From what I could figure out, the song "First We Take Manhattan" by Leonard Cohen is about terrorism, the desire to "make a change from within" against the corrupted western culture with its "fashion business", "drugs that keep you thin", etc.

So far so good. However, it bugs me why he chose Manhattan and Berlin of all the cities in the world? Those are not the fashion capitals, and as far as I can tell, they're not the best representatives of the western culture he's trying to change. For example, New York or London come first when I think about fashion or Western/European culture.

Is this explained somewhere, or did I miss something in the song meaning?

  • Well, Manhattan is not an actual city but a borough of New York and has United Nations and Wall Street.
    – Bebs
    Jun 17, 2019 at 7:59
  • 1
    @Bebs true, still.... IMO choosing "New York" would have made more sense. Jun 17, 2019 at 8:02
  • 2
    It's true, but New York can have various kinds of areas, styles, people. If you aim business, buildings, financial archetype, Manhattan fits better. As a French, I can compare with Paris that can have multiple faces, whereas its 8th arrondissement has business headquarters, political buildings etc.
    – Bebs
    Jun 17, 2019 at 11:18

1 Answer 1


People who have lived in New York City --as Cohen did as a young man --tend not to think of it as a single entity, since it's made up of five very different, distinct regions, each of which alone is larger than most American cities. Manhattan is the part most people think of when they think "New York City" --cosmopolitan, crowded, wealthy, fashionable, quick-moving, brash and pitiless.

Berlin --especially during the late 80s when this song came out --holds a place in the North American imagination as the capital of "weird Europe," as shown in this early 90's SNL sketch, or in the 70s film Caberet --modernist, degenerate, perverse, fashion-obsessed, severe and incomprehensible.

Given that, Manhattan and Berlin would make perfect sense to a North American audience (or songwriter) of the times as twin capitals of modernist, urbane degeneracy.

Note: It's also worth mentioning that "take Manhattan" is a bit of a stock phrase, generally meaning to become a big success on Broadway.

  • 1
    Thanks, that's the answer I was looking for. Jul 8, 2019 at 13:46
  • 1
    Edited to reference the stock phrase "take Manhattan." Jul 8, 2019 at 16:53

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.