most big cities - but no one had to urge the "City of Brotherly Love" to "make nice" when the Republicans held their convention there four years ago.
"New Yorkers, obviously, have a reputation for expressing their opinions," says Jonathan Tisch, chairman of NYC & Co., the city's convention and tourism bureau. "And so even though they may see some Republicans and tell them how they feel politically, my sense is that they'll do it with a smile, and they'll help find a restaurant or the Museum of Modern Art."
City boosters may have a reason to proclaim their confidence that New Yorkers will make nice next week, of course, but a significant number of residents are indeed planning to express their ire in a more civil way. And while much is being said about visiting protesters and fears of violence, most of the locals are looking for particularly New York ways to counter the Republican deluge.
"A lot of people are upset - it's like New Yorkers are being used for political gain," says Randy Anderson, a playwright who decided to organize "The Unconvention: An American Theater Festival," a series of politically charged plays and panel discussions that will be held three blocks from the convention.
"The big driving force is that we're choosing to respond to the Republicans choosing New York City as their convention site and moving it so close to Sept. 11," Mr. Anderson says. "Our main focus with these productions is to get people to think more politically and to become more actively engaged as citizens, so it's not as if we're bashing folks."
Indeed, this will be the first time the GOP will hold its convention in New York City, while the Democrats have held five conventions here, including 1976, 1980, and 1992. "The general feeling is, of all the cities you could pick, why New York?" asks Shankman. "If the World Trade Center had been in Akron, Ohio, the convention would be there right now. They come here, shut everything down, just for a political prop."
Yet, even as "Republicans Go Home" signs are displayed in apartment windows, thousands of residents have also volunteered to serve as "ambassadors" for the delegations coming in from around the country, says Mr. Tisch. And while out-of-towners may try to cause trouble, most New Yorkers plan to express their own displeasure in more benign ways.
"Our method of street protesting has gotten a little more peaceful, because we don't want to see the violence - that doesn't get anything accomplished," says Anderson. "I think people are little wiser to that, whereas the pranks and the off-the-wall stuff that a lot folks were doing in the '60's doesn't really apply to what's in our society today."
Alice Leeds, a communications director for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, is planning to march with her chow chow dog. She'll wear a white T-shirt emblazoned with a red, white, and blue elephant lying dead on its back. Her dog, too, will be wearing a shirt: one featuring a "W" slashed through with the red prohibition symbol.
"As a proud New York City resident and equally proud Democrat, I'm proud to show my stripes - in a gentle way," Ms. Leeds says. "At least I'm actually staying in town. Most of my friends are fleeing."
"But in the end, if one of the invading Republican throng were to ask me for directions or where to find a public john - el grande problemo - I know I'll be friendly and kind," she continues. "I have no choice: My dog has one of those dropped-jaw, perpetually smiling and inviting dog faces that fairly screams, 'Welcome.' "