The Southern Invasion of NYC
Southern culture is hot in the Big Apple. Here's how and where to find it
Famous Southern story: In the spring of 1963, a young Mississippian named Willie Morris hops a Greyhound bus bound for New York City. In short order, he goes on to become the youngest editor in chief ever to preside over Harper’s magazine, a star of Manhattan’s literary scene, and close personal friends with the likes of William Styron and Frank Sinatra. But for all his success, and much as he loves New York, Morris never feels comfortable in the place he refers to as the “Big Cave.” He longs for his hometown of Yazoo City and the “lush hills” of his boyhood. Describing this internal struggle in his best-selling 1967 memoir, North Toward Home, he says, “The massive office buildings where people worked, the jostling for position in the elevators…, the windows opening out onto other office buildings equally massive and impersonal—all this was part of a way of living unknown to me, uprooted from the earth and its sources.”
Poor Willie. If only he’d moved to New York City a few decades later, he would have felt much more at home.
Our Kind of Town
Southerners have been moving to Manhattan—and then pining for their childhood towns—for as long as they’ve had the means to travel north. James Buchanan Duke expanded his tobacco business from North Carolina to Manhattan in 1884 and became the toast of the town. More recently, Newsweek editor in chief and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jon Meacham (Tennessee), fashion pioneer Geoffrey Beene (Louisiana), and interior designer Charlotte Moss (Virginia) have all made their names—and their homes—in New York City. The list of successes is long, and it inspires even more of us. My own journey to the Big Apple involved a fourteen-hour road trip from my hometown, Camden, South Carolina, to a tiny first-floor apartment in SoHo. My dad drove me up, unpacked my meager belongings, took me to dinner, and left—all in the same day. He figured I’d be starved for Southern culture, but in no time I’d made a network of friends from across the SEC and found a few great soul food restaurants.
In the last few years, the influx of Southerners has reached a tipping point, and what was once a fringe migration has blossomed into a full-fledged cultural movement. “In the same way that there are more Jews in New York than any other place except Israel, there are now more Southerners in New York than anywhere except the South,” jokes restaurateur (and St. Louis native) Danny Meyer, whose pioneering ventures—Gramercy Tavern, Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, Union Square Café—made farm-fresh ingredients cool again. “You can feel the influence of that across every category of life.”
Designers like Billy Reid have brought seersucker chic to New York’s huddled masses, replacing the basic black uniform of old with a more traditional Gatsby-goes-south dress code. Manhattan-based clothing brands looking to streamline their supply and production chains have resurrected forgotten textile factories all over the South. Started in 2002, Rag & Bone cites Kentucky as its birthplace because its founders learned how to make jeans (their first product) from artisans at a now defunct Kentucky denim factory.
There’s also an eclectic new class of unabashedly Southern actors, artists, and writers who likewise draw on their experiences to bring unique, insightful perspective to their work. Georgia-born actor Jack McBrayer, who lives in New York and plays the hopelessly naive NBC intern Kenneth on 30 Rock, steadfastly refused to lose his Southern drawl during the early days of his career. Now it’s a signature element of his character. For her Dowry exhibition, which debuted to critical acclaim at the Lyons Weir Gallery last May, artist Vadis Turner, a Brooklynite by way of Nashville, created a series of contemporary heirlooms using objects such as antique quilts, discarded jewelry, even an old wedding dress, to explore the quintessentially Southern themes of handicraft and gender. Even the local music has taken on a twang. On any given night, country, honky-tonk, and Southern rock bands are playing at bars and music halls throughout the city. Recent Grammy winner Steve Earle and Allison Moorer, a brilliant country artist in her own right, have made the West Village their home base. And Red Hook, an out-of-the-way waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn, has become the de facto capital of bluegrass.
A Hunger for Southern Culture
Southerners aren’t the only ones embracing the movement. There’s something about the homegrown nature of Southern culture that residents of this fast-paced city find universally appealing—especially when it comes to food. “Americans are experiencing a general hunger for authentic regional cuisine, of which Southern food represents one of the best and oldest examples,” says chef David Chang—originally from Arlington, Virginia—whose Momofuku restaurants blend Asian and Southern flavors. Consider this: When Meyer opened Blue Smoke in 2002, there were just three barbecue restaurants in New York City—one in touristy Times Square, one in the West Village, and the other in Long Island City. Fast-forward to 2010, and “I can walk to four within six minutes of leaving my office,” Meyer says. A general search of menupages.com, which catalogs restaurants and menus throughout the five boroughs, reveals more than seventy-five places specializing in everything from brisket to pulled pork to Frogmore Stew. Similarly, fried chicken is experiencing a renaissance. “Only in New York City can you have something as humble as fried chicken and have it be the food of the moment,” marvels North Carolina native Hunter Lewis, test kitchen director for Saveur magazine. Last fall, New York magazine dubbed an area of North Brooklyn “Buttermilk Brooklyn” because it contains eleven chicken joints (that’s an average of one per block). Now the smells wafting through that former industrial zone will transport you right back to your grandmother’s kitchen.
And then there’s the bourbon craze, with an increasing number of bars devoted solely to showcasing a vast selection of Kentucky’s state tipple. One Manhattan restaurant, Tipsy Parson, debuted the city’s first frozen mint julep machine late last year, and thirsty patrons crowded the bar all winter long.
In Morris’s time, most Southerners who ventured to New York came to escape the political and cultural maelstrom of the civil rights movement, or to seek their fortunes away from the prying eyes of their small towns; they might get together occasionally to reminisce and make the kind of comfort food they couldn’t find in any Manhattan restaurant, but they didn’t publicly play up their Southern pasts. These days, most Southerners are less conflicted about their roots and view their lives in the city as an extension of the ones they’ve left behind. The North Carolina Society of New York, which Duke and a handful of other prominent statesmen founded in 1898, is the oldest in the city and has historically enjoyed a strong membership. Recently, however, the organization has ballooned to around 900 members. Likewise, other state societies have begun cropping up to support growing subpopulations of displaced Southerners. Introduced just last year, South Carolina’s Palmetto Society now boasts more than 150 members. What’s next? An SEC football team in Brooklyn?
Every time I visit friends and family down South, they ask me when I’m coming home. What I’ve come to realize is that I am home—in a way, at least. There are Derby parties in the spring, pig roasts in the summer, football tailgates in the fall, and farmers selling country hams, dirt-dusted collards, and fresh black-eyed peas from roadside stalls on New Year’s Eve. Maybe it’s the thrill of having all of these distinctly Southern moments out of context, but I’ve never felt a greater sense of belonging. Of course there are still tall buildings and jackhammers and densely packed streets, but the South is flourishing as much in Manhattan as it is in Memphis or Mobile. Which means transplants like me feel comfortable here in a way Willie Morris never could—no matter how long we intend to stay.