After Quake, A New Round Of Coastal Rivalry Erupts

Aug 25, 2011
Originally published on August 25, 2011 6:17 pm

Even though the Virginia-centered earthquake on Tuesday only resulted in mild damage, it did open up a good-sized, good-natured national chasm — between the East Coast and West Coast of the United States.

"Really all this excitement over a 5.8 quake??? Come on East Coast, we have those for breakfast out here!!!!" California-based comedian Dennis Miller famously quipped. The early salvo was cut and pasted throughout the Twitterverse.

The East Coasters responded with tweets of their own. "Hey West Coasters mocking the East Coast," wrote Steve Scott of WCBS Radio in New York. "We'll remember this when an inch of snow paralyzes your city."

The tremor-triggered tweets are the latest explorations in an ongoing debate. Rappers address the issue of coastal superiority in syncopated rhyme. The Beach Boys sing that East Coast girls are hip but they wish they all could be California girls. And Woody Allen explores the dichotomy in his 1977 masterpiece Annie Hall. The movie is chock-full of coastal jabs, like when the New Yorker Alvy Singer — played by Allen — says about Los Angeles: "I don't want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light."

Hurricanes vs. mudslides. High culture vs. hippie culture. Long board meeting vs. long-board surfing. Trunk shows vs. swim trunks. Snowshoes vs. no shoes. The question has provided late-night fodder on Internet message boards. One poster on Yelp likened the difference between East Coast and West Coast to the difference between "old money steakhouse and fusion cuisine."

Are there really sociocultural differences between the two seaboards? Or are the differences trumped up? Regardless, the recent earthquake has unearthed the age-old American question: Which, do you think, is the Coast with the Most?

Sense And Sensuality

Ask Brad Edmondson, founder of ePodunk and former editor of American Demographics magazine, what criteria he would use — serious and not — to determine coastal supremacy.

Edmondson, who lives in Ithaca, N.Y., and has spent a lifetime studying this country, says that first you need to define a few terms. By the East Coast, Edmondson says, "I assume you really mean the BosWash megalopolis. You're going to run into insoluble problems if you try to lump that together with Norfolk, Charleston, Savannah, Jacksonville and Miami."

And he defines the West Coast as Southern California — "for several reasons," Edmondson says. "Without going into them, that's how Woody did it, so 'nuff said. If you want to take random potshots at San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, go ahead, but they each are different problem sets."

The East Coast "is best if you're interested in money, power or social change," Edmondson says, "That is because Washington is the political capital of an unreasonably powerful global empire — yes, we still are — and New York is the economic capital of that empire. East Coast people think they're smarter, but I would put it somewhat differently: I would say that Easterners are more likely to be intellectually hungry."

The West Coast "is best if you're interested in the good life, art, beauty — the sensual realm," says Edmondson. "Every time I am out there I wonder why the hell I am getting on the plane to go back to the cold wetness of upstate New York."

A Sense Of Pace

"I prefer the East Coast to the West Coast," pro quarterback Joe Namath told the Boston Globe in 1970. Though he said he liked women from both coasts.

"I prefer the West Coach much, much more," pro quarterback Tom Ramsey told the Los Angeles Times in 1986.

Comic Dave Chappelle confessed to the Philadelphia Daily News in 1995, "I like the culture on the East Coast better. I like the pace of the East Coast better."

Comic Ralph Harris revealed in Massachusetts' Lowell Sun in 2007 that he likes living on the West Coast more than in his native Philadelphia. "You cannot beat that sun," Harris said. "The only snow I get now is when I feel like driving to it."

One of the most intriguing — and esoteric — delineations comes from a 1997 book of literary criticism by British professor Thomas Docherty. In a footnote in After Theory, Docherty tells the story of Abbie Hoffman's claims in 1967 to have levitated the Pentagon as the result of massive singing and chanting. One hippie, appearing in a subsequent documentary, said that on the East Coast, everyone knew that Hoffman's event was just a publicity stunt. But people from the West Coast actually believed the Pentagon had been lifted.

"While the East was concerned about the media," Docherty explains, "the West was into lifestyle. The crucial difference mapping East and West in these terms is, of course, a rhetorical one: They read metaphor differently from each other."

Perhaps the differences are related to natural surroundings, says Jason Henderson, an associate professor of geography and human environmental studies at San Francisco State University. "On the West Coast, there are hills and mountains within and/or immediately proximate to cities. This means that people out here can readily observe their surroundings from above, and can see the landscape in a different way than on the East Coast — with the exception of tall buildings."

The vistas and landscapes — like the San Francisco Bay, the Santa Monica Mountains, or Mount Hood and Mountt Rainier — "do enter into the stronger environmental discourse in places like San Francisco, West Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle," Henderson says. "But I'm not sure you can really quantify it. It's really anecdotal."

The Great Divide

Both coasts have small groups of supereducated bons vivants who dominate the cultural conversation. But, says former American Demographics editor Edmondson, "there are also millions of people in both places who didn't go to 'a good school.' In fact, there are millions in both places who weren't even born in the United States."

And so the debate tremors on, even among international observers. "I prefer the East Coast and my daughter likes the West Coast, so we're doing both," former French Premier Jacques Chirac told The Associated Press when he visited this country in 1989.

In fact, this dualistic duel goes back way before Woody Allen and the Beach Boys. The divide can probably be traced to the late colonial period, Edmondson says, "when the swells in New York City started making enormous efforts to prove that they were better than Philadelphia."

In those days "it was the coast of the Hudson versus the coast of the Delaware," he says. "But it was basically the same impulse."

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