That second meaning of “liberal” completely defines New York, and it has, I think, since the Dutch landed in the 1620s. That openness to ideas and to trying new stuff that often defy convention - and the fact long proved that if you show New York you can do something, it will let you do it (in many cases whatever your c.v.) and expect you to do it again (only way I can account for having become a much-published writer): that’s the pragmatic beat of the place. And to me it’s the heart of our good fortune as a city.
It’s not something that can be sentimentalized however. The Dutch had entirely mercantile interests when they came here. They had no ruling religious doctrine like the Puritans and later groups like Quakers, Jews and Mormons: no strict moral code expected of everyone in the community. In fact, from the get-go, New York was a fairly rowdy but remarkably effective and very diverse group of people - from all over Europe, blacks who were not slaves (as well as blacks who were), people with individual mandates, but not mandates imposed upon them by governors (except for the basics: laws against murder or stealing for instance). This meant, sometimes, in some people, an arguably lax morality; frequently the ‘sins’ against the community were simply people getting drunk; but there seems to have been an overall happy interaction in the money-making enterprise they all were part of.
It’s precisely the lack of a single moral purpose, I think, that established New York City from its very beginnings as this country’s preeminent seed-bed of liberty. I don’t the mean the political “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” kind (although that was here too), but the liberty to live your life the way you wanted to from a pragmatic view. “Get outta my business!” kind of liberty. Apart from some ultimately unsuccessful attempts on Peter Minuit’s part to impose religious restrictions (against the Jews) - these were quickly quashed by authorities in Amsterdam, which was in the 17th century the city you would have wanted to live in - by far the most “liberal”urban area in the world - people were pretty much left to their devices (and vices).
New York really was Amsterdam’s child more than England’s, even though England took it over with almost no resistance from the Dutch (whose mercantile interests - in the form of the Dutch East India Company - had by this time largely transferred to another part of the world) in the latter part of the 17th century. However the English were a basically pragmatic bunch too, and they liked what the Dutch had done (not long after their takeover of New Amsterdam, they’d imported a king and queen from the Netherlands, William and Mary) and kept much of the laws and customs of the Dutch. No other community in North America had anything like this provenance. From its beginnings New York was singular.
But the intrigue for me here is that the driving impulse of the city has always been to make money. Manufacturing, selling, sending goods out by sea owing to New York’s extraordinary harbor and into the heart of the country northward and westward first because of the Erie Canal and the invention of the steam ship which transformed not only the availability of the goods, an economic boon and boom of tremendous proportions, but made New York kickass - turned it into a world power. This liberal (open to change & new ideas) thrust forward also interestingly meant that in the pursuit of profit, New Yorkers were producing excellence, really as a byproduct, in every single field and realm of human enterprise. City planning, artchitecture, fine cabinetry, silver, new inventions, machines of all kinds, clothing of the highest quality, world class museums, etc - which with a richer and more educated citizenry, boosted the arts to unprecedented heights - symphony orchestras, dance, theater, an explosion of creative energy - all of it goosed first into being by the city’s collective motive to make money. That this initially profit-driven impulse ended up creating many of the city and this country and the world’s greatest claims to excellence - the Metropolitan Museum, the Juilliard School of Music, Pratt and FIT and the National Academy of Design or Columbia University (& any number of other extraordinary universities), an explosion of theater from Broadway to Shakespeare in the Park — and then sports (boxing, football, baseball, basketball) - fashion (New York always has been a center of it) - music from Bernstein to Bowie - and restaurants of the highest order: is the mark of a city whose beating heart, first and last, was given its energy by lusting to make money and getting very good at it.
This kind of “liberal” impulse (unlike the pro-democratic-party political kind) did not, however, ensure what we think of as liberal politics. Many business people in New York City (like most of the whole manufacturing ‘element’ in the Northeastern United States who depended on the sugar and cotton the South produced for their economic success) had a vested interest in keeping the pre-civil war status quo what it was. Slaves were a necessary part of this and many many New Yorkers - whose profits were based on raw materials they got from the South - looked the other way or even actively supported the Confederacy’s aims. But far into even my experience of the city (I moved here in 1975) it was clear to me that you were not going to get a universal response to just about anything here. Unlike San Francisco with its strong unified gay population (for example) which produced a powerful united front politically, especially during the horrors of the worst of the AIDS epidemic, New York never coalesced around one single batch of people - even though in the ’80s when the AIDS debacle was at its worst, the ‘batch of people’ involved here, ACT UP, constituted some of the most dedicated and effective activists in the country and the world that one could have hoped for. But the size of the city, and the extent of its diversity, always I think has worked against any sense of it as a united bloc. Some people decry this; I actually believe that the city’s essential amorality (a consequence of its diversity) is an important part of what keeps it such an extraordinarily creative metropolis. It’s too full of irrepressible energy of every imaginable kind to “behave” - say, the way Boston or Philadelphia or San Francisco seem often to behave - in any predictable way.
So in this sense of New York’s liberal (open-minded) approach to getting things done, and not incidentally protecting the personal liberty that New Yorkers insist on in order to “get things done,” no community on Earth has New York beat. The political meaning of “liberal” (I-want-gun-control-you-don’t democrat vs republican, etc.) other respondents on this thread have discussed - all of whom anyway that I’ve read - seem to be making this point, similar to mine, that there are a lot of people here thinking and doing a lot of different things and that can have bewildering consequences. Therein lies much of what may sometimes be exasperating about this city, but also much, maybe most, of what it keeps so vitally alive and responsive.