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Urban Ornery : Attitude: What aggravates some city types brings out the bravado in others. Mention crime, traffic or congestion to them and they brag, 'We're used to it.'

March 19, 1993|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

New York City is no carefree place these days. People are digging themselves out from last week's historic snows, as federal investigators continue to pick through the wreckage of the World Trade Center bombing.

In Los Angeles, the populace tenses as a new trial in the Rodney G. King case revives memories of last spring's rioting.

But in such metropolises, in the worst of times, a perverse sort of pride can blossom. People will actually brag about how tough it is to live in their city.

This sentiment can be overt. In Detroit--where unemployment and crime run high, shops peddle a T-shirt that boasts: "Detroit: No Place For Wimps."

Other times, the machismo runs subtler. A lifelong New Yorker denies relishing the gritty reputation of his streets. But mention the recent troubles and a braggadocio emerges.

"We're used to this crap. All the crime and the pollution and the terrorist thing, that's part of the New York experience," said David Gabay, a financial planner. "No big deal. That's all part of the thrill."

The punk band Fear gave voice to this attitude in a defiant 1981 tune. Singer Lee Ving bellowed about "cockroaches crawling on the walls" and a metropolis "where junk is king."

Then came the chorus: "I love livin' in the city."

Of course, there are plenty of people--perhaps millions in Los Angeles--who don't love living in the city, who would move if they could, and who don't, in the least way, celebrate crime and natural disasters.

Still, it isn't so tough to find a dash of bravado in the crowd. This is the flip side of urban flight. While Hollywood's latest vigilante film--"Falling Down" with Michael Douglas--portrays desperation, this is defiance.

Urban ornery. That's what sociologist David Hummon calls it. His 1990 book, "Commonplaces: Community Ideology and Identity in American Culture," explores the ways that people define themselves and their communities. He says that city dwellers trumpet their hardships for several reasons.

"It's a way of being unique," he said, "of setting yourself off from the vanilla suburbs."

And there is accomplishment in surviving. "A country person can fish and ride a horse and get along in the wilderness. Urbanites know how to ride the subway and deal with crime. They talk about their street savvy."

Given the current dangers of city life, such talk may seem like bluster--a child waving his wooden sword at the dragon, a native Californian who shrugs at the prospect of earthquakes. And urban ornery can go a step further, degenerating into one-upmanship. What could be worse than drive-by shootings, a Los Angeles resident wonders. A New Yorker answers: Mafia hits in the freezing rain. And in Times Square, the T-shirts sport a picture of a handgun with the inscription, "New York--It's not Kansas."

There's a morbid curiosity to all of this. The old saying goes: "Fear holds a wish." People are, in some ways, attracted to that which terrifies them.

"I'm proud that I came from a small town and I've been able to survive here," said Kelly Patterson, an advertising executive who moved to Los Angeles from Safford, Ariz. Having grown up in a place where no one locks their doors, she has learned which parts of the city to avoid after dark and which streets are safe to drive.

"I'll be on the phone with my mom and she'll hear the helicopters flying around and say, 'What the hell is that?' Or, I'll tell her that earthquakes are exciting, kind of like a roller coaster," Patterson said. "I guess I'm trying to prove to myself that I can do this."

People like Patterson wouldn't dream of leaving the city. They speak of the restaurants and theaters, the career opportunities. It's the thrill, Gabay says, and moving to a safer, saner place just isn't an option.

And retired auto executive Bob Jackman insists that he continues to live in Detroit because of its opera.

Opera?

Social psychologists call these kinds of rationalizations "effort justification." Simply stated: If people are suffering, they want to believe it's for a good reason.

"Underneath, people are really concerned about the crime rate so they have to explain to themselves why they're putting up with it," said Patricia Walsh, a psychology professor at Loyola Marymount University. "They tell themselves that they're putting up with it because this is a really great city."

If that sounds self-deluding, well, it probably is. But a few minor delusions can smooth life's rough spots. That is why a humorous vein--a gallows humor, even--runs through urban ornery. Take the Buffalo, N.Y., native who explains that his working-class home "has yuppies, but they still break beer bottles over each others' heads."

Buffalo is a city that must deal with harsh weather and, perhaps more painful, three consecutive Super Bowl losses. Like a platoon under heavy fire, the residents claim to draw closer.

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